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Dreams and Dreaming in Art History
Why can I remember some and not others?
Art Stuff 22 Oct 2021

Dreams have fascinated humankind for time immemorial: What do they mean? Why do we have them? Why can I remember some and not others? 

Ancient civilizations thought of them as messages from deities or prophecies; Freud viewed them as “wish fulfilment” – a way for our brains to resolve conflict in what we lacked, repressed, or desired; and artists have always been inspired by them. 

There are various modern theories as to the purpose of dreams – from emotional processing, threat-simulators to better equip us for the dangers of life, and a way to help how we store memory. Dreams last around 5-20 minutes and some of us can even “lucid dream” and control the dream-world around us. 

We’ve selected 6 of our favourite works of art all about dreams and dreaming from art history. Inspired by the newly launched initiative – The Art of Dreams by Porsche, kicking off in Paris right now.

Rousseau  – The Sleeping Gypsy 

Henri Rousseau is heralded as one of the most important self-taught artists in history. This is one of the artist’s best loved pieces. Romany Gypsies were socially outcast in 19th Century France and were a favourite topic for bohemian art makers and writers at the time. This sleeping woman is so peaceful, that an inquisitive lion steps quietly around her, rather than attacking. 

Magritte – The Key to Dreams

Image: MOMA

The Surrealists were particularly interested in dreams, as part of the subconscious mind and a window into our real fears, desires, and feelings. Magritte made this bizarre key to understanding dream imagery in 1930, in which a horse means “the door”, and a clock means “the wind”. Regardless of whether these comparisons are accurate or not, the painting suggests that images, language, and dreams are all deeper and more complex than we may consume.

Nash – Landscape from a Dream

Image: Tate

Nash said that in this work, the hawk represents the real world, while the sphers in the mirror are references to the soul. The “mirror” seems to blur the boundaries between two realities – which is very Surrealist. Nash frequently dreamt about flying as a child, and birds often appear in his work. The landscape here is Dorset, England, where Nash wanted to live but had been advised against it by doctors – so it is also, literally, his dream landscape.

Hughes – Night with her Train of Stars

Image: Fine Art America

This painting is inspired by a poem by William Ernest Henley which describes how ‘Night’ can lead people to their eternal sleep (death). In this painting, Night, who is a beautiful flying woman, holds a sleeping baby in her arms and hushes the ‘stars’ behind her who are angels. This sleep seems very peaceful, but perhaps a little too peaceful (R.I.P). 

Picasso – Le Reve

This painting of the artist’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter is famous for its sexual connotations – do you spot what the left-hand side of her face is made of? The artist’s love life has been well-documented, and his relationship with Walter was not the only one of his to have involved a large, frowned-upon age-gap. Walter appears peaceful in her dreaming, or is this one of Picasso’s dreams? When ‘The Dream’ went under the hammer at Christie’s auction house in 1997, it became the sixth most expensive painting ever sold – selling for $48.8 million. 

Salvador Dali Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking Up 

Image: Museo Thyssen

In this painting, Dalí’s wife Gala hovers in sleep, unaware that coming towards her, hurled out from a pomegranate are two tigers, a fish, and a bayonet. Dali was perhaps the key Surrealist and he believed that there were multiple options for the interpretations of images. By painting the imagery of dreams in realistic detail, Dali demonstrates how dreams are part of reality (as is the main Surrealist belief), even if we like to think of them as entirely separate. 

About The Art of Dreams:
Porsche is shining a spotlight on art: the sports car manufacturer is offering artists new channels to showcase their work to a wider audience through The Art of Dreams. Designed as a series of interactive art installations in cities, The Art of Dreams features work that deals with the topic of dreams from different perspectives. The exhibition will begin with a piece by French artist Cyril Lancelin called ‘Remember your dreams’; an oversized installation that will be on display at the Palais Galliera Musée de la mode de la Ville de Paris from 15 to 24 October.

Author: Verity Babbs

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