The (Real) Dream in Art
In an online artists’ talk in January 2022 between artists Chie Fueki, Alexi Worth and Catherine Murphy at DC Moore Gallery (produced by Painters’ Table), Murphy mentioned that her paintings were occasionally based on dreams. She revealed that her most recent show at Peter Freeman Inc. included two dream paintings: Flight (2020) and Begin Again (2019). “Flight” shows a gingham apron splayed at the bottom of four carpeted stairs and “Begin Again” shows five blue hand outlines on yellow-green wallpaper. During the course of the conversation, Worth also noted that Jasper Johns’ Flag painting came from a dream. And it got me wondering: How common is dream inspiration in art?
I set out on the hunt by combing through the book, Painting the Dream, by Daniel Burgess, looking for “real dreamers.” I wanted to find art that was directly inspired by dreams, as opposed to work which just showed a sleeping person or had a “dreamlike” tone or imagery. Art history is clogged with allegories of dreams and dreamers and dreaming, but it’s harder to find work that originated directly from an individual artist’s REM state.
Burgess tells the story of how Albrecht Dürer woke up from a nightmare the morning of June 7, 1525, and made a small text and watercolor work about it. Fun fact: Dürer’s Dream Vision is cited as one of the first true dream memories recorded in Western art. In the dream, he was about to be swallowed up by a flood. He recalled:
“I saw this appearance in my sleep, how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the earth about four miles away from me with a terrific force, with tremendous clamor and clash, drowning the whole land. I was so sore afraid that I awoke from it before the other waters fell…I was so frightened when I awoke that my whole body trembled and for a long while I could not come to myself. So, when I arose in the morning, I painted above here as I had seen it.”
Below these words, he had painted a vast plain of yellow rolling hills dotted with orange trees. In the distance, he placed large vertical blue caterpillar-like shapes descending from the sky like waterspouts. Most were still suspended in the air, but the largest and darkest one had touched down, tornado-like, and billowed outward. Some scholars wonder if this imagery symbolized for Dürer a fear of the apocalypse. To me, this fear is tempered by the calming, almost seaside palette he chose and by the distance he places between us and the “great waters.” He may have dreamt of an approaching apocalypse, but his watercolor shows only a distant one. Soothing himself after such a violent awakening, he places it safely over there, not here.
Now let’s look at another dreamer: the symbolist artist, Odilon Redon, who was known as the “Prince of Dreams.” During his childhood, Redon lived in isolation at an uncle’s country house from age six to ten, and he suffered frequent bouts of epilepsy. A lonely child, he made countless black and white drawings to fill up his days. Years later, having fought in the war and returned home, he turned to drawing again as a familiar form of expression and comfort.
He eventually published a portfolio of ten of these black and white lithographs in 1879 called Dans le Rêve or In the Dream. Included in this set of works were two dream-inspired etchings, both titled Dream Vision, circa 1880. The first shows an androgynous nude figure standing on the shore of a lake near two large stone heads that are rolling about on the ground. Two other heads also shine in the sky like a sun. And in the second Dream Vision, we see a dark, hazy abstracted interior that could be a room or a cave. A lone figure in a robe loiters on the left, holding a sphere. Both prints are soft, unfocused, dark and inky. One must peer closely to make out any detail.
More than any of his other more famous works (the eyeball-y, bat-spidery dream-like works that he’s known for), these two seem to be records of actual dreams. And just like trying to pull back the cobwebs of sleep images, we can only guess what they mean. Vigorously cross-hatched, fuzzy and blurred at the edges, they cling to a curtain of obscurity and can never fully be known.
Another exciting dream work emerged from my “dreamers-only” reading of Painting the Dream: a painting called Gradiva by André Masson. The dream of Gradiva originally began in the slumbering brain of the German author, Wilhelm Hermann Jensen, who used a dream he had had as the basis for his obscure 1902 novella titled: The Gradiva: The Woman Who Walks.
In the novella and Jensen’s dream, an archaeologist named “Norbert” sees a bas-relief sculpture of an ancient Roman woman whose foot is lifted mid-step. We learn that her name is “Gradiva,” and that she is named for Mars Gradivus (the Roman god of war). He has a premonition one night that he must warn Gradiva, the stone carving, about the impending eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But he’s too late. He watches helplessly as she collapses in a “rain of ash, before disappearing into the fissure located on the wall.”
Sigmund Freud read Jensen’s novella and thought it might be fun to “analyze” Norbert’s fictional dream. He published his interpretation, and suddenly Gradiva became famous., Her name and the dream spread like wildfire among the artists of the young Surrealist movement, in particular. Salvador Dali painted her multiple times and even nicknamed his wife, Gala, “Gradiva.” André Breton named his Duchamp-designed gallery, “Gradiva.” And finally, André Masson painted the scene in his work, Gradiva, from 1939.
In Masson’s paintings, a Cubist-style woman contorts and crouches on a stone platform against a blood-red frescoed Roman wall. One foot is flesh and the other is stone, wearing a Roman sandal. In the center of her straddling body is a cut of steak and a conch shell. Behind her on the wall to the left is a black zigzagging gash, and to the right is an opening showing an erupting volcano at night: Mount Vesuvius.
One imagines that her character was so appealing to the Surrealists because they were completely infatuated with everything dreams and the unconscious. In fact, Breton often published artists’ and readers’ dream accounts in his journal, La Révolution surréaliste. The public was encouraged to write down their dreams and submit them to the magazine by dropping them off at the Bureau of Surrealist Research at 15 Rue de Grenelle, Paris.
In Painting the Dream, Burgess says: “By drawing on the unconscious, the Surrealists would discover astonishing and powerful images in their writing. But while psychoanalysts saw these images as the mark of old personal traumas, which the analyst must decipher in order to cure, the Surrealist writers and painters saw them as a powerful source of imagination and creativity.” In 1924, predating Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism, Louis Aragon wrote an early long-form poem called “Une Vague de Rêves” (“A Wave of Dreams”) that is just such a celebration of unconscious thought. He loved chance and the unexpected. To Aragon, dreams were there to “loosen the sense of self “ in all creative work. It’s a wild and wonderful piece, and I’ll quote just a bit for us here:
“Dreams, dreams, dreams, with each step the domain of dreams expands. Dreams, dreams, dreams, at last the blue sun of dreams forces the steel-eyed beasts back to their lairs. Dreams, dreams, dreams on the lips of love, on the numbers of happiness, on the teardrops of carefulness, on the signals of hope, on building sites where a whole nation submits to the authority of pickaxes. Dreams, dreams, dreams, nothing but dreams where the wind wanders and barking dogs are out on the roads. Oh magnificent Dream, in the pale morning of buildings, leaning on your elbows on chalk cornices, merging your pure, mobile features with the miraculous immobility of statues, don’t ever leave again enticed by dawn’s deliberate lies.”
And finally, we come back to the present: to Catherine Murphy. I transcribed a bit of what she said about her dream paintings from the talk at DC Moore. The whole webinar is excellent, and I highly recommend watching the whole thing. During the recording, Murphy said, “A lot of the paintings are dreams, literally dreams. I wake up in the morning and I go, ‘Oh, sheesh, I gotta do that.’ And you know, my favorite thing in the whole world is that someplace along the line, I started dreaming paintings. And I was like, ‘Oh, geez, it’s too good to be true.’” She went on to say that her dream paintings are, “special” and a bit rare. And she continues, “Trust me, when you dream a painting, you pay attention. You know that something significant is happening in your brain and you pay attention.”
In an interview with Jennifer Samet for Hyperallergic, Murphy revealed that she made her first dream painting in 1990 after her first teaching stint at Yale. She made the work, Chalkboard, after seeing the image in a dream. She dreamt that a reproduction of her work was mistakenly printed on the last page of a colleague’s catalog, and recalled “All that was on the page was a blackboard, the edge of the blackboard was wood, and a white wall. Something was scribbled on the blackboard, but I couldn’t see it. I woke up with a start. It was such a powerful dream. And then I got obsessed with it: what am I going to put on the blackboard? I figured it out, and I made the painting.”
I myself am not a dream-harnessing artist, but the whole endeavor fascinates me. I remember having occasional vivid dreams about individual works or even full exhibitions created out of whole cloth, but they always seem to dissolve like caterpillar threads right after I wake up. Maybe the key is just trying to remember and capture the images in a little bedside notebook or phone app before they float away. Strange masterpieces may be lurking there on the fringes of the unconscious, just waiting to be snagged and pulled into our waking lives.
In closing, I’ll leave you with one last quote from Aragon, still tossing and turning in his dream waves: “I do not know what will come of this new undertaking of dreams…Who is there? Ah, good. Let in the infinite.”
About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.