Ink Spectres: A short history of a blot


A klecksograph by Justinus Kerner, published 1879.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when a German poet, practicing physician, and medical writer—Justinus Kerner—accidentally dropped blots of ink onto paper owing to his failing eyesight, he discovered for himself an art form that would become a fun game of sorts—klecksography. The shapes that appeared on unfolding those papers intrigued him immensely. So much so that, he began a collection of klecksographs and poetry inspired by the same (the inkblots would be enhanced by hand a little). It was published posthumously in 1890.

Psychologists would later use similar ink blots as a tool for studying the subconscious. Among the early proponents in 1895 were Alfred Binet and his associate Victor Henri, who suggested that the interpretation of inkblots could be used to study variations in ‘involuntary imagination’ and so might be used in psychological research.

In 1896, Ruth McEnery Stuart and Albert Bigelow Paine in a book titled Gobolinks, or Shadow-Pictures for Young and Old explained how to make inkblot monsters (“gobolinks”) and use them as prompts for writing inkblot-inspired verses.

Hermann Rorschach too had an inkblot hobby as a youth. Nicknamed “Klex” (German for inkblot), he went on to develop a test where people were shown ten inkblots in a certain order and asked what might they be. The Rorschach test, as it came to be known, assigned codes and scores to people’s replies based on whether they identified any movement, details or a complete image resembling something. The results revealed a great deal about the intricacies of the human mind. And yet, as Rorschach admitted to a colleague in 1921, “What matters, though, is that it works: it gives amazingly correct diagnoses. And so they hate it all the more”. The test has time and again fallen out of favour with scientists and pychoanalysts. Yet, from Africa to Vietnam, Rorschach test was used widely, albeit unfairly, to read the minds of the Other.


Share with us some of your own klecksography artwoks/inspired poems at ptenopusmag@gmail.com.

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