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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  • Max Ernst, 'Forest and Dove' 1927

    Max Ernst
    Forest and Dove 1927
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1003 x 813 mm frame: 1200 x 1012 x 66 mm
    Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962 ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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  • Joan Miró, 'Painting' 1927

    Joan Mir
    Painting 1927
    Tempera and oil on canvas
    support: 972 x 1302 mm frame: 1080 x 1418 x 68 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971 Succession Miro/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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  • Jackson Pollock, 'Number 23' 1948

    Jackson Pollock
    Number 23 1948
    Enamel on gesso on paper
    support: 575 x 784 mm frame: 651 x 861 x 42 mm
    Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery (purchased out of funds provided by Mr and Mrs H.J. Heinz II and H.J. Heinz Co. Ltd) 1960 ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

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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.