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"Chance art, as expressive of modernity, is therefore uniquely and necessarily modern,’ wrote Hans Arp, but what Marcel Duchamp called “canned chance” has actually had a long history. Leon Battista Alberti's "De pictura" (On Paintng, 1435) contained the first scientific study of perspective, but in his "De statua" (On Sculpture) he speculated that artistic imitation emerged when people realized that a gnarled tree trunk or a piece of clay "needed only a slight change" to look like something else. Renaissance artists often played with these shape-changing ideas. Andrea Mantegna hid zephyrs in billowing clouds, Giovammi Bellini put human faces in his rocks, and Albrecht Dürer camouflaged physiognomic types in the folds of his drapery. Leonardo da Vinci, who was dismissive of Sandro Botticelli's landscapes, claimed that Botticelli had claimed that "just by throwing a sponge soaked with various colors against a wall to make a stain, one can find a beautiful landscape" and continued, "If it is true that in this stain various inventions can be discerned, or rather what one wants to find in it, such as battles, reefs, seas, clouds, forests and other similar things, then surely, this is like the ringing of bells in which one can understand whatever one wants to. But, even though these smears of color provide you with inventions, they also show you that they do not come to represent anything in particular." Nonetheless, elsewhere Leonardo extolled the same practice: "Do not despise my opinion, when I remind you that it should not hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or the ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or like places, in which, if you consider them well, you may find really marvelous ideas. The mind of the painter is stimulated to new discoveries, the composition of battles of animals and men, various compositions of landscapes and monstrous things, such as devils and similar things, which may bring you honor, because by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions.”
But as with many of Leonardo's notions, it took centuries for them to be usefully noticed or applied, In this case, approriately, by accident. Alexander Cozens was an 18th-century English watercolorist who served as drawing-master at Eton College. While using a quick sketch to illustrate some point to a student, he noticed that his drawing had been affected by marks on the soiled page. "The stains, though extremely faint, appeared upon revisal to have influenced me, insensibly, in expressing the general appearance of landscape." Then, using a wet brush dipped in stronger ink, he deliberately made some marks on another piece of paper and instructed the student to turn the blots into a landscape, freeing the boy’s power of composition. This led him to develop a new pedagogic technique; according to another pupil, Henry Angelo, "Cozens dashed out upon several pieces of paper a series of accidental smudges and blots in black, brown, and grey, which being floated on, he impressed again upon other paper, and by the exercise of his fertile imagination, and a certain degree of ingenious coaxing, converted into romantic rocks, woods, towers, steeples, cottages, rivers, fields, and waterfalls. Blue and grey blots formed the mountains, clouds, and skies'. An improvement on this plan was to splash the bottoms of earthenware plates with these blots, and to stamp impressions therefrom on sheets of damped paper." Another student rememberd that he sometimes splashed plates with blots of "all the colours of the rainbow" and pressed crumpled sheets of paper into them, which he worked up with swift strokes. In 1785 he published "A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape," in which he credited Leonardo's remarks and defined blots as "a production of chance with a small degree of design." Most of his contemporaries recoiled at this innovation (Edward Dayes denigraded him as ‘Blotmaster-General to the town’), but John Constable copied Cozens’s clouds to prepare for his own free studies of the sky and remarked that "Cozens was all poetry." J. M. W. Turner was inspired by Cozens' insertion of randomness into the creative act. When Victor Hugo was in political exile in the Channel Islands in the 1850s and 1860s he amused himself by making blot-inspired pen-and-ink drawings. As his friend Philippe Burty said, "Any means would do for him – the dregs of a cup of coffee tossed on old laid paper, the dregs of an inkwell tossed on notepaper, spread with his fingers, sponged up, dried, then taken up with a thick brush or a fine one… Sometimes the ink would bleed though the notepaper, and so on the reverse another vague drawing was born." (It was rumored that he also used his own blood.) The technque was still ontroversial, hower; in 1877 John Ruskin accused James McNeill Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face." But the Surrealists venerated Hugo’s art, which strongly influenced the development of automatism. Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso both owned several of his works. André Breton was introduced to his drawings by one of his lovers, the ex-wife of Hugo’s grandson, and prolaimed, "Victor Hugo is a Surrealist when he is not stupid." André Masson created drawings in a state of trance: "The first graphic apparitions on the paper are pure gesture, rhythm… pure scribbles. In the second phase, the image (which was latent) reclaims its rights… suddenly ones sees arise a hand, a vegetal or animal fragment… When the image appears one must stop." George Grosz, though associated with Dada, called Jackson Pollock a "Rorschach-Test-Rembrandt" but implied that Abstract Expressionism was merely decorative, like lace, and in the 1970s Andy Warhol urinated on canvases covered with metallic paint to mocked Pollock’s drip paintings.
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