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Encounter With A Photograph: André Breton's

Automatic Writing
An article by Shalom Shpilman, from the exhibition catalogue: “The Naked Eye- Surrealist
Photography in the First Half of the 20th Century”, 2013.

“What is admirable about the fantastic is that there is no longer anything fantastic: there is
only the real”.
— André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism,” 1924.1
A writer, a poet, and an artist, André Breton (1896-1966), the leader of the Surrealist
movement, dreamed of a revolution – a total revolution beyond art. He was not interested in
seeking a new form of representation, since his goal was total transformation of human and
social existence. Surrealism, he believed, would not only encompass art and literature, but
also play a part in “solving all the principal problems of life,”2 would influence every aspect
of existence, and inspire social and psychological change. It would enable even those who are
not artists to set their imagination free and experience life in its full intricacy, to expand their
spiritual worlds, and break off the shackles of logic and utility.
Breton studied medicine and psychiatry. During World War I he worked as a junior doctor in
the neurological department of a hospital in Nantes. He showed special interest in dreams
and the thought processes of the mentally ill, which he meticulously documented. In 1919 he
began working with Philippe Soupault on the series of texts entitled Les Champs
magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields),3 which are considered the first known application of the
technique of free association or automatic writing. It is not accidental that the first section in
the anthology is entitled “La Glace sans tain” (The Unsilvered Mirror), and explores the
possibility of looking into, rather than at, the reflective surface of a mirror, namely – looking
into the depths of the unconscious.
In 1924, in the first Manifesto of Surrealism, Breton recalled: “Completely occupied as I still
was with Freud at that time, and familiar as I was with his methods of examination which I
had had some slight occasion to use on some patients during the war, I resolved to obtain
from myself what we were trying to obtain from them, namely, a monologue spoken as
rapidly as possible without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties, a monologue
consequently unencumbered by the slightest inhibition.”4
Automatic writing enables creativity to draw on the deepest strata of the unconscious, the
layers of dreams and delusions, while avoiding rational thought as much as possible.
Automatism suspends reason, good taste, and will, excluding them from the creative process
so as to arrive at an image which represents an inner vision. Automatism is thus a
fundamental element of Surrealism, at the expense of fixed formal definitions or an aesthetic
program.5
According to Breton, “Surrealism, n. [is] 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.”6 To wit, drawing on the unconscious
by means of automatism enables the artist to liberate himself – even against his will – from
the fetters of the mind, to abandon any obstructing cultural preconceptions, any artistic plan
or moral censorship, and operate in an immediate, direct manner. This opening of the doors
of perception will reveal rooms filled with passion, disconcerting images, surprising
intersections of ideas and concepts, and couplings of dream and reality.
Furthermore, automatism links Surrealism with Dada, which began in 1916 in the neutral
Zurich to which artists flocked to escape the horrors of World War I. Dada too rejected the
reign of reason and causality, and turned to contingency and automatism – but less for
reasons of liberating consciousness, and more for social reasons, arguing that rationalism
turned out to be a false vehicle that spawned social and political monstrosities. Unlike Dada,
which negated everything and opened the door to the absurd, Surrealism adhered to a
blending of logic with pure, free, unbounded thought, as manifested in dream, madness, or
free association.

Breton’s self-portrait Automatic Writing (1938)[fig. 1] was created in the technique of


photomontage – assembling several developed and printed photographs, cut and attached to
a single paper surface. The artist selects continuous images which he cuts up into units – a
syntactical act resulting in units of meaning that make up a sentence. This “spacing,” to use
Rosalind Krauss’s terms.7 destroys the continuity of the photographs and their simultaneous
presence, while the introduction of space-time gaps underscores the temporal dimension. For
these reasons photomontage was widespread among the Dadaists, who endeavored to stress
gaps and rifts while accentuating the seams and exposing the artistic scheme. When they
attached photographs to one another, the Dada artists undermined the direct indexical
relation between photography and reality in favor of a built-in mediation of the visible, a
move which confronts reality with interpretation.
Unlike their Dadaist predecessors, the few Surrealist photomontages created a continuous,
homogeneous-looking image while virtually eliminating the seams to elude the senses and
sweep the viewer in. The “indexical” illusion they created transforms reality itself, as it were,
into a sign, arguing that the real and the fictive are both integral parts of the same reality,
rather than hermeneutic constructions.
The photomontage in question features a juxtaposition of two photographs; one serves as
backdrop for the other. The photograph with the light background, in brown coloration,
presents a woman (maybe a maid, or an actress, or Breton’s lover) imprisoned behind bars,
looking toward Breton with an amused, possibly seductive gaze. The photograph in the
foreground presents Breton himself in a three-piece suit, directing an anxious, perhaps even
agitated gaze at us. In one hand he handles a microscope, while the other hand rests on a
table whose lamp illuminates the instrument. Two black horses appear to gallop downward
from the microscope, and at their feet, in the bottom margins of the table, is a nib, possibly
alluding to the automatic writing in the title, whose results may have been put in writing in
the two books on the right.

Why did Breton choose to discuss automatic writing by means of a photomontage centered
on an optical instrument? Breton likens the microscope to the camera, which is, in itself, a
mechanical substitute for the human eye or a prosthetic eye. An extended, stratified
metaphor is thus created, a type of small-scale allegory for psychic automatism, which
registers impressions just like “that blind instrument”8 – the camera. Automatic writing
presupposes a certain degree of mechanicalness which corresponds with the mechanical
quality of vision, regarded by Breton and the Surrealists as a sense based entirely on
immediacy; sight as a primordial state of reception which precedes signification using the
tools of reason. Unlike the immediacy of vision, the images which we encounter in our world
are met by second-order vision, because we are faced with mediated objects or
representations, hence the allegory before us highlights the gap between “natural” sensory
perception and representation.
Already in 1920 Breton declared that “automatic writing, which appeared at the end of the
19th century, is a true photography of thought.”9 Like automatic writing, photography served
him not only in turning to the unconscious, but also in striving for a representation which
would be, as Rosalind Krauss maintained, the least mediated and the closest possible to an
imprint off the real.10
The photograph is indeed defined as a representation, but the presentation of a strange
photograph preserves some privileged relation to reality in it. The experience of reality as
representation constitutes some “marvelous” dimension or “convulsive beauty” – two key
concepts of surrealism. Even before Breton, Baudelaire wrote that “the beautiful is always
bizarre,” and Louis Aragon maintained that the marvelous is “contradiction that reveals itself
within the real.”11 Like them, Breton was inspired by pre-Surrealist French poet Isidore
Ducasse better known as Lautréamont (1846-1870), who described the beautiful as “the
fortuitous encounter upon a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella!”12
The marvelous results from an encounter between images, between objects, between people,
which spawns something new and unexpected. The least proximal the elements are, the
stronger the resulting illumination, a “profane illumination [Erleuchtung], “to use Walter
Benjamin’s terms.13 The radical transition from a unified image to a composition of several
images, shifts the energy and the field of meaning to realms in which the familiar is
estranged, and vice versa. The tension embedded in this movement between the familiar and
the strange inspires confusion and alienation, threatening the viewer’s perception of reality.
In the work here, Breton constructs a space of visibility which holds the impossible; daily
routine is deconstructed and interrupted by the rift introduced into it and its different
framing. Common sense cannot tackle the defamiliarized situation presented here, which is
unrealistic just as it is multi-layered, hidden and revealed by the unique power of the gaze,
much like the quotidian in which the familiar and the strange always coexist. Breton teaches
the gaze to wander and penetrate inward, to open up to its own possibilities, and possibly
even deduct from that how to look outside the frame (box) in our ordinary lives as well, to
embark from the ostensible transparency of routine.
As a student of Freud, he realizes the existence of the unheimlich (uncanny, unhomely,
foreign) within the Heimlich (homely, familiar), for it is not its operation that created the
estrangement, but the context and circumstances in the world, which is our home, and at the
same time – a resting place for anxiety. When anxiety is awakened, the world seems to
disappear. The unheimlich, according to Freud, emerges when the line between illusion and
reality blurs, and that which was repressed and was supposed to remain hidden, comes to
light14 – when the freezing in the photograph, as opposed to the flux in the narrative and in
the everyday, confronts us with this confusion between the familiar and the strange which
live side by side.
Let us return to the encounter with the work and its symbols: the “imprisoned” woman likely
attests to the sexual frustrations and unrealized desires of the man whose portrait we
see15 She appears like the perfect combination between fantasy and reality, for Breton
regarded the woman as the sum total of all passions and dreams, which was never realized in
the past and would never materialize again in the future. His own figure is thus presented in
bourgeois attire, whereas the woman – at whom he does not dare look directly – gleams in
the back with a seductive-sexual gaze, as if asking him to succumb to his impulses.
At the same time, the fact that Breton’s figure is placed in the work’s realm of visibility
indicates his being trapped in the pillory of his passions, with the galloping black horses
before him and the temptress behind him. The table lamp, which assists vision, and his
clinging to the microscope’s wheel, indeed indicate his attempt to focus the display (and by
analogy – his aspiration to control the apparatuses of consciousness), but his gaze, which is
turned forward to the viewer, is revealed to be frightened, even somewhat threatened by the
sight of the uncanny suddenly revealed to his gaze within the familiar. The different items in
the picture are located in the space illogically, and such are also the size relations between
them (a giant microscope versus small horses), only reinforcing the estrangement of the
visible, distorting the viewer’s orientation in the space; the relinquishment of the “right”
proportions likewise enhances – as noted by Benjamin – the profane illumination created by
the photograph.

The galloping horses allude to the horses of Plato and Freud. In the dialoguePhaedrus which
addresses erotic versus chaste love, Plato likens the ongoing internal conflict between the
horses and the driver of a chariot drawn by a two-horse team: one is white and noble,
beautiful and obedient; the other is black, dark, ugly, and unruly.16 Freud used the horse
metaphor to describe the intricate relation between the ego, the superego, and the id.17
In any event, both analogies deal with the perpetual conflict between the desires of the soul,
the bestial instinctive impulses embodied by the black horse (the id) and the white horse
which stands for the conscience (the super-ego), while the ego is the charioteer navigating
between the two worlds, striving to control the movement and monitor the energy produced
by the horses. In Breton’s case, however, the white horse and the charioteer are missing. The
two black horses galloping downward from the microscope (the mechanical, the rational),
possibly attest to Breton’s call to break the fetters of reason and liberate the hidden worlds
from the depths of the unconscious.

Breton’s photomontage thus masterfully illustrates the gist of Surrealism. The images
themselves were extracted from reality and are presented with considerable realism, but
their fusion underscores dynamic relations between illusion and reality, infusing the picture
with a measure of strangeness, which represents the other gaze, inviting dream-
interpretation.

1. André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: The University
of Michigan Press, 1972), p. 15. [↩]
2. Ibid., p. 26. [↩]
3. Philippe Soupault and André Breton, Les champs magnétiques [1920] (Paris: Galimard, 1971). [↩]
4. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, pp. 22-23. [↩]
5. See David Bate, Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism, and Social Dissent (London & New York:
I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 54. [↩]
6. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, p. 26. [↩]
7. Rosalind E. Krauss, “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism,” p. 240 in this catalogue. [↩]
8. This is how Breton called the camera. See Krauss, ibid., p. 12. [↩]
9. In a text introducing Max Ernst’s photomontages, reprinted in: Max Ernst, Beyond Painting and Other Writings
by the Artist and His Friends (New York: Wittenborn Schultz, 1948), p. 177. [↩]
10. Krauss, “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism,” p. 243 in this catalogue. [↩]
11. Louis Aragon, “Idées,” La Révolution surréaliste, I (April 1925), p. 30. [↩]
12. Comte de Lautréamont, Maldoror: (Les chants de Maldoror), trans. Guy Wernham (New York: New Directions,
1966), p. 263. [↩]
13. See: Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution, in the
Series Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism (Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 1995). [↩]
14. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” [Das Unheimlich], trans. James Strachey, The Standard Edition of the
Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 17 (London: Hogarth Press, 2003), pp. 217-252. [↩]
15. See: Briony Fer, “Surrealism, Myth and Psychoanalysis,” Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the
Wars (New Haven & London: Yale UP, 1993), p. 179. [↩]
16. See: Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Christopher Rowe (London: Penguin, 2005). [↩]
17. See: Sigmund Freud, “Dissection of the Personality,” The Essentials of Psychoanalysis (London: Vintage,
1986), p. 502. [↩]