“where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone in your bed?”
(title from the song with lyrics by Peter Sarstedt, 1969, listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRDaeLs69i4 )
Originally publised in Art of England, Issue 76, 2011. Reproduced with permission.
Fantasy, imagination and dreaming have been acknowledged sources of artistic inspiration as well as scientific discovery. Dreaming is particularly interesting as we all experience it, doesn’t require a university degree, or that we consort with the assorted wildlife in the art community.
Many artists have drawn on dream states in their work. In Deirdre Barrett’s The Committee of Sleep (2001) we learn:
Albrecht Durer’s 1525 watercolour of a storm came to him in a dream;
William Blake’s “Young Night’s Thoughts” (1818) is a dreamscape as is his “Man Who Instructed Blake in Painting His Dreams” (1819);
Edward Burne-Jones’ pre-Raphaelite paintings frequently depict dream states, such as “The Rose Bower”.
The Surrealists were consummate dreamers – Paul Nash’s “Landscape from a Dream”, Dali’s “The Dream”, Max Ernst’s “Dream of a Girl Chased by a Nightingale”, and others. According to Barrett, Dali developed specific methods which he encouraged artists to use to facilitate entry to and exit from sleep in such a way that the dreams would be remembered – the trick here is to wake up before you go into REM sleep.
And not all dreams are pleasant. Goya’s paintings frequently document nightmares; “The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters”, in his Los Caprichos (1799), is one example as are his lesser appreciated ‘Black Paintings’. As dreams these provide an additional layer of meaning, extending on the more rational interpretation that he was depicting the state of man. However, these works were originally painted on the interior walls of his house, as though he were creating an immersive environment for his mind – perhaps to live in his dreams rather than the real world. They were subsequently removed (placed on canvas) and hung on walls in the Museo del Prado, but this is the vandalism of art historians and their failure to grasp the subtlety of their genesis.
As someone who prefers the abstract, dreaming is particularly interesting as our dreams are pure creations of our innermost self. The brain (the bit our minds live in) likes to create patterns, likes to play, and do this much more than people realise.+
We all wonder what dreams mean, and whether they carry messages to us from ourselves, like we were whispering life’s little secrets. But beneath, or above, all this sits the mind itself, quite independent of degrees from art schools, or social status. That we all dream bestows democratic creativity on everyone and not just the chosen few.
Despite or perhaps because of this, we can be mystified at the sources of artistic creativity when we get to journey with it. Charles Saatchi’s television and artistic disaster School of Saatchi (remember?) showcased chronically insecure self-promoters failing miserably to produce anything of anything, but perhaps that is the point that Saatchi was making – and in the end the joke is on us for taking all this seriously.
Do we think differently about art if we knew the artist were documenting a dream, or were instead probably insane like in Wittgenstein’s later work? In such cases, do we become mere voyeurs of madness, safe in our own smug sane little worlds?
But many of the ‘dream’ artists, do challenge us with the sensitive and intelligent translation of inner visions into outer thought-provoking imagery. The Dulwich Picture Gallery show “Twombly and Poussin” illustrates the contrast between the abstract and the figurative. And we are left wondering what dream Twombly was suggesting in his The Mathematical Dream of Ashurbanipal, but mathematicians offen solve problems in their sleep so why not the rest of us?
And so, underneath all the analyticity of so many figurative artists, or the safe critiques of well-grounded critics, lies the murkier and far more interesting idea generator at the centre of our own being. Finding our way into ourselves is always harder and perhaps scarier and that is perhaps why art today can be often be so uninteresting.