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IV Surrealist Techniques
(modern surrealism movement)
One strategy the surrealists used to elicit imagery from the unconscious is called the "Exquisite Corpse." In this collaborative art form, a piece of paper was folded in four, and four different artists contributed to the representation of a figure without seeing the other artists' contributions. The first drew the head, folded the paper over and passed it on to the next, who drew the torso; the third drew the legs, and the fourth, the feet. The artists then unfolded the paper to study and interpret the combined figure.
Max Ernst, a German surrealist, invented another technique that used chance and accident: frottage (French for "rubbing"). By placing pieces of rough wood or metal underneath a canvas and then painting or penciling over the top, the artist transferred the textures of the underlying surfaces onto the finished work. In Laocon, Father and Sons (1926, Menil Collection, Houston, Texas), Ernst incorporated chance textures through frottage, while also referring to the Greek myth of Laocon, a Trojan priest who struggled with giant pythons.
Perhaps the most important technique used by the surrealists to elicit the unconscious is automatism. In painting, automatism consisted of allowing the hand to wander across the canvas surface without any interference from the conscious mind. The resulting marks, it was thought, would not be random or meaningless, but would be guided at every point by the functioning of the artist's unconscious mind, and not by rational thought or artistic training. In The Kill (1944, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), French painter Andr Masson implemented this technique, but he then used the improvised marks as a basis for elaboration. Whatever bore a resemblance to an actual object (in this case, a face or body part), he refined to make the connection more apparent. Because Masson had not determined the subject matter of the painting beforehand, the surrealists claimed that his later elaborations were motivated purely by his emotional state during the act of creation.
Another artist who employed automatism was Spanish painter Joan Mir. In Birth of the World (1925, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), for example, he applied pigment randomly to the canvas and allowed the paint to run across the surface by means of gravity, creating a host of effects that he could not have predicted in advance. As with Masson, the second stage of the painting was more deliberate and calculated. The artist may have contemplated the stains on the canvas for a time and, inspired by the forms or meanings they suggested, added a number of curving, abstract shapes that evoke living beings. The title Birth of the World suggests a world created from nothing but also represents the birth of consciousness through the act of painting.
Some surrealists, including Ernst, Yves Tanguy from France, and Roberto Matta from Chile, used a combination of techniques to suggest a dream state or to produce an abstract vocabulary of forms. They are therefore difficult to pigeonhole in a single category. In Matta's The Unknowing (1951, Museum of Modern Art, Vienna, Austria) for example, the artist has created a three-dimensional space and objects that look solid. The objects, however, are so ambiguous that viewers can view them in any number of ways and impose their own interpretations on the painting.