Psychic Hélène Smith and Surrealist Automatism
On the 10th of June 1929, famous late-19th century French psychic medium and artist Hélène Smith (née Catherine-Elise Müller) died in Geneva. She was considered “the Muse of Automatic Writing” by the Surrealists, who looked up to her as a conduit to surrealist knowledge. Smith outrageously claimed that she was able to communicate, amongst others, with Martians, Victor Hugo and Cagliostro. In 1900, Smith became famous by the publication of Des Indes à la Planete Mars (“From India to the Planet Mars. A Case of Multiple Personality with Imaginary Languages”) written as a case study about her by Théodore Flournoy, Professor of Psychology at the University of Geneva. The book depicts the remarkable multiple existence of the medium, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette, of a Hindu princess from fifteenth-century India, and of a regular visitor to Mars, whose landscapes she painted and whose language she appeared to speak fluently. Through a psychological interpretation of these fantasies, which consisted in the subliminal elaboration of forgotten memories, Théodore Flournoy vastly extended the scope and understanding of the unconscious, and in particular, of its creative and mythopoetic capacities. (Princeton University Press).
The book was very well received, but Müller felt deceived by Flournoy, who had grouped her visions as “cycles” and considered them the result of infantile imaginings. Alongside him, semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure regarded Smith’s Martian language as a merely self-created language, a genuine personal communication system nevertheless with some logic of its own. Three decades later, the Surrealists picked up on the concept under an artistic guise. In 1933, the prefatory essay The Automatic Message (Le Message Automatique) by André Breton published in the Minotaure, No. 3-4, (Paris) theorised the technique of automatism, marking its importance as one of the underlying concepts and aesthetic of surrealism. In general, automatic writing or psychography, or automatic drawing in the case of the surrealists, came from an alleged psychic ability allowing a person to produce written words without consciously writing, by directly tapping into the subconscious, or other spiritual or supernatural source.
“From the beginning of the surrealist movement, Andre Breton pondered the relationship between surrealism and what became known as art brut after the invention of the term by Jean Dubuffet in 1945, rendered into English as outsider art by Roger Cardinal in 1972. Breton did so most pointedly in “The Automatic Message” (1933) where he most clearly distinguishes between surrealist and mediumistic automatism. With his illustrations, however, as Cardinal has pointed out, Breton tells a different story. These were all examples of what would later be called outsider art: drawings by visionaries, the mentally ill, and mediums, in particular a drawing by Mme. Fondrillon already used by Breton in 1925 as the frontispiece to the editorial from La revolution surrealiste in which he proclaimed the existence of surrealist art. Breton implies with this drawing that mediumism and surrealism might actually be very similar.” (Katharine Conley, ‘Surrealism and Outsider Art: From the “Automatic Message” to André Breton’s Collection’, Yale French Studies, No. 109, Surrealism and Its Others, 2006).
There was however a distinctive difference between the automatism read by a psychic medium and the artistic automatist expression attempted by the Surrealists, whose “automatic practice requires both the conscious and unconscious minds to work in concert, in other words, leading Breton, in “The Automatic Message,” to argue that surrealist automatism plays a unifying role: “contrary to what spiritualism aims to do-dissociate the psychological personality from the medium–Surrealism proposes nothing less than to unify that personality. It is obvious that, for us, the question of the exteriority of… one’s ‘voice’ could not be posed”. Whereas mediums “set down letters or lines in strictly mechanical fashion,” surrealists seek a conscious receptivity, a willed passivity. The surrealist interprets such inner voices as manifestations of the unconscious mind, unlike the often less educated medium who believes that these voices come from outside-from other people, beyond the grave, even other planets.” (Katharine Conley quoting Andre Breton). The Surrealists were clearly drawn to mediumistic automatism for its ‘otherness’. As Roger Cardinal found when he coined the term ‘Outsider Art’, the artists admired and tried to emulate the work of artistically untrained, idiosyncratic creators of new languages, by socially or culturally marginal figures, undereducated, and having the ability to produce unconventional, instinctual views of the world, coming from the fringes of dominant culture. The alien language of Mrs Smith may have held this sort of fascination to the Surrealist artists. Feature Image: Hélène Smith, Martian Landscape, 1896.