The source of the creative muse has been the subject of debate in artistic circles for hundreds of years. It is generally thought that inspiration is the result of an emotional or spiritual reaction to a stimulus, which is then translated into artistic expression. However, there are those who argue that the source of all inspiration comes from the subconscious and that artistic expression is the result of the subconscious flexing its psychic muscles. There are plenty of artists who categorise themselves as psychic artists - artists who delve deep into their higher selves and create works that are seemingly random and abstract. This phenomenon is known as artistic automatism.
Automatism was introduced into the art world by the surrealist painters. However, it was first explored through poetry in the 1920s. Surrealist poets, such as André Breton, Robert Desnos and Louis Aragon attempted to write poems whilst in a light trance, recording their unedited trains of thought in uncensored verse. This was an investigation into the rising interest in Freudian psychology, which was gathering popularity (and notoriety) at the time. The belief was that the poems would act as a representation of the unconsciousness, despite appearing bizarre or incongruous to the conscious mind. However, as you would expect, the results were usually not exactly 'informative'.
The Surrealist artists had a better time of it. Spearheaded by André Masson, Max Ernst and Arshile Gorky, images were painted and drawn as a stream of consciousness without any form of censorship or editing. Sometimes, the pieces were left as they were drawn, but more often than not they were expanded upon and used as the basis for further works. Max Ernst became a champion of this form of ‘automatic painting’ and developed a number of techniques that are still used by artists today.
Automatic art techniques
‘Frottage’ is a technique that most of us have used at some point or other, involving putting a piece of paper over a textured surface and rubbing it with graphite to record that texture. Although most of us are familiar with it from our school days for coin-rubbings or making pictures using the surfaces of bark, it was originally developed by Ernst as a way to allow the subconscious to express itself.
‘Grattage’ is the process of scratching the painted surface of a canvas to give it a tactile depth.
‘Decalcomania’ is the process of sandwiching paint between two canvases, which were then pulled apart, leaving bubbles, textures and blended colours.
These techniques were often used as a starting block for artists exploring automotive techniques. They would be presented with an example of frottage, grattage or decalcomania and then asked to continue the painting in accordance with how their subconscious mind responded.
However, the experiments didn’t stop there. In the 1940s a group of Canadian painters named themselves Les Automatistes and used the techniques created by Ernst to explore paintings that would somehow represent the workings of the subconscious. In America, a group who called themselves The Action Painters developed further techniques in automatism, some working directly under the tutelage of Ernst and his cohorts, who had moved to the States in order to escape the Second World War.
Later artists, such as Jackson Pollock went on to experiment with dripping paint to achieve similar ends. The belief was that automatism was a way to unlock the primal creative abilities that are embedded within each artist; a shortcut to unleashing their full and uncensored artistic potential. Salvador Dali was possibly the most famous supporter of this form of artistic expression, evident in his bizarre and dream-like paintings.
Automatism and its other uses
However, automatism in art hasn’t just been used for esoteric purposes. It has found its way into the grisly world of murder too. Just as psychics and remote viewers have been used to try and locate victims of kidnap and murder, automatic artists have found themselves embracing similar roles. During the case of the Los Angeles Hillside Strangler, an automatic artist was hired to sketch and paint images of the suspect.
Further back in time, automatic writing was a also staple of Victorian psychic shows. A psychic would apparently make contact with the spirit realm and their hands would then be guided to write answers to questions or messages to be given to someone in the room. Aleister Crowley, the occultist and self-titled ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ claimed to have written at least one book under the influence of forces from the spirit world. While there are very few instances of automatic drawing or painting on record from that era, painting of this sort has become incredibly popular today. There are countless websites through which you can commission automatic artists to create works of art that, they claim, are done so under the influence of the client’s deceased friends or family.
Psychic or spirit art?
Just how automatism works is the subject of some debate – which is evident in the way it has been used. There are those who believe that the painter’s tools are simply a conduit for the psychic energies generated by the subconscious; that it is a representation of the psychic landscape of the artist’s mind. This correlates with the way that many psychics understand the Tarot. The cards are simply an extension of the subconscious and that the apparently random images they bear are used to speak the language of the higher self.
However, as we have seen, there are also those who believe that their artistic endeavours are the direct result of contact with the spirits of those who have passed on.
Interestingly, automatic art has found itself exploring another niche. Stephan Schwarz set up a group in the 1980s known as the Mobius Group, which dedicated itself to the phenomenon of remote viewing. In 1987, the group was tasked to help find the sunken wreck of a ship, the Leander, lost in the Bahamas Banks, a 1500 sq.km stretch of ocean. One of the group repeatedly created images through automatic painting, which were instrumental in the discovery of the Leander. Whether this is evidence of his being able to present his psychic gifts on paper, or whether his hand was guided by a spirit from the wreck remains a mystery.