How Does Pure Psychic Automatism Work in Art Creation?

December 20, 2016

When in 1924 André Breton (1896-1966) published the Manifesto of Surrealism he explained this movement through the concept of pure psychic automatism. The idea of an uninhibited creative psyche was conceived as the modus operandi for Surrealists. Defining Surrealism from the outset as a psychic automatism he later reconceptualized it along the lines of a religious creed, as a psychic mechanism or state of mind that can stand as a solution for the problems of life. First ideas that emerged regarding the autonomous workings of the psyche came from Freud who in his Interpretation of Dreams explained the relation between the unconscious, dreams and psyche. For Freud dream was a way to uncover the unconscious, because our thoughts are not rationally conceived while dreaming. Our unconscious part is thus freely expressed in disguises and symbols that are difficult to translate into words but can be rendered in figurative representations. These concepts were adopted by Surrealists, and they make the basis for Surrealist theory and its imagery of pure psychic automatism.

Both a concept and a technique, psychic automatism was conceived in relation to a problem of how to express a thought unfettered by different social concerns. It was assumed that thoughts run freely in the unconscious sphere of the mind, and Surrealists aimed at expressing them as they are. The term psychic in psychic automatism was chosen by Breton carefully, as he had a background in medicine, and the other part of the mechanism - automatism- also came from his knowledge in this filed.[1] Before he announced it in the field of art, the technique was used in psychiatric research and parapsychological studies.

free conscious process control work
Max Ernst - L'Ange du Foyer ou le Triomphe du Surrealisme (1937). Image via Widewalls archive.

Psychic Automatism of the Surrealists

A theorist of the group, André Breton was concerned with the fact that although dreams form an important part in everyone’s lives, they do not attract enough attention. Superior reality, or surreality in his terms, can be only achieved through the convergence of a living reality and a dream.[2] The tool in achieving this was Surrealism, and the tendency soon attracted many creatives who sought alternative ways of expression, liberated from visual tropes correspondent with social conventions and moral. Breton defined it as:

“psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the 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.”[3]

In the beginning the automatism was primarily regarded as a written technique which included an uninterrupted flow of words. Automatic writing practices started in 1919 and continued throughout the years with the varying success. Even Breton wrote in his 1933 essay The Automatic Message that “history of automatic writing in Surrealism is one of continual misfortune.”[4] Later on Max Ernst suggested a way of approaching visual representations through automatism based on frottage, collage, or grattage, and chance effects these techniques produced. Surrealists who included also André MassonRene Magritte, Salvador Dali and Juan Miró accepted the ideas from the Manifest and the technique it proposed, and embarked on a explorative journey of the unconscious that was far removed from the everyday reality, encumbered with the difficult mission of finding meaning after the carnage of the First World War. Artistic techniques they employed in line with the ones suggested by Ernst were oil painting, pencil drawing, which included the making of Cadavre Exquis, photography, film, and sculpture.

Joan Miró - Harlequin's conscious free Carnival, 1924. Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Joan Miró - Harlequin's Carnival, 1924. Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Unusual Matches and Unreal Deformations of the Surrealist Automatism

Although automatism of Surrealist art is evident in the chance and arbitrary combination of motifs and elements, it is still possible to make some distinctions between the ways automatism was employed and the creative solutions this technique produced. Unplanned compositions or unusual matches and dream-like elements that are also called unreal deformations can be distinguished as two groups coming from the different use of automatism. In the first, compositions are completely left to chance and momentary inspirations, while dream-like compositions are achieved with more deliberation, but nonetheless preserve the automatic combination of objects that often do not belong together in reality. The automatist element was more present in the works of Joan Miró and André Masson, while dream-like realities thrived on paintings and drawings by René Magritte, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali. However, these broadly conceived directions were not as clear-cut as it may seem. The commitment of artists to these two directions was not so strict, and they often experimented with both, while historically speaking, works from 1920s are more linked with unplanned compositions while in 1930s dominated dream-like strategies.

Salvador Dali - The Master of Surrealism

Automatism in Art Creation - Not Just a Surrealist Brainchild

Although psychic automatism in art is primarily linked to Surrealism and its engagement of dreams, hypnosis and sometimes even drugs in releasing the thought from its rational constraints, some previous and later epochs also have seen the application of automatism in art. First forms of automatism in art go back to the 18th century and ‘blot drawings’ of Alexander Cozens who created landscapes in watercolor from the accidental blots of color on paper. William Blake also credited some other forces than his mind for creation of his illustrations. In the 20th century other creatives besides Surrealists also searched for an unfettered expression, although not evoking psychic automatism directly. Jackson Pollock developed a method that became known as Action Painting, which consisted in dripping paint over the canvas, emphasizing the importance of process over final result while Les Automatistes, a French-Canadian group of painters based their works on automatic writing. Before the Second World War many Surrealists moved to the US, where they influenced the local scene. American Surrealism or Magical Realism as it is also called, emphasized social problems through the representations of reality that was treated in a surreal manner.

Editors’ Tip: The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology of Ideas

One of the most influential cultural movements of the past century, surrealism has been extensively studied within the framework of its contributions to arts and literature—but its pivotal role in the development of intellectual ideas, both political and philosophical, has yet to be fully explored. Featuring writings from the 1920s up to the late 1990s, this anthology—the first of its kind in English—finally reveals surrealism’s diverse scope, its deep contributions to the history of ideas, and its profound implications for contemporary thought. Including essays by leading surrealists and other major writers on the group, the volume addresses the key themes of identity, otherness, freedom and morality, and poetry.


  1. Bauduin T.M., (2015), The ‘Continuing Misfortune’ of Automatism in Early Surrealism, Communication +1: Vol. 4, Article 10, p.2.
  2. Anonymous,To What Extent Was the Concept of ‘Pure Psychic Automatism’ in the Visual Arts an Unrealisable Ideal? [December 19, 2016]
  3. Breton A., (1969), Manifestoes, p.26.
  4. Bauduin T.M., (2015), The ‘Continuing Misfortune’.

Featured images: Rene Magritte - Every day, 1966; Yves Tanguy - I Await You, 1934. Images via Widewalls archive. Salvador Dali – Sleep. Image via Bureau de Estilo Renata Abranchs. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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