Rorschach’s Inkblots Are Part of Art History

Image by zeh fernando (CC BY-ND 2.0).

At The New Republic, Merve Emre looks at the enduring visual power of Hermann Rorschach’s inkblots while reviewing Damion Searls’ new book on the German psychiatrist and his work. Along the way, she highlights a fascinating aspect of this (largely discredited) psychological assessment tool: its place in a centuries-old conversation about the power of art to expose our inner lives.

To achieve their desired responses, the blots themselves had to function like works of art — an unusual ask for a psychological test. Rorschach was not the first or even the second to try his hand at designing inkblots. Klecksography, the study of inkblots or “blotograms” as they were once called, originated with the German poet and physician Justinius Kerner. Unlike Rorschach, Kerner was neither a scientist nor an artist but a mystic. He believed his inkblots to be “incursions of the spirit world,” magical images that spoke to him in the voices of the dead; voices he ventriloquized in the gloomy poetic captions he added to his blots. More popular than Kerner was the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who drew his inspiration for his inkblots from Leonardo da Vinci, who, it was said, had once thrown a bucket of paint at a wall and divined his next painting from the shapes he saw before him. In keeping with this backstory, Binet’s inkblots — messy, asymmetrical things — were used to measure a person’s imaginative capabilities: the greater the number of distinct forms the respondent saw in the inkblots, the greater his creative powers.

By contrast, the power of Rorschach’s inkblots derived in large part from their painstakingly crafted designs, refined through much clinical trial and error to give them the appearance of naturalness — as if the shapes had not been crafted at all, but rather “had made themselves,” Searls writes. The point was neither disordered inspiration (as it was for Binet) nor spiritual connection (as it was for Kerner), but technical perfection. There could be no trace of the artist’s hand in the thickness of the brushstrokes or the shading of the ink; nothing to rouse suspicion among Rorschach’s paranoid patients that the inkblot had been created to elicit a particular response from them. There could be no captions, no border, nothing to distract respondents from the lines, the curves, the colors. Only the aesthetic impersonality of the blot could reveal the personality of its viewer.

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