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Tapping the Subconscious: Automatism and Dreams

Discover how Surrealist artists tapped the creative potential of the subconscious mind.


L'évadé (The Fugitive) from Histoire Naturelle (Natural History)

Max Ernst
(French, born Germany. 1891–1976)

1926. One from a portfolio of thirty-four collotypes, after frottage, composition: 10 1/4 x 16 3/4" (26 x 42.5 cm); sheet: 12 13/16 x 19 11/16" (32.5 x 50 cm)

Max Ernst experimented with the technique of frottage, or rubbing, as a way to probe the subconscious mind. He created these images by placing paper atop various materials—wood floorboards, lengths of twine, wire mesh, crumpled paper, crusts of bread—then rubbing the surface with a pencil or crayon. Ernst elaborated upon the resulting textures, often transforming them into images of strange and fantastic landscapes, objects, or in this case, creatures. L’évadé (The Fugitive) is one in a series of drawings entitled Histoire Naturelle (Natural History), which emerged from uncontrolled procedures but convey the precision of scientific illustrations.

Max Ernst. Beyond Painting, and other writings (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz 1948). 7

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

The part of the mind below the level of conscious perception. The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.

The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.

Technique of reproducing a texture or relief design by laying paper over it and rubbing it with some drawing medium, for example pencil or crayon. Max Ernst and other Surrealist artists incorporated such rubbings into their paintings by means of collage.

Ernst’s Discovery of Frottage
Ernst claims he discovered the frottage method while staring transfixed by the deep wooden grain of his floor boards. To “explore the hidden symbolism of this obsession, and to aid my meditative and hallucinatory powers,” Ernst dropped pieces of paper at random, then rubbed the surfaces with soft black lead. “The drawings thus obtained steadily lost the character…of the wood,” recalled Ernst, “ …and assumed the aspect of unbelievably clear images probably revealing the original causes of my obsession…”1