Gregory Williams

Drawing From Experience: Experimental Graphic Practice in the Light of the Surrealist Image

Gregory Williams


  • Dr Charles Miller
  • David Lomas

Overview of PhD

This project aims to provide an historical contextualization of my own drawing practice, through examining the legacies of surrealist drawing practices. The research will centre on Max Ernst’s 1936 theorization of the practice of frottage (Ernest 2009, 19), in the figure of the ecran. In her translation of André Breton’s 1936 l’Amour Fou - from which Ernst took the term, Mary Ann Caws tells us the French ecran translates into English as either “screen” or “grid” (Breton 1988, 128n). My own drawings play on the ambiguity here, and it is for this reason that I retain use of the original French. Ernst’s ecran will be contextualized through reference to the graphic surrealist image, of which it constituted the most developed instance, superseding Dali’s paranoiac double image (circa. 1930), the hysterical images of automatic drawing (circa. 1920), and the poetic images first formulated by Pierre Reverdy in 1917. 

To contextualise the surrealist image, I will firstly examine its relationship with the theories of the image developed by Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Taken up directly from surrealism, they considered the construction of images to be a form of revolutionary political praxis, the aim of which was to negate the identity forms of an instrumentalized reason. Secondly, the graphic surrealist image will be contextualized through an engagement with art historical discourse on drawing; broadly understood as a practice of interrogating ways of seeing. This juxtaposition of the graphic surrealist image, the critical Benjaminian/Adornian image, and the broader discourse on drawing, provides the context for my own practice of graphic experimentation. As if a montage itself, the Ernstian ecran here relates to the old wall Leonardo Da vinci instructed his students to gaze at to stimulate their visual imagination; the screen memory of Psychoanalysis; the masach of Kabbalah, or the constellation of Critical Theory. The ambivalence of the French ecran itself - meaning both screen andgrid, also opens surrealist drawing up to the graphic strategies of movements such as Constructivism or De Stijl, and to the legacies of the historical avant-garde more broadly. 

An incredibly overdetermined image in itself, the Ernstian ecran ultimately provides the key for contextualizing a set of historical graphic practices situated between diverse discourses on the nature of subjective experience. As a theory of artistic practice, the contemporary value of the graphic surrealist image will be sought in the example it provides with respect to this interdisciplinarity. The image embodied the surrealists’ refusal of one sided reconciliations between theory and practice. Instead, cleaving to the fragments of diverse theories and practices, it ultimately heralded a virtual ecran, on which to behold the jamais vu (Breton 1972, 21),wherever it chanced to slide into view. This “never seen”, in excess of any given identity, occupied the elusive kernel around which the image functioned. The legacy of surrealist drawing will ultimately be sought in the area of this kernel, and the possibilities it holds for current graphic experimentation.


I am an emerging artist, writer and lecturer. My previous studies include MA Modern European Philosophy (Kingston University, 2014), MA Psychoanalytic Studies (Goldsmiths College, 2009), and BA Drawing (Camberwell College of Arts, 2005). Since 2017, I have been running the Art and Politics short course at Central Saint Martins School of Art, where I also teach on the MRes Art: Theory and Philosophy. In addition to these and other visiting roles at Goldsmiths College and Brighton School of Art, I have exhibited my drawings in several group shows.




  • Ernst, M. (2009) Beyond Painting. Chicago: Solar Books, University of Chicago Press.
  • Breton, A. (1988) Mad Love. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Breton, A. (1972) Manifestoes of Surrealism, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.