With few exceptions, people dream. I'm not talking here about dreams in terms of plans or wishes for the future, but in the generic sense - as we sleep we dream. Most dreams, vivid as they may seem, are forgotten within minutes of waking. For myself, I am able to remember dreams only because I often tell them to my wife when I first wake up, "Boy, did I have a weird dream last night." Being a former teacher, mine often have to do with a school environment, either as a student or as a teacher, and sometimes even a mixture of both. As an artist, I've never gone so far as to paint my dreams, but many artists have. In fact, the whole area of Surrealist painting is very much predicated upon the painting of dreams. And it's very doubtful there would even be Surrealist painting but not for one man, perhaps the greatest outside influence upon the fine arts of any individual in the twentieth century - Sigmund Freud.
Besides art, we all know that Freud was a tremendous influence in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, criminology, sociology, and anthropology. But beyond that, he had a strong cultural influence as well. Whether we know much about the man or his writings, we all know that a Freudian slip presumably involves an individual misspeaking, but in the process, presumably revealing some unintentional insight about themselves or others that they might otherwise have kept secret. Freud's studies of ancient Greek and Roman mythology and his application of them to human fears and longings have given us such terms as "Oedipal Complex" and "Narcissism." And, just as artists such as Salvador Dali, Felix Labisse, Giorgio de Chirico, and Paul Delvaux have studied Freud, Freud also studied artists and their work, particularly that of Leonardo da Vinci. In studying Leonardo's paintings and drawings and the artist's own accounts of his dreams, Freud was able to conclude in his own mind that Leonardo suffered from maternal deprivation.
Of course Surrealism mostly grew out of the writings of the French poet Andre Breton, who first met Freud in Vienna in 1921. Surrealism was first a literary movement based upon Freud's ideas on free association and his study of dreams. But it was the artists who were attracted to Breton and through him, Freud, who carried the ball. Dali's The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, painted in 1937, is an overt surrealist invocation of the myth. And, although Freud was said to have been highly impressed with Dali's painting when they met in 1938 (just a year before Freud's death), he confided to Dali that he was far more interested in the unconscious and mysterious elements in artists such as Leonardo or Ingres than in Dali's conscious exploration of the myth. Had he lived, Freud might have found much more to intrigue him in the work of French artist Paul Delvaux's 1948 Leda in which the artist juxtaposes the swan and a stylised twentieth-century female nude against a modern background of bridges, power lines, and a Gothic church. Felix Labisse's The Strange Leda painted in 1950, goes even deeper into a Freudian exploration of the myth as it depicts the nude figure of Leda with a bandaged face and a hand transformed into a ravenous bird which bites the nipple of her breast.
Many surrealist artists, such as Giorgio de Chirico, combined mythology with an interested in Freud's study of dreams and sexual symbolism as seen in de Chirico's St. George Killing the Dragon, painted in 1940. In the background he depicts the classical elements of the story not unlike that of his fellow Italian artist, Uccello's version, painted in 1460. However, in the foreground we see a modern-day nude woman eyeing the combat while all about her are thinly disguised representations of female genitalia. Besides Freudian mythology, Paul Delvaux was also interested in dream interpretation. His 1944 Venus Sleeping depicts a nude Venus reclined on a classical divan placed in the foreground of a nocturnal Roman forum. Figures in the background seem to be involved in random activities (free association) while another nude woman on the far right greets a Victorian female figure that, in turn, seems to be conversing with a skeleton. It's too bad Freud is no longer around to tell us what that means. Gee, I wish I could have dreams like that once in a while.