Art History Lab

Unleashing the Unconscious: Exploring the Intriguing World of Automatism Art

Automatism Art: A Journey into the Unconscious Mind

Art has always been a medium for self-expression, allowing artists to showcase their thoughts, emotions, and experiences through a myriad of mediums. However, have you ever wondered what happens when an artist relinquishes control over their work and allows their unconscious mind to dictate the creative process?

Welcome to the world of Automatism Art.

Definition and Characteristics of Automatism Art

Automatism Art is a technique that involves suspending conscious control over the creative process, allowing the unconscious mind to guide the hand, pen, or brush. The result of this technique is a spontaneous, unpremeditated work of art that is often characterized by erratic and abstract forms.

According to Jean Arp, an artist who experimented with Automatism Art, “chance is an integral part of this creative method, and the task of the artist is to surrender to it completely.” This means abandoning the traditional principles of composition, such as balance and harmony, and embracing chaos and spontaneity. One of the primary features of Automatism Art is the use of inspiration rather than imagination.

Inspiration is a process where the artist is more like a conduit for the idea or image that arises from within, while imagination is an active process where the artist intentionally creates an image or idea. In Automatism Art, the artist does not direct the inspiration; instead, they allow it to flow and manifest itself on paper or canvas.

Influence of Sigmund Freud on Automatism Art

Automatism Art finds its roots in the pioneering research of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that the unconscious mind, which he termed ‘the id,’ contained a plethora of images and emotions that were inaccessible to conscious awareness.

He suggested that these unconscious processes influence our behavior, thoughts, and emotions in ways that we are not aware of. Freud’s free association technique and the Interpretation of Dreams were essential influences in the development of Automatism Art.

Free association is a therapeutic technique that encourages the patient to speak their thoughts and emotions without censorship, allowing them to access their unconscious desires and fears. Automatic drawing, a form of Automatism Art, uses free association to allow the artist to access their unconscious mind.

Relationship between Automatism Art and Surrealism

Automatism Art became a significant element of the Surrealist movement, which originated in the 1920s. Surrealism aimed to unleash the full potential of the unconscious mind, which they viewed as a source of creative energy that could help to liberate the individual from the limitations of society and culture.

The Surrealist movement embraced two types of Automatism Art – Psychic Automatism and Surrealist Automatism. Psychic Automatism involved automatic writing and drawing, where the artist would enter a trance-like state and produce works that were almost mystical in nature.

Surrealist Automatism, on the other hand, aimed to create dream-like imagery that was both familiar and unfamiliar, using images that had been harvested from the collective unconscious.

Definition and Origin of Psychic Automatism

Psychic Automatism evolved from Philosophical Surrealism, which was an initiative taken by Andre Breton, a French writer, and poet. Breton explored the depths of the mind and analyzed states, dreams, and the unconscious mind, making it a focal point in his literary works.

Psychic Automatism involves channeling the unconscious and experiencing extraordinary states that are facilitated by automatic writing, drawing or painting. The artist enters a dream-like state and allows their subconscious mind to take over, expressing their deepest thoughts and emotions on paper or canvas.

A similar idea can be seen in Freuds Interpretation of Dreams, where he mentions that a dream is a fulfillment of the unconscious’ wish that would otherwise be unacceptable to the conscious mind. This is why Breton applied Freudian theory to his literary works to form the basis of Surrealist Automatism, which comprised exploring the human psyche and creating an esoteric, abstract form of art.

Application of Psychic Automatism in Surrealism

The Surrealist Manifesto, written by Andre Breton, announced psychic Automatism as a tool for artistic expression, liberating the unconscious mind and creating work that was true to the self. This technique enabled artists to depict images that were not possible through the conscious mind, transcending the boundaries of art and imagination.

Surrealist artists, such as Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Max Ernst, and Rene Magritte were heavily influenced by the practice of Psychic Automatism in their work. Dali, for instance, thought of his paintings as dreamscapes and attempted to bring them to reality on the canvas, creating a surreal and enigmatic world on the canvas.


Automatism Art and Psychic Automatism both provide a medium for artists to delve into the depths of their subconscious minds and produce works that are a direct interpretation of their inner thoughts and emotions. By channeling their unconscious and abandoning control, artists create works that are both mystical and unique in their own way.

These techniques were instrumental in shaping the Surrealist movement of the 20th century and continue to inspire artists to this day. 3: Surrealism Automatism

Surrealist Automatism is a technique that seeks to capture unconscious thought processes as interpreted through the eyes of the artist.

It emerged as a subset of Automatism Art in the inter-war period, when the Surrealist movement was gaining momentum in Europe. Unlike Psychic Automatism, Surrealism Automatism emphasizes the exploration of the uncanny and irrational in reality.

Differentiating Psychic Automatism and Surrealism Automatism

Surrealist Automatism bears similarities to Psychic Automatism. Both techniques are used to transcend the conscious mind, although they are also marked by notable differences.

Psychic Automatism emphasizes the exploration of the inward dimensions of the human psyche, resulting in work that is very personal to the artist. Conversely, Surrealism Automatism explores collective unconscious imagery and symbols that are not just specific to the artist, but also speaks to a broader audience.

Surrealism Automatism is part of a larger effort by the Surrealist movement to break down the constraints of rationality. In the Surrealist Manifesto, Andre Breton declared the movement’s intention to depose the hegemony of reason and replace it with faith in the irrational.

The collective desire of the Surrealists was to break down the barriers between conscious and unconscious thought and allow for an interpretation of reality that was informed not only by rationality but also by unbridled expression of personal experience.

Artists and Examples of Surrealism Automatism

Salvador Dal is perhaps the most famous Surrealist artist to have used Surrealism Automatism. Dal’s method of painting involved using an automatic painting technique called “paranoiac-critical”, which involved manipulating images appearing in his paranoid thoughts, dreams, and hallucinations to create a distorted version of reality.

Through this technique, he brought to life his dreamlike landscapes, which were striking in their unconventional assemblage of surreal forms and motifs. Another prominent Surrealist artist of the period was Andr Masson, who proclaimed surrealism to be an “open window” into the mind.

In his seminal work “The Battle of Fishes,” Masson used unplanned compositions to depict the barbarity of humans. The painting depicts an underwater scene with fish in combat that devolves into decay and destruction with human structures in the background, symbolizing humankind’s destructive nature.

Joan Mir, another notable Surrealist artist, used Surrealist Automatism to create dreamlike compositions with a recognizable visual language. In his works, he constructed “constellations” of streamlined elements that exist somewhere between recognizable and abstract forms, leaving the final interpretation of the work to the viewer’s imagination.

Max Ernst is another artist who employed Surrealist Automatism, using “frottage,” a technique of rubbing graphite over paper to depict hallucinatory landscapes and dreamscapes. 4: Automatism Artwork Examples

Example of Unplanned Compositions in Surrealist Automatism

Andr Masson’s work, “The Battle of Fishes,” is a remarkable example of the use of unplanned compositions in Surrealist Automatism. The painting is a commentary on the barbarity of human nature.

The unplanned forms of the fish in the painting attack one another, while human structures in the background represent the destructive impact of humankind. Each component of the painting’s composition evokes the delicate balance between nature and civilization.

The unplanned composition of the fish in the painting is an example of Surrealist Automatism in action. In its final form, the painting is a testament to the power of automatic painting techniques to explore the unconscious, and yet it also remains deeply connected to the natural world.

Example of Dream-like Compositions in Surrealist Automatism

Ren Magritte was fond of creating dreamlike compositions that probed the nature of perception. In his painting “The Difficult Crossing,” he depicts an ordinary scene of a family walking across a seaside landscape; however, this scene is punctured with holes, reminding the viewer that perception is a fragile concept and can be easily subject to manipulation.

The composition of the work is dreamlike in its whimsical imaginings, with a sense of playful surrealism pervading every aspect of its assemblage. Magritte’s works were often characterized by the tension between the logical and the irrational.

He explored the ways that the world appears to us based on our perceptions and posited that those perceptions are often irrational and bizarre. This inspired him to create compositions that were an examination of the absurdity of the human condition.

In conclusion, Surrealism Automatism is a vital part of Automatism art that explores the uncanny and irrational in reality by breaking down the constraints of rationality. Artists like Max Ernst, Salvador Dal, and Andr Masson experimented with automatic painting techniques to create dreamlike landscapes, unplanned compositions, and explore the irrational in reality.

Surrealist Automatism has challenged the viewers’ perceptions of reality, inspiring other artists to explore the potential of the unknown and the irrational. 5: Automatism Outside of Surrealism

Automatism is not limited to Surrealism or the inter-war period.

Artists throughout history have used Automatism techniques, and contemporary artists continue to experiment with them. Automatism provides artists with a medium to access the unconscious mind, enabling them to create works that are free from rational thought and direction.

Historical and Contemporary Artists Using Automatism

Alexander Cozens, an eighteenth-century English watercolorist, is regarded as one of the pioneers of Automatism. Cozens believed that artists should work directly from nature rather than trying to imitate it.

He developed a technique called “blotting,” which involved dropping ink or pigment onto a surface, then folding and unfolding the paper to create abstract, organic shapes. William Blake, an English poet, painter, and printmaker, also used Automatism techniques.

Blake believed that the creation of art should be done instinctively, using the imagination as a tool. He used a technique called “fresco,” which involved painting directly onto the plaster before it had dried, resulting in an unpredictable and organic image.

In the twentieth century, Jackson Pollock, an American painter, used Automatism techniques to create his drip paintings. Pollock’s famous method, “action painting,” involved controlling the direction and flow of paint by dripping, pouring, and flinging it onto a surface.

The result was a non-directional and spontaneous image that embodied the principles of Automatism. Pollock believed that Automatism allowed him to tap into his unconscious mind, resulting in a direct expression of his inner workings.

Contemporary artist Joan Jonas uses Automatism as well as performance art, video, and installations. Her work combines improvised movements and spoken texts, often creating a poetic and dream-like space of free-association and agency.

Automatism as a Tool for Understanding the Unconscious Mind

Automatism is more than just a technique; it is a tool that artists can use to access the unconscious mind. The Surrealists acknowledged this almost a century ago and used it to push the boundaries of art and expression.

Automatism offers unique insights into the human condition and often reflects society’s collective subconscious. Surrealism’s interest in Automatism and the exploration of the unconscious mind has universal acknowledgment.

The techniques associated with Automatism can be found in other artistic practices, such as music, dance, and literature. Artists in these fields have used comparable techniques like free association (in writing), improvisation (in music and dance), and composed abstraction (in painting).

Automatism has become a way for artists to reflect on the self and society as a whole, commenting on the collective subconscious along with personal reflections. This focus on the unconscious mind continues to have relevance as a reflection of the human condition.

In many ways, Automatism has given artists the artistic freedom to explore and unleash their creativity. It has also opened doors to the use of non-directional art that is not based on tradition and conventionality.

The approach to creativity that is borne out of Automatism emphasizes that the artists are free from any rules and guidelines that might have stifled their creativity in the past. Conclusion:

Automatism has allowed artists to produce works that sit outside of conventional norms, allowing more exploration of the unconscious mind, human experience, and our collective subconsciousness.

Even as contemporary art has become more complex in nature, Automatism’s principles remain relevant, giving artists opportunities to tap into their unconsciousness, spark imagination and encourage creative freedom. It has substantially benefitted art by shifting attention from representation to expression, resulting in the incorporation of the artist’s personal style into their artwork.

In conclusion, Automatism Art and Surrealism Automatism have played significant roles in the art world, allowing artists to tap into their unconscious minds and create works free from rational thought and control. From the early pioneers like Alexander Cozens and William Blake to contemporary artists like Joan Jonas, Automatism continues to be utilized as a powerful tool for self-expression and the exploration of the human condition.

By embracing the unpredictable and irrational, artists have been able to challenge traditional artistic conventions and offer unique insights into the collective subconscious. Automatism reminds us of the importance of artistic freedom, the power of the unconscious mind, and the boundless possibilities of artistic expression.

It allows us to appreciate the beauty and complexity that can arise when art becomes a channel for the unknown and the unexplored.

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