In art, automatism usually refers to the accessing of material from the subconscious or unconscious mind as part of the creative process – as seen in the art of the surrealist movement

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Automatism is the same as free association, the method used by the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud to explore the unconscious mind of his patients. Freud’s ideas strongly influenced French poet André Breton who launched the surrealist movement in 1924 with the publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism. In the manifesto, Breton actually defined surrealism as ‘Pure psychic automatism the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns’. The earliest examples of automatism are the automatic writings of Breton and others, produced by simply writing down as rapidly as possible whatever springs to mind.

Surrealist collage, invented by Max Ernst, was the first form of visual automatism, in which he put together images clipped from magazines, product catalogues, book illustrations, advertisements and other sources to create a strange new reality. In painting, various forms of automatism were then developed by artists such as Joan Miro, Andre Masson as well as Ernst.

Later it led to the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and others and was an important element in the European movements of art informel and arte nucleare.