Friday, December 13, 2013

The Language of the Birds (& the Memory of Sound): Automatism

Wings of Light - oil on canvas - 1984, Roberto Matta

"Fulcanelli's main point, the key to unraveling the larger mystery of alchemy and the cathedrals, lies in an understanding of what he calls the "phonetic law" of the "spoken cabala," or the "Language of the Birds."

"What unsuspected marvels we should find, if we knew how to dissect words, to strip them of their barks and liberate the spirit, the divine light, which is within," Fulcanelli writes. He claims that in our day this is the natural language of the outsiders, the outlaws and heretics at the fringes of society.

It was also the "green language" of the Freemasons ("All the Initiates expressed themselves in cant," Fulcanelli reminds us) who built the art gothique of the cathedrals. Ultimately the "art cot," or the "art of light," is derived from the Language of the Birds, which seems to be a sort of Ur-language taught by both Jesus and the ancients. It is also mentioned in the Sufi text, entitled "The Conference of the Birds," by Attar the Chemist."

- excerpt from Reading the Green Language of Light  by Vincent Bridges

"Whilst some artists emphasised automatism’s role in discovering hidden aspects of the artist’s psyche, others, such as Roberto Matta, valued it as a means for uncovering hidden aspects of objects and for the exploration of what lies beyond the confines of the visible world. Its optical image is just one aspect of the existence of an object. Galaxies, crystals and living matter go through processes of creation, existence and destruction. They exist in time, change with the passage of time and can be observed from multiple perspectives. Conventionally, however, they are only depicted at a fixed point in their history, from a single point in space and, inevitably, with a palette limited to colours which reflect light of a visible wavelength.

To his attempts to use automatism to give form to those things which cannot be seen except as an inner vision, Matta gave the name ‘psychological morphology’, a phrase Colquhoun used to describe her paintings of the 1940s.  For the painters involved in this theorising – primarily Matta, Esteban Frances and Gordon Onslow-Ford – the possibilities were, literally, endless; ‘It is a Hell-Paradise where all is possible’ wrote Onslow-Ford. He continued; ‘The details of the farthest star can be as apparent as those of your hand.  Objects can be extended in time so that the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly can be observed at a glance."

- excerpt from Richard Shillitoe's excellent online article: Occult Surrealist: Ithell Colquhoun and automatism

"We are still living under the rule of logic, that, of course, is what I am driving at. But in our day, logical procedures are only applicable in solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism still in fashion only allows us to consider facts directly related to our own experience. The aims of logic, in contrast, escape us. Pointless to add that our very experience finds itself limited. It paces about in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to free it. It leans, it too, on immediate utility, and is guarded by common sense. Under the flag of civilisation, accompanied by the pretext of progress, we have managed to banish from the spirit everything that might rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, fancy, forbidding any kind of research into the truth which does not conform to accepted practice. It was by pure chance, it seems, that a part of our mental world, and to my mind the most important, with which we pretended to be no longer concerned, was recently brought back to light."


M'onde - oil on canvas - 1989, Roberto Matta

(Continuing where I left off), have you ever come across a particular scene (via a movie or some other form of entertainment)... which goes something like this: a man is walking down a city street shouting oaths to an invisible entity, and the passersby think he's mad... deranged,* but, in reality, the invisible entity actually exists - the man really is communicating with someone or something - and the passersby are merely missing the overall picture (?). If it isn't already, it ought to be the standard metaphor for all creatures "paranormal". Ghosts, aliens, fairies, Yeti, whatever. Some of us see them, some of us don't. The ones who do are immediately labeled delusional... while the ones who don't - for the most part - file their nails and sit complacently on their sofas, in the safety of a bedroom or living room or media room, watching bogus "reality" shows on whatever pixelated screens they possess. But, meanwhile, there's an elephant in that room. Or, maybe a bird. A wild bird which has flown into the room and has begun plummeting against the walls in panic and desperation. And, because no one knows quite what to do - and the program is over anyway - they wander into another room and close the door.

End of metaphor.

Artists, on the other hand, stay in that room... with the elephant... with the bird... with no pixelated screens to distract them. That is, unless they're a certain breed of digital artist, but, at this point, the screen is blank, apart from maybe a shadow of a large ear, or dim trails from a flapping wing, or the bright glints of light on a splintered beak. Images from the unconscious are hard to pin down. They're anomalies in a different language... poetry in unspoken words. You might say, (re: quote above) an unspoken cabala, the true language of the birds... and, invisible birds, at that.

Because, there is sound in our metaphorical room. Not music, actually... and nothing that is heard with the normal senses. It is more like a memory of sound, or, a somewhat muffled tune phenomenally akin to those (pop songs, jingles, etc.) which sometimes unwittingly "go through our heads." And, when you come right down to it, the memory of music - an abstraction of an abstraction - is a bit paranormal in itself. It's nothing. It's invisible. It has no dimensions. It can't be proven. But, it's experienced like thought is experienced, and the way in which emotion is felt. On some "level" of reality, it has presence; and it leaves a footprint.

INDICATEUR DE L'ESPACE - oil on canvas - 1934 - Victor Brauner

Sometimes this "footprint" becomes tangible. For instance, a composer can "hear" an entire symphony in his or her own head before they ever jot a note down on a lined sheet of paper. Today, "no-thing" - the memory of sound - tomorrow, a recorded commodity on I-Tunes.

For many visual artists, (myself included), the process of translating this language, this invisible poetry, this ability to (figuratively) "draw down the moon" is the practice of automatism.  Andre Breton defined Surrealism as " Pure psychic automatism by means of which one intends to express, either verbally, or in writing, or in any other manner, the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, free of any aesthetic or moral concern."

A modern Surrealist would (or should), perhaps, exchange the word "thought" for "consciousness," as conscious thought is at direct odds with the concept of automatism. But, then, Breton was attempting to divorce Surrealistic automatism from it's original source: Spiritualism. Furthermore, his manifesto was written in 1924, and was influenced by the writings of Freud. One can only imagine how the manifesto would read, had it manifested at a later date, under the guiding influence of Carl Jung. On the other hand, Breton also refers to automatism as: "supernaturalistic reverie," but his reference is unclear... as is much of the manifesto.

La coulée automatique - oil o canvas - 1976, Roberto Matta

But, what is automatism? It is the ability to draw images, or write words, with no preconceived notion as to what you are about to represent. It is art executed with the middle eye... that nexus, that strange organizing center of the psyche from which dreams, visions, premonitions, and creative inspiration emerge. No, neurologists haven't found it; I suspect it isn't located in any known region of the brain. When I'm in the trance-lke state from which images - like those found here, herehere, and here - are found,  the "control center" is not in my head... it literally feels as if it's emanating from my core... and this core is located in the center of my body, between my heart and navel.

At the same time, this core is a transpersonal place. A portal to Consciousness at Large, where everything exists in some form, waiting patiently in the aether for some traveller - Magus or Fool - to accidentally stumble across it and endow it with shape, form and dimension.

Oddly enough, in his manifesto, Breton mentions a phrase that came to him in a pre-dream state, one that, apparently, deeply impressed him: ‘There is a man sliced in two by the window’. And, really, the significance of that statement should've been immediately apparent to him, for the "window" is the portal I've just mentioned; and it divides our consciousness in such a way, that we are somewhat divorced from ourselves, "sliced in two" by the dual worlds - conscious and unconscious - we are forced to, and, yet, are unable to wholly reconcile.

Photo of Roberto Matta working "automatically". Photo found here, along with others,
including one of Matta and Breton

Automatic images then, are found. They are discovered. Automatic images are those which surprise the artist as much as anyone else. In the words of the man whom I feel is the preeminent painter of the 20th Century - and an adherent of automatism - Roberto Matta once said: "I am interested only in the unknown and I work for my own astonishment."

Unfortunately, this post has already grown overly long, and I've barely touched the surface of my subject "the language of the birds", so guess what? I'm afraid my original post is now transforming into two - and most of the images originally posted will be moving to a second installment. Don't shoot the messenger! (Blame it on Matta - he "insisted" upon entering the fray...) (as he well should have!)  ;-) **

Composition - pastel on paper - 1943 - Max Ernst

* The adjective "deranged" is taken from the Old French word "desrengier", which literally means to "move from orderly rows."

Note: An Interesting Matta page can be found here. Apparently, one of the cuts off Brian Eno's 1983 album "Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks" was entitled "Matta".

**  Later note: For whatever reason, the second planned post on automatism never appeared. Three years later, It became absorbed into a different series: The Language of the Birds & The Alchemy of Love. Here's the menu for that series.


  1. Intriguing as hell. The post AND the images.

  2. Thanks, Bob! The subject expands and there's more to come.
    Re: Matta - an amazing artist... amazing... I'm about to add a photo of Matta and more links.