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In writing or painting, the suspension of the control of reason allowing the release of subconscious imagery. It is chiefly associated with Surrealism and defined in Breton's Manifeste de Surrealisme (1924) as pure psychic automatism'. It was subsequently developed by the Abstract Expressionists.

Automatism, which is the free flow of associations, was to be the process or state of mental existence whereby control of reason was purposefully lost in favor of "the real process of thought." Most interpreters of Surrealism have accepted Breton's assertion that "pure psychic automatism" was the single most important principle of Surrealism. The Dadaists had spoken for the abolition of rationality and logic in favor of new art processes and forms developed through chance and irrational association. For the Surrealists, chance remained a valid external force, but because of their interest in psychiatry the automatic was equated with the unconscious in all its manifestations. In 1922 Breton wrote specifically of this state of psychic automatism as "a near equivalent to the dream state," a place where one could hear the "murmur" of the "unconscious." In 1919 he had recognized that fragmentary sentences emerged from unknown origins into his conscious perception when his mind was "in total solitude, when sleep is near." These fragments were "first-rate poetic material," and he and others began to contemplate how to induce such material into existence voluntarily.

At first he and Soupault practiced a purposeful forgetfulness of the outside world which produced their first "automatic" book in 1920, Les Champs magnetiques ("Magnetic Fields"), written in daily and disconnected fragments that Breton called "magical dictation." From this they moved to "periods of sleep," which was their form of the trance state mediums used when contacting spirits. The process was successful to varying degrees, depending upon the individuals involved. Robert Desnos was the most extreme in his ability to speak in poetic Alexandrines, twelve-syllable phrases correctly accented in rhyme, while "asleep." Hypnosis, a technique generally rejected by Freud, was used extensively with many of the results transcribed and published. The experiments among the Surrealist poets in hypnotic sleep were a general attempt to implement Freud's ideas and link them to the process of creativity, to open the doors of psychic perception. However, the Surrealists ignored the diagnostic and therapeutic particulars of psychoanalysis to create a synthesis that served their own ends and belief in poetic production.

Poets concentrated on speaking and writing automatically, i.e., by means which bypassed rational control. Some editing would occur after the fact. Visual artists such as Andre Masson sometimes used the same technique, premise, and editing. Masson's 1944 pen and ink drawing Bison on the Brink of a Chasm is one of many produced by a process of "automatic" drawing. The title seems to make an oblique reference to life lived in this state—as one may on the brink of a chasm. Both writers and visual artists also developed a number of other techniques to bypass control. Many, like Max Ernst, relied too on the principle of chance as developed in Dada.


Masson Andre
Bison on the Brink of a Chasm



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