March: Automatism

Surrealist Automatism

I will investigate automatic drawing and painting practice primarily through readings of the chapter on André Breton in Denis Lejeune’s The Radical Use of Chance in 20th Century Art (1994), the various chapters on automatism in David Maclagan’s book Line Let Loose: Scribbling, Doodling and Automatic Drawing (2014) and by extending ideas derived from these two authors into other material were relevant. Later I will relate these discussions of automatist practice to my own paintings related to ruination in the area around my home studio.


The following discussion primarily focuses on automatic drawing and painting but, since Breton believed that “Surrealism was born in poetry” and that it was the “rationale that united all art forms”[1], ideas gleaned from commentary on automatic writing will be transposed onto examples of the visual arts. Lejeune describes the surrealist group’s use of automatic techniques, games and objective chance which were carried out through what they considered to be a direct connection to the unconscious.[2]


Automatism, Agency and Authenticity

Breton himself defined automatism in the first surrealist manifesto of 1924:


Surrealism, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other way, the true fuctioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.”[3]


Lejeune decribes how, for those about to practice automatism, there is a need to first “wait and keep watch”[4], in other words they entered a passive state, yet were simultaneously mentally and physically ready to spring into action in the instant that inspiration struck. Maclagan explains that, “Automatism refers in general to a complex sequence of behaviour carried out in the almost complete absence of conscious awareness …”[5] How can this absence of reason be viewed in a positive light? The answer seems to lie in the strong link that Breton sensed between surrealist automatism and authenticity as stressed by Lejeune, who says that this allowed one to express one’s true self. Surrealism sprang from Dada and inherited the earlier movement’s nihilistic responses to early 20th century society and culture, and from its provocatively nonsensical and anti-authoritarian responses to the First World War; this helps to explain the continued aspiration to promote an absence of “moral and aesthetic considerations” in the latter movement’s theory and practice. It seems to me that the lack of judgement regarding the moral values of good and bad within a visual or written work were partly seen as a means of opening up new possibilities in the field of drawing and painting, and, in doing so, resulted in a purposeful shift away from bourgeois taste and behaviour which for him represented the inauthentic socially-constructed self. Breton linked “honesty, naïveté, truth, freedom, authenticity and the notion of the primitive” with pure psychic automatism, and called for a link to the childhood need for a sense of wonder, of returning to a state of being unintegrated”.[6] Breton’s views link to Freud’s descriptions of the ‘primitive’ states contained in ‘modern’ humans, who still have the capacity for seeing “magic in things”.[7]Automatism is described as a process that returns the artist/author back to the lower levels of the psyche “to a unique, original faculty to which easy access has been lost. He noted that, “those Western primitives considered to be outside culture”, “primitive peoples [in general] and children” as subjects who had resisted “the dissociation of a unique, original faculty” that Western culture promoted.[8]



Breton strove “ to know what my differentiation from other people consists of, if not how it came about.” [9] Why should Breton have had such a strong need to understand the quality of his individuality? His questioning of his own uniqueness, of what made him different from others, seems strange when he was so often concerned with the supposedly non-virtuoso, group-nature of so much of the creative production. These group activities seems to have strong affinity with the Western conception of the ‘primitive’ tribe at that time, where the blurring of individual minds would have lead to a sense of the levelling of agency within the tribe and between the human and the non-human worlds. This contradiction between the individual ‘genius’ of the author or artist and the similar levelling nature of surrealist group activities is a prime example of the collapsing of contradictory states within Breton’s thinking. So I suppose then that it could be said that it was possible to be both a virtuoso artist/ author and a naïve one at the same time. The nature of collective action was so important for Breton that in the second surrealist manifesto he ended up insisting on it; leading to a division within the surrealist movement and to the expulsion of such artists as André Masson. However, as Browder notes:


How . . . [one is] to judge the expression of a movement that disclaims “artistic” pretensions, rejects all conventional aesthetic standards, and even denies the responsibility of the artist for his works? . . . Among the texts obtained by automatism, the Surrealists themselves judges some more successful than others, thereby admitting the fact of individual talent.[10]


So for Breton and the rest of the group were the unconscious minds that some inherited simply better than those of others? Were they more genuinely open and receptive to the unconscious (through their capacity for switching off the conscious mind) or were they more talented (by their acquisition of skill through a disciplined, conscious practice over a period of time)? A means of avoiding this contradiction is suggested by Macglagan who describes a “grey area somewhere between the deliberate and the accidental”[11], so that Breton’s automatism could be expanded to include some level of conscious direction through critical reflection and awareness of existing imagery- therefore implying some level of free will rather than a fulfilment ‘mere instinct’. Further to this the nature of individuality was brought into question. In his novel, Nadja (1928), Breton discusses “the existence of a complex ‘other’”.[12] It seems that this ‘other’ could have been said to be present in the unconscious of the individual, or through a fusion with the unconscious of other people, with objects, through the use of objective chance, or even the ‘mysterious forces’ of the material universe through encounters with the Marvellous. This ‘othering’ means that, for Breton, “personal identity [is] essentially porous, in constant transformation and [is contradictory] of an individual self, at least not in terms put forward by Aristotelian logic and elaborated by the enlightenment.”[13] In other words Breton fundamentally disagreed with a view of the self as unified and consistent and one where its highest faculty is a sense of ordered consciousness capable of rational agency. It seems that for him, the agency of the individual self is less important than the collective agency of the group, even if the collective is contained within the different parts of the self. This ‘othering’ of the self seems to set the more ‘primitive’ self of the unconscious against the separate ‘civilised’, conscious one. However there is an assumption that everyone in a ‘civilised’ society with a conscious mind has moral and aesthetic values that are in line with bourgeois taste. Even in the 1920s it would be unlikely that this was the case, and in the culture of late capitalist early twenty-first century society it seems likely to be seldom true.










Maclagan explains that interest in the ‘non-conscious’ peaked in the 20th century and has been critiqued since the post-modernist era. The critique of unconscious automatic painting could be said to result from intellectual reactions to the unconscious forces harnessed by the Third Reich in Germany during the Second World War. REF “In addition the conceptual basis for [the] connection with unconscious form creation, along with other features of psychoanalysis, has become more debatable.”[14] HOW? However, he continues to describe that these are seen to “still form a significant part of our artistic repertoire.” And that because of this the “spontaneous [nature] of unconscious creativity… end[s] up being taken for granted”, to the point were it could be said to have become associated with cliché.”[15] Maglagan asks how we are to distinguish between “genuine or contrived spontaneity”[16] and suggests that the boundary between the intentional and the spontaneous (unconscious) collapses and lead to the difference between the two terms being “impossible to maintain for the artists themselves.”[17] Ades REF explains that Masson realised that there were two stages to automatism: firstly involving the unconscious in the form of pure automatism and secondly where there is more deliberation in the recognition of an “image”.[18] So automatic drawing and painting can be seen to be more complex than a mere ‘letting go”.


A primary way that the censor found within the conscious mind was bypassed was through speed of execution: so that the faster the work was produced the more it could be said to have approached a state of disorder and chaos in its haziness[19]; this was also based on the Dada precedent: “The challenge for the Surrealists was therefore to accommodate a technique based on apparent disorder and chaos (automatic writing) with a constructive philosophy: in other words to include chance within a positive artistic credo” REF whilst avoiding the end therapeutic result of psychoanalysis. Lejeune credits Breton’s knowledge of Freud’s theory of free association, with the avoidance of judgement or editing, and of allowing chance into the creative process within automatism. REF WHICH FREUD BOOK? So did Breton wish to use the chaos and disorder of the unconscious as a force for creative personal and societal change rather than as a means of ‘helping’ patients to fit into the existing overdetermined and authoritative one? Lejeune states that Breton deplored the way in which Freud’s rational order distorted the unconscious[20]


[1] p252 ades or foster

[2] Lejeune

[3] Andre Breton from the Second Surrealist Manifesto, cited in Ades Andre Masson, p12.

[4] Lejeune 93

[5] Maclagan p81

[6] Conley, Pierre Taminiaux2004:135

[7] Sigmund Freud totem and taboo in Conley, Pierre Taminiaux2004:135

[8] Conley, Pierre Taminiaux 2004 136

[9] Ades, Richardson, Krzyztof 2015:29

[10] Browder   1967:74

[11] Maclagan p15???

[12] Ades, Richardson, Krzyztof 2015:29

[13] Ades, Richardson, Krzyztof 2015:29

[14] Maclagan p15

[15] Maclagan p149

[16] Maclagan p149

[17] Maclagan p?

[18] ades masson 13-14

[19] Lejeune 88

[20] Lejeune: P98-99





Ades, Richardson, Krzyztof 2015:29


Browder Clifford André Breton, Arbiter of Surrealism   Geneva libraire droz 1967


Conley, Pierre Taminiaux 2004 136


Fotiade, Ramona ed. André Breton: The Power of Language 2000   Exeter:Elm Bank Publications

Lejeune, Denis The Radical Use of Chance in 20th Century Art 2012 New York: Rodopi

MacLagan, David Line Let Loose: Scribbling, Doodling and Automatic Drawing 2013 London:Reaktion Books


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