A technique for generating images by applying paint to one surface, which is then pressed against another surface to transfer the design. The term was popularised by the Surrealists in the early twentieth century. A variation is popular with young school children in a process often referred to as a ‘butterfly print’, where paint applied to paper is then folded and opened again. The shortened version of the term commonly used today is ‘decal.’
Origins of the technique
Various forms of image transfer have existed in art for centuries, however, the origin of the term ‘decalcomania’ is often linked back to eighteenth-century French-English engraver Simon Francois Ravenet, who named his image transfer printing techniques ‘decalquer’ (taken from the French ‘papier de calque’, or ‘tracing paper’). A number of painters in the same century also began experimenting with ink blot processes which they discovered could introduce accidental forms of expression into artworks, such as English landscape painter Alexander Cozens, who explored ways ink stains on paper could be transferred onto a canvas, writing, 'the stains, though extremely faint, appeared upon revisal to have influenced me, insensibly, in expressing the general appearance of landscape'.
The term decalcomanie began to appear more commonly in England in the nineteenth century, referring to a form of transfer printing onto porcelain, although techniques of ink transfer continued to develop in various media. Many saw in decalcomania techniques the possibilities for suggesting the macabre and occult, which were popular subjects in Victorian society; Doctor and poet Justinus Kerner transformed folded inkblot experiments into curious symmetrical forms, which he called ‘creatures of chance,’ published in the book Klecksographien in 1857, while Victor Hugo’s ‘stain’ transfer paintings reveal a fascination with ghosts, spirits, and the afterlife. Swiss psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach developed his famous symmetrical inkblot tests in 1921, believing ambiguous ‘butterfly printed’ forms could reveal the inner workings of the human mind.
In the early twentieth century inkblot processes were adopted by the French Surrealists as one of several automatism techniques including grattage and frottage, which allowed chance and subconscious thought to dictate the final form of their art. It is thought Spanish Surrealist Oscar Dominguez coined the art term ‘decalcomania’, describing his prints as, 'decalcomania with no preconceived object'. He generally worked in black and white, painting a thin layer of gouache onto paper or glass and pressing this sheet onto another surface, such as paper or canvas, to create strange forms suggestive of beasts, figures or rocky landscapes.
Max Ernst saw in decalcomania a random act that could ignite his imagination, applying transfer print techniques in oil paint as a starting point onto canvases which he would then build into with elements of realism, suggesting mythical creatures in strange, unknown places. George Hugnet often applied satirical meaning to the resulting imagery of his decal prints, such as Portrait automatique de l’automate d’Albert-le-Grand (Automatic Portrait of the Automaton of Albertus Magnus), 1938, in which he compares his print with the head of the thirteenth-century theologian and alchemist Albertus Magnus.
While decalcomania is most commonly associated with Surrealist art of the early to mid-twentieth century, artists since this time have continued to explore image transfer techniques as an ‘automatic’ form of image making, particularly the Abstract Expressionists of the 1960s. More recently, Cornelia Parker has made drawings which incorporate contemporary materials into the decalcomania process, such as Pornographic Drawing, 1996, in which an inky substance extracted from pornographic film material was applied to paper, folded in half and opened again to reveal surprisingly sexualised imagery through the process of chance.