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Not Obvious Enough

Rorschach inkblot test
  • By Damion Searls
  • Issue 20
  • On Beauty

The ten most analyzed paintings of the twentieth century aren’t in a museum. They are not even art, or not exactly. They are, in fact, meant not to be too beautiful, and that is what makes them beautiful in their way; they are meant to be nothing too definite at all, and that is what makes it possible for people to see in the pictures, as the artist himself said, “anything you can imagine—and quite a lot you can't."

That artist’s name? We know it as the name of the images, not of their maker: Rorschach.

Hermann Rorschach was a professional psychiatrist in the early twentieth century—a student of Jung’s, a follower of Freud’s—but he was also a lifelong amateur artist, the son of a drawing teacher. He had always been interested in how different people see things: in university, he would go to the Zurich art museum with his friends and ask them afterward what they had each thought of a given painting. His dissertation was on perceptual hallucinations: the patient who saw a workman mowing the lawn outside and felt the blows of the scythe in her neck; the schizophrenic who would look at a lightbulb and feel himself turned into the filament, miniaturized, rigid, and glowing. His famous test began as what he called a “perceptual experiment”: a nonjudgmental and open-ended exploration of how we see.

It was actually crucial that it not seem like a test, because Rorschach’s paranoid patients had hair-trigger reactions to any hint of ulterior motives. There couldn’t be numbers on the images, since patients would pay too much attention to what the number might mean, ignoring the picture itself. The cards couldn’t have a border, because in Switzerland that was likely to remind a schizophrenic of a black-edged death notice. A great advantage of using inkblots, Rorschach realized early on, was that you could do it either like a game or like an experiment, without affecting the results.

Inkblots had previously been used in psychology before as a way to measure the imagination, especially in schoolchildren. Splash a little ink and show it to someone: if he sees one or two things, he doesn’t have much imagination; if he can list twenty things he sees, he’s very imaginative. The question was how many things you could find in a random blot, not what a carefully designed blot could find in you.

The most obvious problem with this approach is that some answers are imaginative and others are not. A perceptive person might see lots of things that are really there in the image, without being the least bit imaginative; someone else’s answers might be crazy, but that’s not the same as imaginative either, although a schizophrenic who was originally imaginative, Rorschach remarked, “would of course produce different, richer, more colorful delusions than a patient who was originally unimaginative.” It wasn’t enough to count up how much a person sees, you had to investigate how a person sees. Everyone tries to say what they actually see, the imaginative person exactly as much as anyone else. Whether or not Rorschach told a subject to use his or her imagination turned out to make no difference in how the subjects responded.

In other words, interpreting an inkblot is not an act of imagination; it is an act of perception. So Rorschach had to get as close as possible to pure perception: looking at something without the contextual clues that normally guide us as we go about our lives. He had to make pictures unlike anything seen before, in life or art.

Rorschach knew, as an artist, that the blots had to be good: they needed a certain “pictorial quality”; people would not interpret pictures that lacked the right “spatial rhythm.” At the same time, they couldn’t be too artsy. One of Rorschach’s younger colleagues kept trying to make his own testing blots, and Rorschach complained that “he tries hard and does his best, but he likes very imaginative images, rich in fantastic figures, which spoils everything.” Rorschach himself, after “spending a long time using images that were more complicated and structured, more pleasing and aesthetically refined,” rejected mere aesthetics in the interest of a better test, which would produce, he hoped, more revealing results.

While crafting the blots, Rorschach strove to eliminate any sign of craftsmanship and artistry. In his early efforts, it was still obvious where he had used a brush, how thick the brush was, and so on, but soon he had shapes that were much more mysterious. His ten final images were symmetrical, but too detailed to be mere folded smears. They had colors, which added to the mystery: how did they get into an inkblot? They were suggestive and open to interpretation—some more so, others less. It feels forced to try to interpret a random blot you or I might make: Well, you could say it looks like an owl, but it doesn’t really. . . A Rorschach blot, though, really might be two waiters pouring out pots of soup, sort of. You can feel answers struggling out from the image toward you. There’s something there, hovering right on the borderline between too obvious and not obvious enough.

When I started researching Hermann Rorschach and the inkblot test, I found someone willing to give me the test, which is a very different experience than looking at the images online. The psychological results I got back seemed insightful enough, but it was the aesthetic experience of being shown these ten cards and asked What do you see? that I found gripping and fascinating. (Enough to spend years writing a book on it, in any case.) I came to feel that the inkblots’ combination of forthcomingness and withholding, of being open yet closed, straining at the edge of intelligibility while refusing to go all the way, was closer than I’d realized to the heart of what beauty is.

Damion Searls is the author of The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing.

Rorschach inkblot test, 1921. Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images