A fun fact I like to use in ice-breakers is that I have vivid, memorable dreams every night. It’s definitely a fun conversation starter! People ask if I have nightmares often, and I assure them that sometimes all a dream consists of is working at a Dairy Queen drive-thru on a slow day, tying my shoes, or leisurely walking through the grocery store looking for bananas.
Sometimes I do have dreams that are very emotionally charged, and I’m quick to analyze them. I truly believe that dreams are influenced by the emotions, ideas, or thought patterns from when we were awake, thus while I sometimes take the content of my dreams with a grain of salt, I’m always careful to note how the dream made me feel.
I woke up this morning at a loss for what I would write about today because all I could think about was the dream I had just woken up from. It was an all-around happy and truly pleasant dream, and I didn’t need to search too hard to see what all of it meant to me, but for some reason I just couldn’t stop clinging to it. I brain-dumped it into my dream journal (which I have precisely for moments like this) and hoped to move on to think about an idea for this blog post. Then it came to me, in the midst of my dream-fogged brain: I’m sure artists have this same experience all the time! So I began my search for artists’ vivid dreams that became a source of inspiration for a work of art.
It is important to note, since we’re speaking about the unconscious being a creative tool, that this concept is not new or recent by any means. Artists for centuries have been depicting dreams and attempting to creatively express why we even have them!
Some artists choose to portray exactly the scene that they had seen in their dream, such as Albrecht Dürer did in Dream Vision, a watercolor painting made in 1525. He painted the flood that he saw whilst asleep, below it explaining exactly what he had experienced. He described that “many great waters fell from heaven.” It affected him so deeply that he recalled, “my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time…May the Lord turn all things to the best.” Seeing as this was painted early in the Reformation when religious uncertainty was common and many believed God would send a flood upon the earth, this dream is not uncharacteristic of the time period in which it occurred.
The next painting intrigues me because both the dreamer and the dream are represented! This appears to be a common way of depicting dreams in the 15th through 17th centuries. In Georges de La Tour’s St. Joseph’s Dream (1630-35), the biblical narrative of the angel appearing to Joseph, telling him that he will become the earthly father of Jesus, is depicted. Saint Joseph sits on a stool and appears to have fallen asleep while reading a book (which had led some to believe this actually isn’t Joseph due to his profession as a carpenter, not a scholar). The candle on the table at which he is fast asleep barely illuminates Joseph himself, but brings into brilliance the face of a young angel in a very caravaggist way. Thus, though Joseph’s eyes are closed, we are aware of what he is seeing through the distribution of light in this painting.
Of course, if we’re talking about dreams, I must mention the famous Fuseli painting, The Nightmare. Audiences were certainly shocked at the debut of this terrifying painting. A sleeping woman clothed in white is stretched across a bed, with a horrific incubus figure seated upon her and an intruding horse with blank eyes and flared nostrils peeking it’s head out from behind the curtain. This painting certainly aligns with Romanticism in that there is no moral logic, but instead, lots of emotion. The scene may have been inspired by a young woman whom Henry Fuseli was infatuated with named Anna Landolt. Art historian Edward Burns writes, “Though he felt unable to tell her this, he recorded… erotic dreams of posessing her while she slept.” Creepy! Some scholars even see this painting as a precursor to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, as he is reported to have had a copy of this painting in his apartment in Vienna.
Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, 1781
Now we simply can not talk about dreams without mentioning Sigmund Freud. His writings on dreams and the unconscious influenced the Surrealist movement in the 20th century. These artists were focused on breaking the societal constraints of rationality, so dreams were an ideal fuel for creative expression and self-exploration, and many surrealist works were born out of various dream states.
I encourage you to allow your dreams to fuel your own creativity! As it says on a bookmark I have, “Life is art. Paint your dreams.”