Art in the Dreamworld

Art in the Dreamworld

When we have finally shuffled off our mortal coils,

it is estimated that most of us will have spent 50,000 hours dreaming. That's six years allotted to traversing the cosmic planes of our minds. Strange, complex and often downright incomprehensible, our dreams can both disturb and perplex us. It's unsurprising that spectral night-time imaginings have entranced artists long after they've awoken from their slumber. From Johnny Depp's The Bunnyman (2023) to Paul Delvaux's (1897-1994) Sleeping Venus (1944), we breakdown some of the most surreal dream-inspired artworks to have sprung from the subconscious and into reality.

Dream-Walking in the Renaissance

The Renaissance was marked by artist enchanted by the writings and art of antiquity. Among their heroes were ancient philosophers like Hippocrates and Aristotle, who had been tantalised by the subject of dreams. The 15th-century Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino, in particular, theorised 'vacatio animae'; the concept that, while sleeping, the soul can be freed from the corporeal restraints of the body and achieve a spiritual state. His theories helped to inspire artworks suspended at crossroads between moral dilemmas and sensual, pagan scenes. This can be observed in the biblical The Dream of Jacob (ca. 1500), an oil-on-panel work by Nicolas Dipre (1495-1532), portraying Jacob's dream of angels ascending a ladder to heaven.

The Dream of Jacob (ca. 1500) by Nicolas Dipre (1495-1532)

The boundless capacity of dreams was regaled by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450–1516) and his chimeras in the late fifteenth-century triptych (altarpiece) The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503–1515). A painting of humans morphing into molluscs, it was a departure from the typically biblical and moralistic dreamscapes depicted during the Renaissance. Disregarding popular neo-Platonic ideals of beauty, an unknown follower of Bosch has been credited with painting a typically hallucinatory “Boschian” hellscape called The Vision of Tundale (ca. 1520–30). It depicts a renegade knight who dreams of his moral redemption following a vision of Hell populated by monstrously graphic creatures. In this scene, moralistic dreams are aligned with the idea of the nightmare as a phenomenon for spiritual redemption.  

Romanticising Nightmares

Dreams in art continued to stray from the prophetic and divine nature of their forebears and evolved to be more surreal over time. Exemplified by Henry Fuseli's (1741-1825) The Nightmare (1781), eighteenth-century Romanticism ruled interpretations of the dreamworld. The first German Romantics called dreaming the “Zweite Welt”, or the “second world”.

At the time, depictions of nocturnal irrationality grew in tandem with the popularity of opium. As suggested by Thomas De Quincey's (1785-1859) book: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), come Romantics experimented with many substances in order to achieve a dreamlike state. The painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863 ), for example, participated in the “Club des Haschinschins”. This was a group dedicated to the study and experience of drugs, in which the doctor Moreau de Tour analysed their dreams and hallucinations.

The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) 

Dream Psychology at the Turn of the Century

In the late 19th century, Symbolism was born in reaction to Naturalism and Realism- two artistic movements which only depicted tangible and visible things. Artists involved with the Symbolist movement thus explored dreams as worlds estranged from science and realism. The artist and poet Odilon Redon (1840-1916), nicknamed “king of dreams” by the art critic Thadée Natanson (1868-1951), was a figurehead of Symbolism, and explored fantasy, eroticism, the occult, and death. Like his contemporaries, his artworks are personal and free. 

Redon’s Noirs lithographs (1879-1899), unveil a harrowing world of nightmarish hybrid figures; including a spider with a human face, a flying eye, horrifying chimeras and even a human flower. But at the turn of the century, Redon's gaze shifted from dark to light themes, and his dream interpretations morphed into serenely colourful, pastel works featuring hazy shapes and calm faces.

The Siren (1883) by Odilon Redon (1840-1916), National Gallery of Art, Washington 

Around the same time, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), published The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), a theoretical book aligning dream interpretation with the subconscious. His ideas have since remained tattooed in the western imagination, and influenced ensuing art and literature. Artists felt motivated to address dreams under a scientific and personally imaginative light. 

Freud largely inspired the Surrealists, who sought liberation from social, scientific and aesthetic strictures. In the 'First Surrealist Manifesto' (1924), the movement's founder André Breton (1896–1966) declared: 'I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality'. For the Surrealists, dreams were the antithesis of quotidian reality. Artists such as Leonora Carrington (1917–2011), Max Ernst (1891–1976), René Magritte (1898–1967) and, perhaps most famously, Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) painted from within the dreamworld. 

The Dream (1931) by Salvador Dalí (1904–1989)

Modern Day Dreamers

A century later, painters such as Gabriella Boyd and Mary Stephenson continue to emulate the strange resonance of dreams. In 2017, Boyd responded to a commission by the Folio Society, and taking inspiration from Freud’s own dreams or those of his clients, she illustrated ten extracts from Freud’s Interpreting Dreams. This resulted in a series of surrealist paintings exploding with vivid colour and haphazard lines that were featured in the White Cube’s exhibition Dreamers Awake. At the time, Boyd said: “It’s a cyclical process: the clients translate their dreams to themselves, which are in turn translated by Freud, he’s translating them into the book and I’m translating them into images.”

More recently, Stephenson was paired alongside the Surrealist painter and psychoanalysis Grace Pailthorpe in the 2021 Bosse & Baum exhibition Fertile Spoon. While the two artists were born over a century apart, they have used their paint brushes to uncover the peculiar and intuitive logic of dreams and the unconscious mind. The works of both painters illustrate strange eccentric characters with distorted ligaments and set against mysterious outlandish environments. But Stephenson distinguishes herself from her counterpart with ghostly veils and soft semi-translucent strokes that infuse her pieces with a phantom-like aesthetic. 

White Linens II 2020 by Mary Stephenson (b.1989)

In 2023, Johnny Depp published his dream-inspired series The Bunnyman Genesis, comprising four painted editions of The Bunnyman figure. Shouldering a virile silhouette, the character first appeared in the artist’s dreams before meandering into the dreams of his son Jack. The boy then sketched out the character, whose outline we see illustrated in gold leaf on the canvas. Described by Johnny as "a guardian standing with the sword of truth," The Bunnyman recurrently appeared in his dream looming from the threshold of a door. The "fearsome vision" has since evolved into a shamanic totem in the form of pendants, rings and more. Altogether, The Bunnyman manifests the dream in the divinely prophetic tradition of past artists.

The Bunnyman, Flowers (2023) by Johnny Depp

For some, dreams represent the origins of pure unbridled imagination. A realm of existence free from social restrictions and overthinking, it’s seen as the prime environment for artistic innovation. As French philosopher Michel Foucault once said, "every act of imagination points implicitly to the dream… the dream is the first condition of its possibility."