ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

artistic development:

automatism - theory In early 1939 Colquhoun was still using traditional painting techniques: ‘I need a line to work to … that means a full-sized detailed drawing afterwards traced. Then I put on the opaque colours very smooth and finally the glazes, if any, with the transparent colours’. (1) A number of cartoons and squared drawings still survive. Shortly after writing this, however, her technique underwent a major change. The impetus for this was her visit to Chateau Chemillieu in Brittany where she spent some time with up-and-coming surrealists, including Roberto Matta, Esteban Frances and Gordon Onslow Ford. These artists were experimenting with automatic methods of painting, the aim being to find or generate images from within the unconscious. If desired, these could then be developed or interpreted through more conscious means. Following this visit she began to make extensive use of automatic techniques herself. Rather than being pre-planned and deliberate, her art became more spontaneous, making use of chance effects and random processes. From smooth surfaces from which all traces of brushstrokes were minimised, textural features, blots, smudges and stains now became an integral part of her work. The driving force behind this change was as much philosophical as it was technical. AUTOMATISM AND SURREALISM In the First Surrealist Manifesto (1924), surrealism was defined in terms of automatism: SURREALISM: 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. (2) At first, it was regarded primarily as a written technique. Many surrealists had initial misgivings about the very possibility of surrealist painting which, because of the nature of the medium, cannot hope to equal the spontaneous, uninterrupted and undirected flow of words that is the hallmark of automatic writing. However, André Masson, with his development of graphic automatism, a gestural equivalent of automatic writing, suggested one way forward whilst Max Ernst, with techniques based on frottage, showed another. Ernst’s methods depended heavily upon seizing chance effects and also allowed him to retard the flow of ideas and images rather than seeking to record them in real time as they came. Because of these innovations, by the time Colquhoun came to surrealism, the search for a pictorial equivalent of automatic writing had ceased to be a central concern. Indeed, by the time of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism automatism was hardly mentioned at all: the debate had moved on to focus upon what Breton described as ‘the occultation of surrealism’ (3), the search for the certain point in the mind at which opposites cease to be perceived as contradictory. Whilst some artists looked inwards, emphasising automatism’s role in discovering hidden aspects of their psyche, others looked outwards as well. Roberto Matta in particular valued automatism as a means for uncovering hidden aspects of objects and for the exploration of what lies beyond the confines of the visible world. Matta argued that its optical image is just one aspect of the existence of an object. Galaxies, crystals and living matter go through processes of creation, existence and destruction. They exist in time, change with the passage of time and can be observed from multiple perspectives. Conventionally, however, objects are only depicted at a fixed point in their history, from a single point in space and, inevitably, with a palette limited to colours which reflect light of a visible wavelength. To his efforts to use automatism to give form to those things which cannot be seen except as an inner vision, Matta gave the name ‘psychological morphology’, a phrase Colquhoun used to describe her paintings of the 1940s. (4) For the painters involved in this theorising the possibilities were, literally, endless; ‘It is a Hell-Paradise where all is possible’ wrote Onslow-Ford; ‘the details of the farthest star can be as apparent as those of your hand. Objects can be extended in time so that the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly can be observed at a glance’ (5). Breton, too, understood the mystical nature of psycho-morphology and the way it could break down all barriers of time and place: ‘It contains fusion and germination, balances and departures, it incorporates an understanding between cloud and star, we can see all the way back and all the way down … the image of the universal sperm circulates through it’ (6). Colquhoun captured the spirit of this in a poem about the invisible beings that share our world yet are completely unknown to us: They are both here and there, they penetrate all ways They go both north and south, they are past and to come They pierce all directions at once, they move and are still They are the profound tilt, the absolute angle To things that we know. (7) AUTOMATISM AND PSYCHOPATHOLOGY For most artists, automatism was a two-stage process: the production of the initial marks using some method that relied on chance, followed by their modification, interpretation and elaboration, using a more conscious and controlled technical process. The word that best describes the second stage, the imaginative interpretation of the initial stimulus, is that it is an act of projection. Projection is a frequently used word in the contexts of alchemy and analytic psychology. Colquhoun was well aware of both these usages. In her article, “The Mantic Stain”, later expanded as “Children of the Mantic Stain”, she referred to the Rorschach ink-blot test, the classic projective test of the psychoanalysts. Presented with an ambiguous stimulus, patients project their own interpretations on the image, and, in so doing, supposedly give the therapist information about their psychopathology that cannot be articulated at a conscious level. (8) Colquhoun understood that for an artist to use automatic processes was akin to a patient generating his or her own Rorschach cards and, by interpreting them, she (and, by implication, viewers) would gain access to the hidden contents of her unconscious. This was not done with therapeutic intent, as was the case with two other members of the British surrealist group, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff who, in the course of their extraordinary collaboration produced a large number of works laden with psychoanalytic symbols that ooze infantile sexuality. (9) These were painted with the express purpose of being subjected to analytic scrutiny. Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were working within an established tradition of medical psychology dating back to 1889 when the French psychiatrist Pierre Janet first advocated the therapeutic use of automatism. In contrast, the intention for Colquhoun was spiritual understanding. Different artists chose different ways of developing the initial stimulus. Ernst, for example, characteristically built complicated but recognisable worlds where petrifaction blurs the distinction between the organic and the mineral. These works are generally amenable to verbal description. They are narrative and engage with memory systems that utilise active recollection, verbal reflection and explicit expression. Colquhoun’s images, in contrast, require responses to the perceptual features of the image. That is, those that demand little or no conscious processing and that do not relate to a verbally accessible form of memory. Although these responses cannot be verbalised, they are likely to be visceral and affect-laden. Our reactions, in other words, are felt and experienced rather than analysed and interpreted: they are implicit rather than consciously processed. In terms of memory processes we might say that Colquhoun emphasises perceptual representations whilst Ernst offers semantic representations. In terms of cortical structures, we might say that whereas Ernst engages with the hippocampus, Colquhoun engages with the amygdala. AUTOMATISM AND THE OCCULT Automatism was not invented by the Surrealists. Automatic writing was a technique traditionally used by mediums and spiritualists who would put themselves into a trance-like state in order to receive dictation from the spirit world. Additionally, occultists such as Austin Spare in England had sometimes experimented with automatic drawing. (10) For the surrealists, receptivity to the internal unconscious was the motivating factor. For occultists, the driving force was access to the spirit world. Colquhoun aimed to lay herself open to internal, unconscious, forces as well as external spiritual ones. All that was necessary was some degree of dissociation although, for her, ‘this seldom reaches the stage of trance’. (11) In choosing the word ‘mantic’ to describe automatic methods, Colquhoun was deliberately using a word which, derived from ancient Greek, refers to oracular pronouncements arising from divine possession. Although she was dismissive of the platitudes usually produced by spiritualist mediums, Colquhoun certainly regarded their approach as capable of revealing great discoveries. She cited the work of the Elizabethan alchemist, Dr John Dee and his partner Edward Kelly as one example, and the archaeologist F. Bligh Bond and his scribe John Alleyne as another. Dee and Kelly had, reportedly, discovered the Enochian system of magic through mediumistic activities, whilst Bligh Bond’s discovery of the Edgar Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey through automatic writing had been a cause celebre in 1918. She was also well aware that the poet and occultist W.B. Yeats had made extensive experiments in automatic writing with his wife, resulting in his metaphysical book “A Vision”. (12) One of the reasons why automatism became central to Colquhoun’s work was because it provided her with methods that linked the surreal with the hermetic both philosophically and technically. For example, in arguing that the forms created by automatic methods are closely dependent upon the unconscious mood of the operator, she drew a parallel with the alchemist who, suggested Jung, sees in his retort the contents of his own subliminal fantasy. Similarly, just as the apparently random pattern of tea-leaves in a cup may suggest the shape of the future, so, too, an ink blot or stain may possess divinatory powers. In elaborating this, she suggested that the four traditional elements of alchemy each have corresponding automatic methods. Fire can be related to fumage, earth to decalcomania and water to écrémage and parsemage. Air can be related to techniques where powdered materials are blown or fanned and allowed to settle on the artist’s surface. The act of painting, therefore, becomes an act of divination that connects the artist to natural and spiritual forces. Automatic paintings reveal the interconnectedness of the inner and outer worlds, the subject and the object, the I and the Other. Notes 1. Colquhoun, I. “What do I need to paint a picture?” London Bulletin, No. 17 (1939): 13. 2. See André Breton, “Manifestos of Surrealism”, trans. R. Seaver and H. R. Lane, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967, p. 26. 3. Breton, 1967, op. cit. p. 178. 4. Colquhoun, I. Exhibition catalogue: “Ithell Colquhoun: Surrealism, Paintings, Drawings, Collages 1936-76”. Penzance: Newlyn-Orion Galleries, 1976. 5. Onslow Ford, G. “The painter looks within himself”. The London Bulletin, issues 18-20, 1940. 6. Breton, A. “Surrealism and Painting”. Translated by Simon Watson Taylor. New York: Harper and Row, 1972, pp. 183-188. 7. Colquhoun, I. “Les Grandes Transparentes.” The Bell 8, no. 6 (1944): 537. 8. Colquhoun, I. “The Mantic Stain.” Enquiry 2 no. 4 (1949): 15-21, and “Children of the Mantic Stain.” Athene 5 no. 2 (1951): 29-34. The cards in the Rorschach Test, being symmetrical about a vertical axis, can be regarded as examples of stillomancy. 9. For details, see Walsh, N. (ed.) “Sluice Gates of the Mind. The collaborative work of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff”. Leeds: Museums and Art Galleries, 1998. 10. See, for example, Choucha, N. “Surrealism and the Occult”. Oxford: Mandrake, 1991. 11. Colquhoun, I. “Notes on Automatism. “Melmoth no. 2 (1980): 31-32. 12. See Bligh Bond, J. “The Gate of Remembrance”. Oxford: Blackwell, 1918, and Yeats, W.B. “A Vision”. 2nd edition. London: Macmillan, 1937. Yeats’ book first appeared in 1925. It was subsequently revised heavily and a new edition published in 1937.
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