The Portrayal of Dreams in Art
Do you recall what your dreams last night were? Most of the time, we hardly ever do. Most dreams aren’t stored in our hippocampus — our brain’s memory bank — so we’re quick to forget about them. But, as Carl Jung would posit, dreams can help an individual understand their psyches and emotional states. That’s why some people try hard to remember and understand their dreams.
And artists usually take it one step further: they look into their dreams as a source from which creative inspiration can be drawn. Those who are quick to remember their dreams can express them in canvasses and sketchbook pages.
Just the idea of dreaming and the subconscious has brought about a plethora of artworks, as well as an illustrious art genre in itself. Surrealism was said to be inspired by the ideas of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind, and surreal artists found that their dreams were a reservoir of creative imagination.
But even before all this, dreams have long been explored in all kinds of artworks. How have we done it through the years?
Dreamers in the Bible
Before rational and scientific explanations, dreams were believed to be a thing of the supernatural and often interpreted as prophecies. Dreamers themselves were just as fascinating because, in this sense, they appeared to be intercessors between divinity and mankind.
Many artists, regardless of their beliefs about the nature of dreams, would be inspired by these people who seemed to have witnessed divine visions. They would often depict stories from the Bible (which contains a record of 21 dreams, all of which are formative to the faith).
French Renaissance painter Nicolas Dipre would paint the dream of Jacob (Gen. 28:10-17), for instance, where the forefather had seen a ladder to heaven. And it’s no wonder artists would draw inspiration from ideas like these — “a stairway to heaven” is such a preposterous idea that it became enough of a prompt, especially in the luminary days of the Renaissance.
Many artists also highlighted the role of Saint Joseph as a receiver of God’s messages. According to several accounts from the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph had four significant dreams. The first was the Annunciation where he was told to accept Mary as his wife; the second was what prompted the flight to Egypt; the third was when he was told to go back to Bethlehem; the fourth was the journey to Galilee instead of Judea.
Interestingly enough, Joseph was also the name of the biblical figure in the Old Testament (Genesis 37-44) who was renowned for being the “King of Dreams.”
But by the dawn of a more secular-leaning society, artists would come to express their own dreams and not just famous ones from literature. Artworks based on personal visions and insights — no longer just religious stories and values — would become characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.
Depictions of Nightmares and Gothic Horror
Artists would also venture towards more experimental (if not mildly disturbing) visions. The more absurd the themes are, the more inventive the artworks become. They would also come to see nightmares not only as a terror, but ironically — a muse.
Some artists in particular, such as Swiss painter Henry Fuseli — whose works have been described as “dramatic, original, and sensual” — would build a large fraction of their portfolios around supernatural themes. Fuseli’s most renowned work is called ‘The Nightmare’, an ominous piece featuring a lady in slumber, with a devilish imp atop her unconscious figure.
Fuseli added mystery and depth to this seemingly ordinary nightmare by employing the use of chiaroscuro, the masterful juxtaposition of dark and light colors in art. Such techniques dramatized the works exponentially, and translated a sinister idea into an equally sinister image.
But whereas Fuseli’s work was theatrical and extravagant, other artists would attempt raw and understated expressions of their nightmares. The prominent Spanish painter Francisco de Goya would etch a macabre image called ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’, featuring a sleeping figure surrounded by bat-like monsters.
The piece was part of a collection called Los Caprichos (The Caprices), a set of 80 prints that tackled subjects of superstitions and — at least to Goya — ludicrous whimsicality. Goya was creating a social message at a time when secularity is beginning to govern over religious traditions. ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ is thus more than just an eerie etch: it is Goya’s way of critiquing society.
These works of art would undoubtedly contribute to one of the most illustrious literary genres from 19th century Europe: Gothic horror. Literary works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1823), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) would take center stage in popular culture.
Times past would probably have called such kinds of art an act of blasphemy. But through the exploration of dreams and nightmares as an art and literary genre, society learned to embrace these as a matter of life.
Surrealism as Painted ‘Dream Photographs’
By the dawn of the 20th century, modern psychology would try to make sense of these strange, unconscious visions. Carl Jung, in particular, believed that there is something to be inferred about an individual who dreams.
“In the dream, the psyche speaks in images, and gives expression to instincts, which derive from the most primitive levels of nature,” Jung wrote in his collection of essays Civilization in Transition.
The beliefs of Jung, Sigmund Freud, and other 20th-century psychologists would give rise to surrealism: a modern art movement that explores and expresses the individual’s subconscious. The revolutionary artist Salvador Dalí would become one of the best-known vanguards of the genre.
Dalí described his works as “hand-painted dream photographs.” It was an apt description — his oeuvre consists of eclectic concepts and stories, seemingly whole but still quite abstract: just like a dream. Dalí himself had closely followed the studies of Freud, who had multitudes of theories about the subconscious mind.
‘The Persistence of Memory’ is among Dalí’s earliest and most illustrious works. The piece is a dreamlike concoction of melting clocks, a leafless tree, and an anthropomorphic figure on a scenic coast said to have been inspired by Catalonia, his hometown. But even as critics and experts try to interpret what Dalí might have meant in the painting, the Spanish artist himself would claim that he didn’t know.
Some decades later, Dalí would revisit and recreate the iconic work as ‘The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory’. This time, the piece featured more elements — and more striking ones as well — including blocks of bricks and the broken tree.
The painting reflects Dalí’s fascination with nuclear physics, but others perceive a deeper meaning within: a “disintegrating” society characterized by post-war confusion.
In 1944, Dalí created ‘Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening’. Like in most of his works, Gala, Dalí’s wife and muse, is the subject of the painting. She is depicted sleeping in the nude, floating above a rock in what looks like the sea. The painting features other peculiar elements — two tigers, a pomegranate, a fish, a bayonet, an elephant, and a bee — meshed together in a dreamlike seascape.
The prompt for this piece, said Dalí, was a theory from Freud. Dalí wanted the painting to “express for the first time in images Freud’s discovery of the typical dream with a lengthy narrative, the consequence of the instantaneousness of a chance event which causes the sleeper to wake up.”
Subconsciousness, Reality, and Creative Imagination
Today, contemporary artists find inspiration in things that seem surreal, fantastic, and uncanny — like dreams, which are akin to fantasies. Bernarda Conič, one of Consecrea’s collaborative artists, was able to turn one of her fleeting visions into a moving piece.
“I was dreaming about this giant hand reaching from the sky,” she said. “But the theme of this dream was not scary, it was somehow enlightening and hopeful.” Thus, ‘Amor Fati’ — which features a central enlightened figure reaching out to a hand of the divine — was created.
There have been theories on why we dream in the first place, but that’s all they have been: theories. We might not get an answer at all, which only proves how complex the concept is. It’s no wonder that, despite modern research, many people still connect it with superstition and divinity.
While there’s no certain purpose of what dreaming does for us, we do know that we can turn it into significant things: a tool for self-reflection, a beautiful work of art.