Is art magic?

The more I research about magic, especially divination, scrying, reading symbols, I am seeing similarities to the artistic process – an image or certain aesthetic quality is created by the artist, who acts  as a facilitator or “medium” to a creative force which flows from the unconscious. The marks we make, or forms we create can be interpreted by others in their own ways, depending on what their subconscious reads into them.  Not all art, however, will necessarily give us information about our future, but some may give us an insight into the life, dreams or personality of the artist. Also, it could be argued, that aesthetically beautiful art is the product of a creative ritual, using a combination of techniques/movements and materials/ingredients to create something amazing or wondrous.

I recently came across the work of Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) in an exhibition catalogue of Dark Monarch exhibition at Tate St. Ives (2010) which I purchased a few weeks ago on Amazon. Colquhoun’s interdisciplinary practice could truly be described as “magical”;   although she did not compartmentalize; she saw magic, writing, poetry and art as being a holistic experience, all of which she rolled into one. She was an artist who was both inspired by and personally acquainted with the Surrealists, such as Andre Breton, Roberto Matta and Gordon Onslow Ford. These artists were conducting experiments in automatism– generating random images from the unconscious, which could then be further developed or interpreted.  Automatism is akin to the free association method used by Sigmund Freud to explore the unconscious mind of his patients. Breton launched the surrealist movement in 1924 with his Manifesto of Surrealism, which defined Surrealism as:

“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner, the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”

Initially Breton used a form of automatic writing to write down whatever came into his head as rapidly as possible. Other forms of automatism such as collage and painting were used; Max Ernst cut up  images from books, photos and magazines to create strange visual images, and Joan Miro and Masson employed various methods of automatism in their paintings.

Colquhoun had used Stillomancy – or as some of may know it, the Rohrshach technique, as a basis to create shapes which the viewer may interpret as they wish, (see Horus, below).  Enjoying the more spontaneous, random processes and chance effects, she devised some of her own methods of automatism, related to the four elements of alchemy; fire, earth, air and water.


Horus Ink and wash circa. 1957

Inspired by the English surrealist Conroy Maddox’s ecremage (skimming) technique, Colquhoun “invented” Parsemage (powdering), where powdered charcoal is floated onto water and then captured on paper- leaving traces of charcoal which created random patterns.


It has been suggested that this process may have been inspired by Lecanomancy -an ancient divination method of Babylonian priests, who floated oil and sometimes other foodstuffs on water in attempts to see into the future.

These are two techniques that I want to try next, to determine if I can create any images or patterns which may by interpreted in a divinatory context.

‘Oil on a wet road’ By Ithell Colquhoun ,1963 


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