‘It is that branch of Surrealism known as Psycho-morphology which concerns us here. Psycho-morphology is the discovery by various automatic processes of the hidden contents of the psyche and their expression through different media. The principle of all these processes is the making of a stain, by chance, or ‘objective hazard,’ to use the surrealist term; the gazing at the stain in order to see what it suggests to the imagination; and finally the developing of these suggestions in plastic terms.’
Colquhoun gives the example of Leonardo da Vinci ‘staring at the stains of damp in an ancient wall, and seeing in these a hint of the mountains, ravines and phantastic foliage of a dream-landscape.’ Then her own personal anecdote:
‘At the time of a recent house-removal I lay in bed looking at a plaster wall seamed with cracks. It was the day before I was due to move and I thought after today I shall no longer see these marvellous cracks, indeed, no one will, because they will be obliterated by redecoration. So… I sprang out of bed, glued some large sheets of tracing-paper together, fastened them to the wall, and made a careful tracing of the cracks: this has since become a large mural, Giantesses Undressing to Bathe. Previously I had found the inspiration of another picture, Autumnal Equinox, in the artificial wood-graining of a painted door. In both these processes, the basic stain was discovered and recorded, but not directly made, by myself: so the process involved was a combination of automatism and the ‘found-object.’ It is hardly necessary to point out that the same unconscious process, which makes a mantic stain and recognises its pictorial scope, also selects and illumines that morsel of external reality which constitutes a ‘found-object.’
She goes on to describe several different automatisms in some detail, beginning with 1) (‘Perhaps the most promising’) DECALCOMANIA: the word comes from dècalquer (to trace) and indicates the double image which is ‘traced’ by pressure; used by Dominguez, and Cozens (who called them ‘blots’) as a beginning to his landscapes; Breton also described the process in terms of, ‘How a window may be opened at will on the loveliest landscapes of this and other worlds’.
Black gouache is spread on a sheet of paper, diluted here and there with water, covered with another sheet, pressed together fairly hard, and then removed slowly, by the upper edge. What is then revealed is ‘the old paranoiac wall of da Vinci, but… carried to its own perfection…’ (Breton, cited by Colquhoun), and, ‘you may be certain that you have expressed yourself in the most personal and valuable way.’ (ibid.)
Colqohoun suggests that inks, including coloured rather than black, and/or oil paints or other pigment may be used instead of black gouache; in the case of waterproof inks/paints, instead of diluting with water, one must vary the quantity used in different areas of the paper.
2) STILLOMANCY: a more limited form of the above; it consists in folding a piece of paper over a splash of ink, so producing a trace. The ‘limitation’ is on account of the symmetrical nature of the forms produced (because of the fold); ‘in spite of this, I have known the most remarkable suggestions to result’ (ibid.)
3) FUMAGE: Hold a piece of paper or board almost horizontally just above the flame of a candle or oil lamp, passing it to and fro rapidly and without conscious direction. Spray with fixative the resulting smokey trace (to prevent smudging). Gaze intently at it, to see what themes emerge. ‘The chosen forms are then stressed [ie emphasised, made to stand out, or highlighted] either in ink, water-colour, or oil, and the irrelevant passages painted over with a background or otherwise erased.’ This technique was invented by a Surrealist painter, Wolfgang Paalen.
4) FROTTAGE: aka rubbing – the placing of canvas or paper over an uneven surface e.g. stone, wood, woven fabric etc, and rubbing it over with charcoal, chalk, paint, or carbon-pencil, similar to taking a brass rubbing; ‘the resultant marking may be looked into and interpreted in the usual way’ (ibid.); this technique was used particularly by Ernst.
5) ECREMAGE: aka ‘skimming’; cover the surface of water in a large bowl with oil paint or an ink with an oily base; pass a board or stiff piece of paper just below, lifting it out of the water which drains off it, leaving it marked by the skimmed-off oil; this is a very similar process to that used in the production of ‘marbled’ end-papers; a variation of this method developed by Colqohoun is named PARSEMAGE, or scattering – in which powdered charcoal or the dust of coloured chalk is skimmed on the surface of water, yielding a different type of stain than that of the oil.
6) COLLAGE: the sticking or glueing together of various elements, which have been cut-out (and taken out of their original context), and are then re-combined automatically to form a new synthesis, without any rational intent. See for example works by Ernst, Luca.
7) HYNAGOGIC MOVEMENTS: Close your eyes; allow your hand to draw or paint blindly, using materials previously prepared.
8) ENTOPTIC GRAPHOMANIA: mark with a dot any slight irregularity of colour or change of surface on a black sheet of paper, and then join the dots by lines.
9) SUPERAUTOMATISM: painting or drawing completely at random, ‘letting a line go for a walk’; ‘the deeper layers of the unconscious consist of just such uninterpreted and perhaps uninterpretable images’ (Colquhoun discussing a point originally made by Trost, ibid.).
10) VAPORISATION: in which a pool of ink or diluted paint on a resistant surface is blown in all directions by means of a fixative spray (or similar).
Each technique tends to produce its own characteristic forms, which may accompany or suggest its own particular thematic emphases. For instance, dècalcomania relates itself to landscape, ‘with foliage, feathers, scales and marine life’; fumage to semi-human figures or larval forms; while entoptic graphomania ‘leads one towards the most austere kind of geometric abstraction’.
All processes are highly dependent upon the unconscious state of the operator, so that if a number of experiments are undertaken over the course of a day, similarities of form are likely to emerge; while on another day, a different series of images will be produced; although these latter will share what Colquhoun calls a certain ‘family likeness’ – and it is for this reason that she believes these stains to possess a mantic or divinatory power; cf. various processes of clairvoyance such as tea-leaf reading, crystal-ball, or indeed any of the various forms of scrying. She links all this to the “great work” of alchemy, briefly mentioning Jung’s discussion of the alchemist watching the contents of the alembic, and releasing the contents of his own phantasy world (aka ‘projection’).
Near the end of her essay, Colquhoun makes an intriguing suggestion that there may be a correspondence between the four elements of earth, air, fire, water, and some of the automatisms e.g. fumage being related to elemental Fire, processes involving water to Water, vaporisation to Air and dècalcomania to Earth.
Double Figure, 1941
The Trees, c. 1942