What were the aims of the Surrealist painters? Is it possible to wholly understand automatic experience beyond one’s own? How closely did the artist’s pursuits relate to the theory of Surrealism?
To find the answers I attempted to think like a theorist and felt as though I was floating into a black hole. My preoccupation with art theory stems from my love of art making itself. My connection is not so much with words but with the visual. It is under this pretense I examined the problematic tendencies of surrealist theory and the place of automatism.
I once had a dream of great significance. I was at a fair. The red and white tent was as clear and loud as the music. A woman appeared and I was overwhelmed with a sense of despair. I was paralyzed unable to interact with the scene around me. Everyone was so happy. I was white hot with anxiety. She stepped through a small red gate attached to a short stone wall. Everything went silent. I was constrained behind the open gate unable to pass through. I stood still and watched in awe as the woman climbed tall boxes leading to a giant cliff, too far for me to reach. The scene had a calm silk blue sky, light gravel that would be swept away in the soft breeze. I looked up. I felt myself screaming but there was no sound. As she jumped her limbs stretched remarkably far, her expression remained vacant, her gaze focused on a world beyond the one we stood in. Not once did I recognise it was a dream. Not once did I wish for any one event to occur. I awoke before I knew where she had gone. It was surreal.
“SURREALISM: Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
It is understood the dream is a state of automatism, “The notion of automatism as a privileged form of access to the surreal.” Breton’s appropriation of Apollinaire’s ‘surreal’ was stated in the 1924 La Revolution Surréaliste.
Bretonian Surrealism is problematic. It constrains the products of the movement to be those derived from the unconscious; the uncontrollable, the random and chance events. Breton claimed in the Second Manifeste de Surréalisme, “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” In applying Bretonian theory to the works of the Surrealist artists, it is difficult to conceive how Breton’s definition manifests in paintings, if even at all. He wrote, “It is impossible for me to envisage a picture as any other than a window.” He also affirmed the connection to the dream, a major area of inspiration for artists, “By surrealism we have decided to refer to a certain psychic automatism that corresponds fairly well to the dream state”
Descartes wrote about, “Shape, motion, duration and number are modes of things.” Painters utilise these modes to translate their automatist occurrence into painting. When a painter creates something surreal, they essentially draw on content from reality to re-present it. In aiming for removal of the conscious, the presence of reality invalidates automatist and therefore surrealist features. De Chirico’s works were described as, “The immobile clarity and adamantine transparency of a happy and tranquil art that nevertheless contained an element of unease… phenomena of metaphysical beauty.” In comparison to Luciano Laurana’s La Città Ideale a surreal, metaphysical presence is observed. Yet the work was a quintessential example of Renaissance painting following the Della Pitura, the rules of perspective and certainty in presenting the modes of things (see: The Most Innovative Moment in Art History — The Invention of Perspective). It presents what would be presented to our eye in reality. The antithesis to what would be an automatist painting.
Waldberg categorized De Chirico as a ‘descriptive.’ His subject was the mind, the major theme, imagination. It was interpreted widely by De Chirico and his imagery was largely informed by the metaphysical, especially in the dream, “An extremely strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery… far more inexplicable is the mystery and appearance that our mind confers on certain objects and on certain aspects of life.” What is presented in a De Chirico painting is something that is not from the physical world in which we walk. On the canvas he can give the illusion of what is being represented as tangible due to the stylistic devices employed such as shadow, depth, perspective, colour, form and their engagement with the viewer’s eye and mind in association with tangible objects. We are reminded a painting comprises of only paint and a two dimensional surface. The content returns to the realm of the metaphysical, beyond reality, essentially the surreal in the plain sense of the word.
In a literal sense of Bretonian Surrealism, a painting must not only derive from the unconscious, but the mode of creation too must occur by automatic action. Max Morise asked, “Can art ever be automatic in the same way that writing can be?” The origins of De Chirico’s imagery, what they express is from somewhere ‘uncontrolled by reason’ but the use of the hand, the conscious and the materials were not.
In Surrealism and Painting an organic creature, perhaps a portrait of Breton as a “pretentious ass,” mindlessly produces a painting in an automatic style. He implies his intentions are not to generate works that are automatist in method, but address the physiological and political features of Surrealist theory surrounding automatism.
It was in analysing my own dream that I came to understand the presence of automatism in De Chirico’s works. Every emotion connected with the imagery of my dream reiterated feelings from reality. Despite my conscious efforts to repress the events, my unconscious revealed them. It was through identification of emotion I recognised what my unconscious was presenting. I was consciously confronting and rationalising what would usually be displaced or disguised, Freud’s secondary process. I was overwhelmed with the urge to document the dream. I began to collect images as I had a compulsive needed to view the scenes again immediately. It was the intrinsic desire I felt to represent my dream with images from reality I believe the artists of the Surrealist movement also had. Though the subject to be presented originated in a state ‘absent from control exercised by reason,’ what manifests visually is the artist’s motivation to present their thoughts to an audience through the language of art.
Naville exerted in the third edition of Les Yeux Entchantés:
“There is no longer anyone unaware of the fact there is no such thing as Surrealist painting. It is well understood that no chance traces of a pencil, nor any image retracing the figures of a dream, nor imaginative fantasies, qualify as such.”
André Masson’s work Automatist Drawing from 1924 claims the visual style employed was automatic. It appears to our eye to be removed from the constraints of the re-presentation of imagery where line and shape do not present an association with objects from reality, but scribbled on the surface. It is as though Masson attempted to apply the principles of Breton’s automatic writing to present a painting that is ‘out of control.’
To generate method free from association, Max Ernst filled a metal can with paint and drilled a hole into the bottom. The top was attached to a piece of string and swung in the air so the paint landed upon the canvas to generate Study for the Bewildered Planet. Another artist obsessed with automatic paint application was Jackson Pollock. Hans Namuth exhibited the way Pollock used materials to drip paint onto the surface in a mechanical fashion moving his body across the canvas eliminating the control of the conscious. These works aligned with the explanation of pictorial automatism in Perspective Automatique, ‘to direct the material reactions during the creation of the work.’
René Magritte made an effort to defy the reliance of Surrealist art on Surrealist theory. Ruth Brandon in agreeance achieving total automatism would not be very interesting. He proved the weakness of Surrealist exploration of thought to be conditioned by an automatist mind, theory and art. His logic follows the notion dreams happen but we make paintings. In illustrating the amusing through word and image, Magritte expressed his thought about Surrealist theory on the canvas. He aimed to exploit the looseness of relation between words, objects and representations. His paintings are “dictated by thought” but conveyed through mindfulness, total control and reason. Even Breton later claimed, with Magritte “thought has achieved complete emancipation.”
The philosophical artist was fully focused on the strangeness of the real world itself. Breton said of the artist, “Magritte’s nonautomatic but on the contrary fully deliberate process is the buttress of Surrealism.” The deliberateness of not adhering to the rules of automatism drew attention to the exact principles upon which they relied upon. Magritte helped shape what it is to be automatist by presenting a philosophical legacy of mindfulness with “the intellectual integrity and searching mind of a philosopher.”
In 1962 Magritte illustrated the blankness of Freud’s true role in ‘The Therapist.’ It was a weak judgement by Breton to base Surrealism upon automatism using Freud as validity through the connection of seeking pleasure. The only link to automatism in painting is in the origin of the imagery recalled from the unconscious occurrence in the human mind, what is beyond control. Even then, the artists “lose what is too personal” in presenting a dream to the viewer. Breton’s complacency lead to the confusion Surrealist theory presents. Magritte’s philosophy trumped Bretons revolutionary theorizing in the statement, “Problems are solved in a manner of philosophy, not by giving new information but by rearranging what we have always known”
Surrealism was born out of the tensions between purpose in intellectual investigation. The products of the movement were the result of how one chose to present their findings in both interpreting Surrealist theory from written automatism to revoking the function of automatism altogether. The position of automatism is not the basis upon which Surrealism survives, it is a starting point in the occurrences of the mind the investigators chose to inspire their investigations, like the narrative of a dream. La Revolution is still alive today in the art enthusiasts and scholars who dive into the black hole, conducting their own investigations, and exploring the depths of their own minds.
Patrick Waldberg, Surrealism,1965.
Phil Powrie, ‘Bleu, Blanc, Rouge: Masochism and the Distinction Between Verbal and Visual Automatism,’ Australian Journal of French Studies, vol. 37, no.1.
André Breton, Second Manifesto of Surrealism, trs. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, 1969.
Gérard Durozoi, ‘The Arrival of Mediums,’ History of the Surrealist Movement, trs Alison Anderson, 2002.
Betsy Newwell Decyk, ‘Cartesian Imagination and Perspectival Art,’ Descartes’ Natural Philosophy, 2000.
Emily Braun, Italian Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture, 1900–1988.
Patrick Waldberg, Surrealism, 1965.
Massimo Carrà, Patrick Waldberg, Ewald Rathke, Metaphysical Art, 1971.
Max Morise, ‘Les Yeux Enchantés,’ La Revolution Surréaliste,1924.
Giorgio De Chirico, The Memoirs of Giorgio De Chiric, 1944.
Richard Wollheim, Sigmund Freud, 1991.
Michael Sheringham, ‘Breton and the Language of Automatism: Alterity, Allegory, Desire,’ Forum for Modern Language Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1982
Ruth Brandon, ‘Art and Power,’ Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917–45, 1999.
André Breton, trns Simon Watson Taylor, ‘René Magritte,’ Surrealism and Painting, 2002.
Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images trs. Richard Miller,1977.
Suzi Gablik, Magritte, 1985.
Jennifer Mundy and Dawn Ades eds, ‘Letters of Desire,’ Surrealism: Desire Unbound,2001.
Sigmund Freud, ‘Introductionary Lecture SE16 The Paths to the Formation of Symptoms, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis’ The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 1963