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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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The chance images discussed so far all have one
feature in common—the artist finds them, or pretends
to find them, among the random shapes of the outside
world. He does not create them but merely discovers
them and “makes the resemblance complete” while
leaving the identity of the matrix (stone, foliage, pil-
lows, clouds, etc.) untouched. This limitation may help
to explain why Leonardo's advice to painters, even
though enshrined in the text of his Treatise on Painting,
had little practical effect until the dawn of the modern
era. At that time it was suddenly revived, with appro-
priate modifications, by the British landscape painter
and drawing teacher Alexander Cozens, who in
1785-86 published an illustrated treatise entitled A
New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing
Original Compositions of Landscape.
It describes “a
mechanical method... to draw forth the ideas” of
artists, which consists of making casual and largely
accidental ink blots on paper with a brush, to serve
as a store of compositional suggestions (Figure 17).
Cozens recommends that these blots be made quickly
and in quantity, and that the paper be first crumpled
up in the hand and then stretched out again. The next
step is to select a particularly suggestive sheet of blots,
place a piece of transparent paper over it and make
a selective tracing; the author cautions us to “preserve
the spirit of the blot” by not adding anything that is
not suggested by it. The drawing is then finished by
adding ink washes.

Cozens cites Leonardo's words about the images to
be seen on dirty walls, etc., but adds proudly that he
thinks his procedure an improvement, since it permits
the artist to produce his chance images at will, without
having to seek them out in the world of nature. Oddly
enough, he fails to quote the Leonardo passage dealing


with “Botticelli's stain,” which anticipates his own
procedure so closely that one wonders if he was really
ignorant of it. The ink blots of Cozens' Method, how-
ever, are not meant to be entirely accidental; he defines
them as “a production of chance, with a small degree
of design,” since the artist is expected to think of a
landscape subject in general terms while producing
them. His own sample of such a “blotscape” is clearly
a work of art, displaying a highly individual graphic
rhythm. Its purpose, he makes clear, is to free the artist
from involuntary servitude to conventional schemes of
landscape composition by making him relinquish de-
liberate control of his movements as much as possible
in the beginning; the selective tracing of the blots is
intended to redress the balance.

To his contemporaries, on the other hand, Cozens'
blots seemed sheer chaos, and an occasion for endless
ridicule. Neo-classic taste was so opposed to the ideas
implicit in the Method that it rejected even the hal-
lowed story of Protogenes. In a critique of the pictures
shown at the Paris Salon of 1783 (Le Triumvirat des
arts, ou dialogue entre un peintre, un musicien et un
published anonymously as a pamphlet) the poet
ridicules one painting by pronouncing it a masterpiece
à la manière de Protogène. Henry Fuseli notes that
“many beauties in art come by accident that are pre-
served by choice,” but is quick to add that these have
nothing in common with the sponge of Protogenes or
“the modern experiments of extracting compositions
from an ink-splashed wall,” an obvious reference to
Cozens (Aphorism 153). Yet Cozens' very notoriety kept
his Method from being forgotten. Its liberating effect
on Constable and Turner, the great Romantic landscape
painters of the early nineteenth century, must have
been profound.

That Cozens anticipated a general trend toward free,
spontaneous brushwork transcribing the artist's crea-
tive impulse more directly than before, is amusingly
attested by a French cartoon of 1844 (Figure 18) which
shows the Romantic painters, with Delacroix in the
foreground, as simian virtuosos who do not even bother
to look at their canvases while they paint. The Method
also seems to be the ancestor of the Rorschach ink-blot
test. A parlor game based on it enjoyed a certain vogue
in England and may have helped to popularize it on
the Continent, especially among amateurs. Elaborated
blots are to be found in the drawings of Victor Hugo,
and in the 1850's the German physician and poet
Justinus Kerner produced Klecksographien, ink blots
on folded paper which he modified slightly to empha-
size the chance images he had found in them (Figure
19). He wrote little descriptive poems based on these
images and collected this material in his Hadesbuch,
which remained unpublished until 1890. The belated


rediscovery of Kerner's Klecksographien makes it likely
that they were known to Hermann Rorschach, who
used the same folded-paper technique for his tests but
substituted oral for graphic interpretation of images.

Meanwhile, Alberti's hypothesis about the origin of
sculpture was also being put to the test. In the 1840's
Boucher de Perthes, one of the pioneer students of
Paleolithic artifacts, collected large numbers of oddly
shaped flint nodules which he claimed had been treas-
ured by the men of the Old Stone Age because of their
accidental resemblance to animal forms. As evidence
he adduced what he regarded as efforts by these pri-
meval sculptors to modify the shape of these “figure
stones” so as to make the likeness more palpable. His
discovery caught the imagination of other students of
“antediluvian antiquity,” and figure stones soon turned
up in England as well (Figure 20), while the skeptics
denounced Boucher de Perthes and his followers as
self-deluded or fraudulent. The skeptics eventually won
out, but the issue may never be fully resolved; after
all, the men of the Old Stone Age might have prized
these nodules for their image-bearing quality even if
there is no proof that they modified their shapes. Nor
was the controversy useless, for it probably alerted
students of the Paleolithic to the existence of modified
chance images in the cave art of Spain and the Dor-
dogne, which was discovered a few decades later.

The aesthetic attitude of the Romantics not only
favored impulsiveness at the expense of rational con-
trol; it also undermined the classic view that “painting
is mute poetry” by enthroning music as the highest
of the arts. To those who espoused this belief, the
subject of a picture was little more than a peg on which
to hang attractive combinations of form and color.
Their most articulate spokesman, James Whistler,
began in the early 1860's to call his works “sympho-
nies,” “harmonies,” “nocturnes,” or “arrangements,” in
order to stress his convinction that descriptive values
in painting are as secondary as they are in music; the
subject proper was mentioned only as a subtitle, for
the benefit of the ignorant public.

Whistler's attitude toward chance effects, far more
radical than Cozens', became a matter of public record
during his famous libel suit against John Ruskin, who
had charged him with “flinging a pot of paint in the
public's face.” In painting a Nocturne, Whistler stated,
“I have... meant to indicate an artistic interest alone
..., divesting the picture from any outside sort of
interest which might have been otherwise attached to
it. It is an arrangement of line, form and colour first,
and I make use of any incident of it which shall bring
about a symmetrical result.” By “incident,” he clearly
meant accidental, unforeseen effects, and “symmet-
rical” to him was a synonym for “harmonious.” Some
of Whistler's works are indeed so divested of “outside
interest” that without the aid of the subtitle we would
be hard put to recognize the subject. How much acci-
dent went into the painting of them is impossible to
say, for we are approaching the point where chance
and intention become inseparable.

Unlike Cozens, who still wanted his blots to yield
recognizable images, Whistler solicits chance effects


for the sake of “symmetry”; representation, taken for
granted as the aim of art from the beginning of time,
is about to give way to a new primary reality, that
of the brush stroke itself, and when this happens we
lose the frame of reference that enables us to differen-
tiate between accident and purpose. The nonfigurative
art of the twentieth century is strikingly forecast in
Whistler's thinking (and to a lesser extent his practice).

The retreat from likeness that began with Impres-
sionism would seem to leave no room for the concept
of images made by chance. Not surprisingly, the subject
is disregarded—as extra-aesthetic, we may assume—in
theories keyed to Cubism and abstract art. Still, an
awareness of it persisted, as evidenced by the following
story, which Picasso told to Françoise Gillot. During
the most austere phase of “Analytical Cubism,” when
he and Braque were working in closely related styles,
Picasso one day went to look at his friend's latest work.
Suddenly, he became aware that there was a squirrel
in the picture, and pointed it out to Braque, who was
rather abashed at this discovery. The next day Braque
showed him the picture again, after reworking it to
get rid of the squirrel, but Picasso insisted he still saw
it, and it took yet another reworking to banish the
animal for good. Whatever its literal truth, this anec-
dote suggests that the artist's imagination remains ba-
sically iconic, and hence ready to find images where
none were intended, even under the discipline of an
abstract style. Picasso's own later work, from the 1930's
on, abounds in chance images of every sort. The most
striking cases occur among his sculpture, such as a
bull's head composed of the seat and handlebars of a
bicycle, or a monkey's face made of a toy automobile(Figure 21).
Making the resemblance explicit here
involves, in the first instance, no more than putting
the bicycle parts together in a novel way; in the second,
the artist forces us to share his interpretation of the
toy automobile by constructing the rest of the animal
around it. Perhaps it was visual adventures of this kind
that made him recall the story of Braque's squirrel some
thirty years after the event.

During the interval, the artistic climate of the West-
ern world had been thoroughly transformed by Dada
and Surrealism, which acclaimed chance as the basis
of aesthetic experience. As early as 1916-17, Hans Arp
was producing compositions of torn bits of paper which
he claimed were “arranged according to the laws of
chance”; later, he wrote eloquently in praise of “the
Muse of Chance.” Marcel Duchamp, the most influen-
tial member of the movement, was an equally persua-
sive advocate and practitioner of chance effects. What
the Dadaists sought to elicit was not chance images
so much as “chance meetings”—unexpected juxtaposi-
tions of objects which by their very incongruity would
have a liberating effect on the imagination. The crea-
tive act to them was a spontaneous gesture devoid of
all conscious discipline. Surrealism supported this out-
look with an elaborate theoretical framework invoking
the authority of Sigmund Freud for its view of the
unconscious. It also invented a number of new pictorial
techniques, or variations of older ones such as ink blots,
for soliciting chance images, its orientation being una-
bashedly iconic. Nor was this reversal of the retreat
from likeness confined to the Surrealists; the same trend
can be found among artists independent of or only
loosely linked with the movement. The result has been
a renewed awareness of the link between chance and
inspiration. The sponge-throwing Protogenes, were his
story better known today, would be the ideal hero of
many mid-twentieth-century artists.