Automatism has taken on many forms: the automatic writing and drawing initially (and still to this day) practiced by surrealists can be compared to similar, or perhaps parallel phenomena, such as the non-idiomatic improvisation of free jazz.
Surrealist automatism is different from mediumistic automatism, from which the term was inspired. Ghosts, spirits or the like are not purported to be the source of surrealist automatic messages.
"Pure psychic automatism" was how André Breton defined surrealism, and while the definition has proved capable of significant expansion, automatism remains of prime importance in the movement.
In 1919 Breton and Philippe Soupault wrote the first automatic book, Les Champs Magnétiques, while The Automatic Message (1933) was one of Breton's significant theoretical works about automatism.
The notion of Automatism is also rooted in the artistic movement of the same name founded by Montreal artist Paul-Emile Borduas in 1942; himself influenced by the Dadaist movement as well as André Breton . He, as well as a dozen other artists from Quebec's artistic scene, very much under restrictive and authoritarian rule in that period, signed the Global Refusal manifesto, in which the artists called upon North American society (specifically in the culturally unique environment of Quebec), to take notice and act upon the societal evolution projected by these new cultural paradigms opened by the Automatist movement as well as other influences in the 1940's.
Some Romanian surrealists invented a number of surrealist techniques (such as cubomania, entoptic graphomania, and the movement of liquid down a vertical surface) that purported to take automatism to an absurd point, and the name given, "surautomatism", implies that the methods "go beyond" automatism, but this position is controversial.
Automatic drawing (distinguished from drawn expression of mediums) was developed by the surrealists, as a means of expressing the subconscious. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move 'randomly' across the paper. In applying chance and accident to mark-making, drawing is to a large extent freed of rational control. Hence the drawing produced may be attributed in part to the subconscious and may reveal something of the psyche, which would otherwise be repressed. Examples of automatic drawing were produced by mediums and practitioners of the psychic arts. It was thought by some Spiritualists to be a spirit control that was producing the drawing whilst physically taking control of the medium's body.
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