The range of automatic techniques employed by Colquhoun includes the following:
The process of randomly applying paint to paper or canvas, then pressing another sheet of paper or canvas over the first, to develop forms in which images may be found. Although the technique is as old as the hills, and known to children everywhere, the first surrealist applications were published in the periodical Minotaure in 1936. The large majority of Colquhoun’s automatic works employ decalcomania.
There are a number of oil decalcomanias where the ‘peel’ or counterpart still exists. These include An Eclipse (1944), Genius Loci (1946) and Gorgon (1946). It is possible in these works to follow her technique in some detail. The paint has been squeezed onto the surface directly from the tube in blobs, lines and curves. After pressure has been applied, the image has then been developed using some combination of scraping, combing and traditional brushwork in order to model the forms she has decided to accentuate. Although the initial impulse may have been rapid, the stage of projection must have involved considerable contemplation or meditation. The works are certainly not completed in the space of a few minutes.
There are several examples where the counterpart has been reworked into an independent work in its own right. One is A Visitation II (1945). In A Visitation I (1945) the forms hover in a horizon-less sky, whereas in the counterpart the forms (in reverse, of course) have been given a vaguely urban setting of featureless walls. This reduces the scale to a human rather than a cosmic one and diminishes its power accordingly. Alcove II (1948) is virtually the mirror image of Alcove (1946). In Bikini (1966) the billowing pillar of gaseous material is identical (save in reverse) to that in Atomic Psychosis (1952). In Rocky Island (1969) the image of the stone circle mirrors the landward stone circle depicted in La Cathedrale Engloutie (1952). For none of these ‘pairs’ is there any evidence that the artist regarded the two parts as complementary in any way and there is no evidence that the ‘halves’ have been exhibited together.
A method developed by the surrealists in Bucharest, in which a dot is made at the site of each impurity or difference in colour in a blank sheet of paper, and then lines are drawn between the dots. The connections may be by curved lines or (Colquhoun’s preference) straight lines only. This leads, in Colquhoun’s own words, to ‘the most austere kind of geometric abstraction’. The word ‘entoptic’ derives from the Greek word meaning ‘within vision’. It refers to images that arise from within the optical system rather than from the outside world (for example, the common experience of floaters in the eye). Strictly speaking, therefore, the name is a misnomer. Despite her comments about favouring straight lines, only one such example, an untitled pencil drawing published in Athene is currently known. (1) Torn Veil, a graphomania dating from 1947 incorporates shading that softens the austerity and develops the image.
Parsemage, or powdering, was developed by Colquhoun herself to provide another process for discovering images in "accidental" design. Powdered charcoal or chalk is lightly sprinkled over a bowl of water, then paper or canvas is laid briefly on top. Parsemage is a variant of ecremage, or ‘skimming’, initiated by Conroy Maddox, in which an oil based paint or ink was spread on the surface of the water. Sea Mother (c.1950) is a good example of the technique.
In 1937 Wolfgang Paalen invented fumage, a technique where the artist's surface is waved over a smoky flame without conscious direction. Wispy deposits of carbon are left on the paper or canvas which are then developed or interpreted. The alternative spelling, sfumage, appears to have originated with Salvador Dali.
Fumage, created from fire, light and carbon is an elemental technique that relates artistic creation to the creation of all organic matter. Paalen emphasised its magical nature when he wrote of its ability to help him “visualise textures that seemed to escape any brushwork, such as rime, phosphorescence of underbrush, the dances of the will-o’-the-wisp and the web of light in the heart of rock-crystal”. (2) The Three of Wands (1947 and Bride of the Pavement (1947) are paintings by Colquhoun which have passages that use fumage.
Developed by the Romanian surrealist, Dolfi Trost, stillomancy consists of a blot or stain produced by dropping ink or paint on paper or canvas that is then folded down the middle. This will produce a form that is symmetrical about the axis of the fold.
The majority of examples of stillomancy by Colquhoun that can be identified are dated 1971, although the earliest is Gate of Ivory and Gate of Horn (1952). Of those executed in 1971, the majority refer to natural spirits and Pagan deities (Volcano Spirit; Marsh Spirit; Elemental; Altar to Pan; Serapis).
Another method developed by Trost, to describe drawing and painting completely at hazard. He suggested that the deeper layers of the unconscious consist of such uninterpreted and perhaps uninterpretable images.
Colquhoun made extensive use of this technique in her drawings between 1947 and the early 1950s. These drawings clearly originate in repeated rhythmic gestures. With their regular arcs, curves and arabesques, in some
(e.g. Depression (1947); Nest Among Leaves (c.1947); Interior Landscape (1947); Dervish (1952); Leave Uncombed your Darling Hair (1953) the technique has led to a clear image; an outcome rather different to that suggested by Trost.
Frottage means, literally, rubbing. The placing of a canvas or paper over an uneven surface and rubbing over it with paint, chalk or pencil, uses the same principle as taking a brass rubbing. The resultant markings can then be interpreted in the usual way. Colquhoun described how one such work came about:
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, busy as I was, 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. (3)
The existence of a study for this work indicates that the tracing served as a starting point. The colours were worked out with reflection and deliberation later.
Another work, Autumnal Equinox (1949) was inspired by a rubbing made from the wood graining of an old door.
The surrealist collage (as opposed to, for example, the cubist collage) requires the selection of unconnected images, often from photographs or other illustrative material. It was defined by Ernst, in words that deliberately echod those of Lautréamont, as ‘a chance encounter of two distant realities on a level foreign to them both’. (4)
Colquhoun was in no doubt that collage (and the use of found objects) were automatic techniques. ‘Surely’, she wrote, ‘such objects are found through the use of the automatic faculty?’ (5) She saw them as visual equivalents of Lautreamont’s verbal collage that had so inspired the surrealists. She might have added, the juxtaposition of apparently dissimilar objects, which brings out hidden affinities between them, is not far removed from the pursuit of correspondences in occult research. Indeed, the discovery of hidden links is the very stuff of magic. Colquhoun’s collages include World-Moth (1960); Bird of Passage (1963) and Klingsor’s Castle (1981).
1. Colquhoun, I. Children of the Mantic Stain. Athene, May 1952, pp. 29-34.
2 Quoted by Winter, A. Wolfgang Paalen. Artist and Theorist of the Avant-Garde. Praeger, Connecticut, 2003. p. 55.
3. Colquhoun, I. Children of the Mantic Stain, op cit.
4. Ernst, M. Inspiration to Order, in Beyond Painting. Wittenborn Schultz, New York, 1948.
5. Colquhoun, I. Notes on Automatism. Melmoth No. 2 1980. pp. 31-32.
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