Automatic drawing or painting can be described as “expressing the subconscious” using any technique that eliminates conscious control and replaces it with chance. The basic techniques originate from spiritualism, practiced by artists such as Georgiana Houghton and Hilma Af Klint, both of whom have recently had their work exhibited in a revival of interest and appreciation of automatism and early abstraction.
Surrealists such as Andre Breton and Andre Masson, were keen to experiment with automatic drawing and promoted it as an art movement. By this time, ofcourse, psychologists of the unconscious had dismissed the idea of spirits speaking through the artist: it was the subliminal self that could express itself in ways that could lead to the development of real artistic genius. The new interpretive framework was now wholly secular and based on the insights of psychoanalysis, but the basic techniques were adopted from spiritualism.
Whichever way you wish to interpret it, drawing randomly without rational control is a good way to avoid inihibitions that freeze the flow of creativity. It is a way to bypass the ‘I can’t draw’ mentality a lot of people develop when the natural artistic confidence of childhood is abandoned.
Making simple marks and considering the relationships between them bypasses jugement by the logical brain about what is “good” or “accurate.” It opens the doorway to the intuition, allows the emotions to be engaged, and allows enjoyment of the pure physical experience of artmaking.
Some of my experiments:
One of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings – The Eye of the Lord (1 Sept 1870), and Joan Miro – Preparations for Birds, detail, 1963.
There is something raw and deeply absorbing about Hannelore Baron’s multi-layered work. Found materials are combined with enigmatic text and abstract figures in her collages and box constructions.
The work suggests both the condition of entrapment and the possibility of release, no doubt informed by her early traumatic experiences of war in Germany in the 1930s. Unlike Joseph Cornell, her box assemblages are not wrapped — or trapped — in the air of poetic-romantic longing. Baron’s boxes and notations insist that the human spirit can persevere, however damaged.
Hilma Af Klint (1862–1944), of Sweden was creating abstract works about five years before Kandinsky. Through her work with the group “The Five,” af Klint created experimental automatic drawing as early as 1896, leading her towards an innovative geometric visual language. She had no desire to be part of any contest, or indeed the art world in general. Her paintings would not be seen publicly until 1986.
Hilma af Klint,The Ten Largest, (1907)
Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884) was also painting in a non-figurative way even earlier, from 1861 when she produced the first of several hundred intricate, abstract and richly symbolic artworks, which were, according to her, “without parallel in the world”. In contrast to af Klint, she was keen to present her work to the artistic establishment. The exhibition at the Courtauld was the first time this artist’s work has been exhibited publicly since 1871.
Interestingly, both artists rejected direct authorship of their work, claiming that they were guided by entities to convey important spiritual messages through their art – perhaps a subconscious means to sidestepping the cultural marginalisation of women at the time and finding validation for their work. Through their spiritualist experiments, they were able to conceptualise invisible forces both of the inner and outer worlds and develop radically innovative styles.