Thursday, 19 January 2017


Dreams in Art

There are few artists that can claim, honestly, to have recreated their dreams in their art.

That is not to say that a number of artists, including some extremely famous ones, have claimed to have been inspired by a dream. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and others have made such claims but I am not entirely sure that I believe them!

Inspiration is quite different from reproduction

Indeed. I would go so far as to claim that it is virtually impossible to exactly recapture on canvas (or any other medium, for that matter) a specific dream

Its difficult enough for many to remember a dream but the moment you try to reproduced those elusive images in some medium other than your memory, then (to use a poetic analogy from T.S. Eliot when talking about words) they " slip, slide, decay with imprecision, will not stay still"

I have an excellent memory. I also have vivid dreams and am capable of remembering much of what I dream (or so I convince myself) and yet when I have tried to put these images on canvas something else happens. 

My imagination takes over and rather than exactitude or replication I end up with "reinterpretation" or "mediation" - a complex process that inevitably distorts that tangible memory of my dream.

It has begun to "slip, slide, decay with imprecision".

It is exactly the same process when I kept a dream-diary. Words never quite matched the vivid quality or character of the dream I was trying to replicate.

In the end, after several years of keeping such a diary, I threw it away. Beside which, it was far too depressing to recall some of my more disturbing dreams!

A recent search I undertook of the Internet threw up a few artists that say they paint their dreams.

 The results are extremely disappointing, either because the artists are not particularly good (often the case, I'm afraid), but also because their dreams appear so dull, so banal when reduced to an image or so.

Herein lies the fundamental problem.

Dreams have a narrative of sorts, a 'plot' or subtext that Freudians and others claim is comprehensible and meaningful - if we can interpret it correctly.

That means that in practical terms the painterly representation of a dream needs to capture not only what Freud called the manifest content (what you see) but also hint at its latent content (what it means or what previous event, memory or anxiety prompted the dream in the first place).

Dreams are also linear narratives in that, like film, they are moving images that have a kind of progression in time - difficult to capture on canvas.

In that regard they are a bit like film or animation - two media that most closely resembles, perhaps, the vivid imagery, discontinuity and time-jumps we often experience in dreams

The Surrealists were much drawn to dreams. But while their deliberations did produced some fine paintings, other activities designed to reach deep into the subconscious - such as automatic writing, for example - were singularly unsuccessful.

The only real legacy of their investigations - and its a profoundly important one - is that art can replicated in its own way the abrupt juxtapositions of imagery that often occurs in dreams.

But this is not capturing dreams - it is merely mimicking one of its visual characteristics.Today, advertising has inherited this visual 'trick' invented by the Surrealists.

So, what is the solution?

There is no actual solution as yet known to science but I favour implanting some kind of digital chip into our heads that will tap into the brain's electrical activity at night and somehow record exactly our dreams.

It is then only a matter of replaying those images, either in our head as an action-rerun, or projected onto an external screen for family and friends (and psychiatrist, perhaps?) to enjoy.

Step too far? Maybe, but there is no other way that I can see that can capture the vivid immediacy of a dream. 

Art does not do it although much art may derive from what it thinks is 'dreamlike' or from what it makers claim originated in their subconscious.

But then who is to say that what they are 'replicating' is exactly what they dreamt? Of have they, like Salvador Dali, simply made it up for our titillation?

All the paintings used to illustrate this article are by Mike Healey

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting posting and haunting art-works!