Andre Masson: Automatic Drawing (1920s)
“she speaks to me a language so soft that at first I do not understand . . .”
(Aimé Césaire, Son of Thunder, 1948)
“I have always wondered why automatic writing has not been invoked more in the ever-multiplying number of discussions and positions taken on ‘composition vs. improvisation’.” Adam Linson, sleevenotes to integument, Lawrence Casserley/Adam Linson (psi 09.03, 2009).
“. . . the air pauses I hear the grating of poles on their axles the air drones . . .”
(Aimé Césaire, Permit, 1948)
. . . a series of magnetic fields . . . On the 23rd March 1941, Claude Lévi-Strauss and André Breton boarded the SS Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, a steamer sailing from Marseille to Martinique. Both of them hoped to reach New York. Lévi-Strauss, Jewish, and Breton, banned writer, Marxist and surrealist, chose exile rather than risk persecution and internment under Nazi occupation of France and the collaborationist Vichy government. They met by accident, subsequently passing the time by discussing the theoretical texts both were producing during the voyage. According to biographer Patrick Wilcken, Lévi-Strauss “wrote a detailed commentary on Breton’s doctrine of spontaneous creativity, trying to resolve the contradictions between surrealist ‘automatic’ art (in which the artist simply writes, draws or paints with no pre-planned ideas, guided by chance and random events) on the one hand, and the idea of artistic technique or expertise on the other. How could artistic creativity express itself through what was merely a reflex of the subconscious? He concluded with the notion of ‘irrational awareness’ (‘prise de conscience irrationelle’) – a kind of creative inspiration that the true artist smuggles into a spontaneous work of art. In reply, Breton wrote of the ‘para-erotic’ aesthetic pleasure derived from art, which distinguished it from impulsive doodles, and concluded that Lévi-Strauss’s idea of ‘irrational awareness’ might itself be produced at a subconscious or ‘pre-conscious’ level.” (from Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory, 2010)
On Martinique, Breton came across another recently arrived refugee from France, André Masson, painter-explorer of automatism, chance and altered states. A discovery of the literary journal Tropiques, found while browsing in one of Fort-de-France’s shops, led Breton to a meeting with the poet of Negritude, Aimé Césaire. Solar Throat Slashed (Soleil cou coupé), Césaire’s incandescent collection of surrealist-automatist poems published in 1948 wrenched automatism, along with the streams-of-consciousness of Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner, away from their attachment to European and American psychology (Freud, Pierre Janet, William James) into the colonial realities of the tropics.
While the limits of pure automatism became quickly apparent – Césair later made politically directed revisions and cuts to Solar Throat Slashed, while Masson’s work had shifted away from automatic drawing by the late 1920s – music seemed strangely indifferent to its potentialities. Perhaps this was because of its greater emphasis on group performance (in which automatism becomes a far more complex process); perhaps because the technical demands of musical instruments discouraged abandonment (the paradox identified by Lévi-Strauss). With a few exceptions, it was not until the 1960s that music begin to coax messages from what Breton, after the aural hallucinations that preceded his automatic writing collaboration of 1920 with Philippe Soupault, The Magnetic Fields) described as the mouth of shadows.