London BULLETIN _ april 1939
by WERNER VON ALVENSLEBEN
(Translated by Mrs. Winkworth)
IN an article entitled “The Scientific Aspect of Surrealism” (London Bulletin, No. 7) Dr. G. W. Pailthorpe develops a theory intended to show that both surrealism and psycho-analysis are procedures destined to accomplish the liberation of mankind from all restraints which may hinder freedom of expression. The article was at the same time a comment on a group of pictures which Dr. Pailthorpe was exhibiting in London. Automatism is her scientific-artistic receipt which is to enable mankind to accomplish its freedom.
It is evidently important to enquire further into the exact meaning of this conception. For Dr. Pailthorpe, as opposed to all other Surrealist painters hitherto, seems to have a most exact scientific programme. As the results of psycho-analytical research are used in defence of her theory, it seems best to discuss it in those terms. What, then, we may ask, is meant by automatism ?
The result of the only psychic automatism we know, the dream, is a lie, or, if you like, an allegory, different from the real image of wish-fulfilment; this difference is not the outcome of a wish for better illustration of a reality (rather like the parable); it is due to an inner necessity of concealing of the truth. The more literally we try to interpret a dream in its manifest form, the further we are from its inner truth. With such a beginning we can only show under what wrappings each truth has the power of concealing itself. The scientific value of the manifest dream is smaller (i.e. one can learn less from it of the psychological state of the patient) than that of a story invented by the patient when fully conscious. For in a manifest dream each detail of the latent dream has found its em-bodiment (albeit in a disguised form), while in a conscious production the unconscious breaks through in a series of explosions against the censors.
This is well known; it is indeed so well known that as a consequence the following false conclusion may be drawn, namely, that if the unconscious is even able to break through all impediments in everyday life and in the more conventional type of picture, the unconscious will manifest itself much more clearly, all impediments (such as the compulsion to conventional painting) being renewed. This opinion is based on the suc-cesses of psycho-therapy.
But it is forgotten that the analyst can do nothing with manifest dreams without the help of the patient and a knowledge of the individual case.
A little anecdote will make this clearer. Some time ago, Andre Breton approached Freud about a contribution for a collection of dreams which he had planned. Freud declined, and his letter is published in Cahiers G.L.M., Paris, 1938. It contains the sentence: “A collection of dreams without supplementary associations, without knowledge of the circumstances, says nothing to me and I fail to see how it can say anything to others.” He adds : “Obviously the manifest dream exhibits all the diversity of the products of the intellect.” A study of manifest dreams, in other words, would result in nothing less than an encyclopedia.
It is clear that once the manifest fantasy has been translated, it loses its value. Its interest lies in the way it is produced, not in the production itself. Dr. Pailthorpe might reply that all this has nothing to do with the problem of her pictures, for these are immediate reproductions of the unconscious, rather like a passport photograph of an artist-photographer, or like a direct representation of the working of the heart-muscles.
I do not know whether it is possible for a man to be so detached as to be able to allow this direct reproduction of his innermost impulses. It seems hardly credible. But even if it is possible, there are other difficulties. The first is, how can this contribute to the liberation of mankind? Dr. Pailthorpe says it can, and that both psycho-analysis and surrealism, as she understands it, ostensibly strive towards psychic liberation from internal conflict.
But that is, in the case of psycho-analysis, by no means so. Its aim rather is to make known the nature of the conflict. That does not mean that the dynamic operations of the original conflicts can be annihilated, nor yet that new conflicts can be prevented by it. The
patient will be animated by the urgent powers of the unconscious to the end of his days, as a machine is fed by a distant electric installation. But his life after analysis will be like the working of a machine which can profitably make use of the power it receives. It will not be destroyed by it, and it will not run empty, but will utilize the material brought to it. The powers and impulses of the unconscious require opposition in order to realize themselves positively. A liberation can only really be said to take place when (for instance, by an analytical treatment) the monstrous character of the chimera can be taken from it and it can be adjusted to outward present realities. The tendency of the neurotic is to hold reality at a distance, dreading its contact, and to attain “liberation” by means of a return to the original fixation. There are here only two alternatives, and although with adults, in focussing the reception of new impressions the character of the con-nections with the old ones will always remain traceable, yet the first are still decisive.
My question, then, becomes more clearly definable : from what does Dr. Pailthorpe wish to liberate the unconscious? From the original fixation ? That is the function of all art ; she cannot suppose that she has made a new discovery there. From new impressions then ? So much seems to me to result from her article. She explains that Surrealist art, as regards its subjects, must for the present be infantile. To the childish period, a more mature one will eventually be added, till finally the whole movement will be fulfilled as a fully grown art.
This seems to mean retreat from life, spontaneous infantile regression with the building-up of an adult inner life out of “free fantasy” alone as its aim. But childish fantasy is built up with bricks taken from childish outward life ; the fear of realizing certain childish impulses had enclosed them in the subconscious. I should like to ask what motive could induce an adult whose fears are at an end and who is no longer a neurotic to build onto this fantasy “freed” from contact with the outer world, thus joining an adult fantasy unconnected with current realities onto the childish one, and then “automatically” to give it off (without contact with actual life) rather as one emits excrement.
So far we have been discussing only the scientific side of the question; now the artistic side emerges. Above all, the banal fact has to be borne in mind, that for art there is no ready-made receipt. For every form of art is automatic. It is so insomuch as it contains as an important factor the immediate reaction to an outward occurrence. Every external object calls forth from every individual a whole world of associations. The revolutionary aspect of Surrealism has been hitherto that it has indefinitely extended the choice of external objects, and in its representations gives expression to absolutely every association which announces itself inwardly. That is to say that in so far as the Surrealist artists followed a single principle, they adjusted their will in their pictures in such a way as to call forth in the spectator a feeling of consternation and shock, such as is always released by the free representation of “that which should not be seen.” The aim of the Surrealist artists was openly directed towards the realization of every association which might, in the subconscious, bear a monstrous or chimerical character. This is certainly a revolu-tionary development, but not necessarily a permanent one. We know epochs in the history of art in which similar developments have been sought, and others in which the character of the associations was a more mythical-religious one. Actually every stylization, in whatever direction it may evolve itself, is due to an artistic act, to the setting aside of the obvious and commonplace associations of the object represented in favour of others.
In Dr. Pailthorpe’s art it is the outward cause that is missing. It is replaced by fan-tasies a propos of nothing, which have been rationalized to some extent on analytical principles. In fact, I should therefore like, in this case, to speak at the very least of auto-matism ; for the immediate dynamic, which an outbreak of the subconscious against the actual always has, is lacking. In its place we find a technically correct representation, and not without a certain technical interest (such as peculiarities of colour and form). The objective central point is missing, and is replaced by a literal explanation, and quite rightly too, because it would be impossible otherwise to trace any associations in the picture whatever.
Apart from the explanation, we have merely an unequivocal representation, and that is extremely monotonous. Let us take as an example the picture by R. Mednikoff reproduced in Dr. Pailthorpe’s article (Oil, September 19, 1935). There is no element in it that requires any explanation other than the obvious one. The tree is a tree, the house is a house and nothing else : on the contrary, the representation is so unequivocal that one has no wish to speculate on other meanings. The house is as much or as little a
house as in hundreds of other paintings, as much or as little, if you like, a mother-symbol. The attitude of the spectator before this picture will be determined far more by the question whether it is well or badly painted. The explanation that “I had many ideas in painting it” will not help its quality in the very least. It is more important to cause thoughts and feelings in others by means of a picture. This is always a question of the will, even if only in a negative sense. To take an illustration from another sphere. The erotic significance of a fully clothed human being is often much greater than that of an entirely naked body, the sight of which induces in the beholder a warning against its sexual aspect. It is possible that this may be so much the case that through the sorting-out of all the factors of the unconscious, the reality of the naked body may simply lead to a cold summing up of its qualities and quantities, thus bringing the sexual aspect to a
reductio ad absurdam.
To have no association, however, is of exactly equal value to having any and everyone. The whole question becomes a pure matter of chance: the return to the product of nature can call up a strong physical sensation, and nothing more, or any conceivable association whatever. That is too much or too little. The cry of an animal can, under certain con-ditions, be as moving as the soliloquy of a great actor, the unshaped boulder may seem as full of expression as a piece of sculpture : but that does not mean that the artist can simply substitute one for another. For he must be able to some extent not only to direct but to limit the associations which arise in the minds of his audience. For that he should need no explanations. What associations he allows himself to awaken is a matter of choice, the value of which is judged differently in every age. Pure automatism here leads to full objectivity, literal representation, which is the last aim likely to recommend itself to a contemporary artist. For the objective representation of any outward occurrence the camera is better than the brush; for the objective representation of inner occurrences another sort of camera will perhaps one day be found (on the principle of the photography of smells), and then what purpose will the “liberation” have served ?
WERNER VON ALVENSLEBEN