The Art of Dreaming

How artists have used dreams to inspire their art

13 June, 2023

Whether they are prophetic voices, connections with the afterlife, or reflections of the subconscious, dreams represent the aftermath of a surrealistic, out-of-time reality, which is challenging to clearly draw. The oneiric figurative interest, with old roots but a relatively young life, has represented a turning point in art history, bringing to a new conception of emotional subjectivity and of the observer’s role.

Attempting to translate figuratively their deep intimate experiences, various artists have approached dreams as a source of inspiration, offering them to viewers through different media.

It is during Romanticism, the period of passions against reason, that dreams first made their appearance as a subject of representation. More precisely, when Johann Heinrich Fussli painted 'The Nightmare' in 1781, characterised by creepy creatures surrounding a sleeping lady, it anticipated what the Spanish painter, Francisco Goya, represented in his satirical series 'Los Caprichos'. 'The sleep of reason creates monsters' is an etching work still recognized as the opening to the irrational sphere. Goya’s aquatint depicts a dreaming man harassed by a flock of bird-like creatures, mysteriously appearing in his nightmare. Beyond their metaphorical meaning, these pieces clearly refer to the act of dreaming as the threshold of a world molded by unconscious fears and desires.

Except for these spotlights, for a new strong interest in dreams, art had to wait until the first two decades of the 1900s. It is in fact after the publication of Freud’s 'Interpretation of Dreams', that the movement of Surrealism emerged. Artists belonging to this current based their research on the exploration of the oneiric unconscious world, redefining the role of the act of dreaming. Surrealistic poet André Breton talked about “dream while sleeping”[1] as his preferred occupation, as also explained by Jack J. Spector:

“He was not primarily interested in the latent content of these dreams, but rather in using them to create a new aesthetic, transforming them into uncategorizable poetry. In addition, he used his dream material to promulgate his evolving philosophy of art, a philosophy later expressed more overtly in his Surrealist manifesto.”[2]

For Surrealist artists dreams represented a filter on reality, a system of knowledge aimed to destroy the analytic approach to events and a creative process allowing to redefine taste canons.[3] The literary sphere of Surrealism traced the guideline to the figurative and rhetorical revolution of painters like Salvador Dalì, René Magritte, Paul Delvaux and Max Ernst, who made dreams their primary source of inspiration. Each artist focused on a specific structure analyzed by Freud, making it clearly recognizable. Through symbols and allusions, they built a pictural identity, made of figures and colours, which were easily convertible into feelings.

Dalí depicted the absence of conventional systems of rules through the lack of temporality, materiality and physical law. His work evolved into a consequential events chain in which the dreamer is just an attendant. Reality becomes fluid and runs unstoppable, dragging all material objects in a mold fusion. 'The persistence of memory' and 'Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before awakening' are great examples of this artist’s majestic deformation. Dalí uses landscapes as a fixed frame of a constant whirlwind, generating a sensation of anguish: an event vomits the next and so on until it reaches the dreaming subject, surrounded by an environment out of control.

If the Spanish painter’s oneiric poetry construction is made of flowing shapes, Belgian artist Renè Magritte focused instead on another dynamic of dreaming: deceit.

Resorting to the mechanism of 'trompe l’oeil', literally an eye trick, the artist describes a reality of doubts, in which nothing is what it seems to be. As exemplified in the series 'The key to dreams', different representations of objects are paired with “wrong” names or descriptions. 'Ceci n’est pas une pipe', written under a realistic representation of a pipe, is an affirmation through the image and a negation through the words, “this is not a pipe”. The world depicted by Magritte is built upside-down, once a dream started, also a stated language could be overturned. A shoe could be called a moon and a glass becomes an orange in a system where objects are often just reflections of ideas.

A great part of Magritte’s oneiric emulation is based on this reiterated use of reflex constructions. Background mirrors and perspective games deceive a quick look containing a great number of details. In this way, the artist does not just trick the viewers but creates in them a childish and craving curiosity. It is evident in 'Not to be reproduced', where a man mirroring himself hide all the mystery of his identity and the nature of the mirror as an object.  This questioned the point of view will lead to the disappointment of disenchantment, exactly like awakening from a dream. Discovering that there is no face behind the apple of 'The son of the men', or that what looks like a pipe just looks like a pipe in 'The treachery of Images', is as shocking as waking up from a dream. The virtue of the Belgian artist is to set a practical summary of the entire dreaming experience livable just by observing the paintings.

While Surrealism research crossed the threshold between what is real and what is not, the interest in dreaming found, in the same period, another fertile expression in Marc Chagall. The artist shared with Surrealists the inspirational connotation of dreams but differs from them for its application and consequent result. If other artists’ paintings often move reality into a world of dreams, Chagall’s works remain firmly anchored in the present. His looking at ordinary facts from a dreamlike perspective found expression mostly in unreal colors instead of in distortions of shapes. In 'The blue Circus' or 'Le jongleur', for example, the oneiric component is not expressed through locations, creatures or illusions, but through the monochromatic atmosphere. Chagall twisted the idea of a dream ruled by feelings from reality and tried to represent reality itself improved by dreams. Consequently, the viewer will no longer enter a distant world, but his perception will be overwhelmed by the painter’s dreamy filter. Thus, dreams become an active part not only in artistic practice but also in real life and magic, is no longer confined to a parallel world but it encroaches on the present.

For the rest of the century until today, dreams have continued to play a fundamental role in the construction of an artist’s identity. Bringing to the surface childhood memories and unexpressed desires, they constitute a fertile source of inspiration. Just one year ago, the curator’s Venice Biennale Cecilia Alemani underlined the power of dreams in art, putting in light their figurative manifestation. The exhibition, called “The Milk of dreams”, proved the huge interest developed for oneiric exploration, seen more as a need than an aesthetic choice. As art history clearly highlights, the approach to dreams as inspirations moved the focus from stylistic value to artist’s personality. They allow the representation of realities moved by memories, feelings and desires, making the world a subject of endless possibilities.


[1] SPECTOR, JACK J. “André Breton and the Politics of Dream: Surrealism in Paris, ca. 1918–1924.” American Imago 46, no. 4 (1989): 287–317.

[2] SPECTOR, JACK J. “André Breton and the Politics of Dream: Surrealism in Paris, ca. 1918–1924.” American Imago 46, no. 4 (1989): 287–317.

[3] Criel, Gaston. “Surrealism.” Books Abroad 26, no. 2 (1952): 133–36.

Andrea Baiguera

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