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Art Through Time: A Global View

Dreams and Visions

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Yukio Lippit: Art that’s emanated from dreams is understood to somehow document or partake of an extraordinarily sensitized moment of perception. And if it can somehow convey that to the viewer, then the viewer, in viewing dream art, is taken out of their ordinary perceiving lives and transported to a different realm of cognition.

Edward Sullivan: That sense of introspection, that sense of connectedness, perhaps connectedness beyond the mundane realities of this universe, to something higher. What that higher thing is, it is only defined by each individual artist.

Natasha Staller: The idea of painting a dream or nightmare becomes part of a voyage of self-discovery.

Edward Sullivan: The greatness of these artists, I think, lies in their ability to actually project onto a surface the form of introspective communication with something beyond our immediate understanding.

Patrick Hunt: There’s an alchemy about depicting art, in which what art may often do best is expressing the internal.

Segment Title: Spiritual Visions

Natasha Staller: One of the most extraordinary but also most beautiful sacred images is the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa by Bernini, in Rome. She writes about God visiting her, this beautiful angel, and that he pierced her again and again with a flaming arrow, and that the piercing was painful, but that it was so exquisite, she wished it would never stop.

And actually in this orgasmic, highly eroticized sculpture, her head’s thrown back orgasmically, her clothes are rippling.

Edward Sullivan: The St. Teresa is perhaps the height of ecstatic feeling in European art of the seventeenth century, greatly admired by the Spanish artists and, I think, had reverberations all across Europe in the later half of the seventeenth century.

Ecstasy, a state where a person is transformed from her or his lowly everyday life to a higher plane, a plane on which they receive a certain degree of inspiration, is a theme that runs throughout the course of Spanish seventeenth-century painting.

We can see this, for example, in pictures by the southern Spanish artist Francisco Zurbaràn, who painted many saints, particularly Saint Francis in ecstasy. We see a very sober figure, a man by himself often covered with the hood of his garment looking inward and thinking, pondering. Whereas other artists are much more excited and they take their figures and they fly them up into the heavens and surround them by angels and create this sense of almost orgiastic ecstasy. And this transformation from one artist’s approach to the other is fascinating.

Yukio Lippit: Dreams are somehow reflective of the concerns of a culture. In Buddhism you find dreams understood in many different ways. The primary status of dreams in Buddhism seems to be that of access to a truth that one can’t access during one’s waking conscious life. And that that truth is sometimes understood as a state of awakedness, of Buddhist enlightenment.

In Buddhist art one doesn’t necessarily see dreams or dream content depicted per se, but one instead infers the dream world through paintings, for example, of practitioners sleeping.

And perhaps the most celebrated example of this in the Japanese context is a fourteenth-century painting known as The Four Sleepers. It’s painted by a Zen Buddhist monk named Mokuan.

And what the painting does is instead of depicting their dreams, it shows them simply sleeping, lumped together with their eyes closed in this wonderful mass of humanity. And what this painting seems to be implying is that the dream world is unrepresentable in Buddhist art.

Nasser Rabbat: In the Islamic culture, dreams play an extremely important role. They play roles at different indexes, at different levels. You have dreams that have religious import; the most important of this is the night journey of the Prophet to heaven.

It is of course, one of the most important episodes of the life of the Prophet, so a lot of people have written about, a lot of people have commemorated it. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is supposed to be a commemoration of the beginning of the night journey where the Prophet is supposed to have started the night journey from Mecca, on the winged horse that is named El Buraq.

He crossed from Mecca to Jerusalem and in Jerusalem he led all the prophets that preceded him, Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Noah and many, many, many other patriarchs from the Bible in a prayer on the rock around which the dome is built today in Jerusalem.

And from that rock, he took the Buraq again and went up to the seventh heaven and passing by all seven heavens, one after the other.

There are all sorts of stories about what he saw during this and ultimately he was in the presence of God.

An extremely pivotal moment in the career of the prophet, because after the night journey and the ascension, the “Night Journey” is called Isra, and the ascension is called Miraj.

It was that moment in which the religion moved from just preaching be good, be wary of God, God wants you to do this, to actually a religion that says this is what you need to do in order to be an adherent of the religion.

Fred Myers: In Aboriginal life, the stories of the Dreaming are stories about the foundation of all being. The main thing that the artists say about the paintings is that they don’t make them up. That they are, come from the Dreaming. That is, they are stories of the ancestral beings and their activities at certain places.

Early in the twentieth century, the word “Dreaming” began to be used as a translation, perhaps by Aboriginal people into English, to try to communicate with whites about this realm that was—not present in the immediate sense, but was parallel to the world in which we live, that could be seen in some way.

So, it’s a metaphor to talk about it as the Dreaming. But it really refers to the activities of these ancestral beings that created the world and that gave the world its shape and its meaning. So they would say everything that they do and the customs that they have—Tjukurrtjanu—from the Dreaming—yutirringu—it became visible, it became real, mularrarringu—it became the way in which we are.

These paintings are renderings of these ideas about the world and how it came to be. They’re making visible, for people in the living world of the moment, what happened in this invisible realm before. And they’re making that invisible realm visible again. They’re making it alive. They’re bringing that back and they’re channeling that power through the world again.

Roy Hamilton: In Flores, spirit guardians appear to weavers in their dreams and guide them and show them how, not only to create a particular pattern, but also more general processes such as how to conduct the mordanting ritual.

Women who have this kind of dream will explain afterward that they felt a real obligation to fulfill this dream.

Sisilia Sii: My mother taught me to stick to my weaving and tying. She was a widow and we had to take responsibility for ourselves. My mother died before I learned to make the nggaja and sémba patterns.

My dear mother came to me in a dream to teach me how to tie those patterns. “Mama, how can I do it…I don’t know how?” “You do know,” she said, “I will show you…” “Tomorrow arrange the threads on the frame; follow me as I do it.”

Roy Hamilton: She needed the permission from her mother. She needed her mother to appear to her in her dream and say, “It’s time now that you make this pattern. I will help you. I will show you how it’s done.”

Sisilia Sii: I followed my mother, my dear mother, my tears were falling! My dear mother taught me in my sleep.

Segment Title: Dream Worlds

Patrick Hunt: Hieronymus Bosch, who bridges the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, is obsessed with an imbalance between chaos and order, good and evil, God and Satan. There is a tension in Bosch’s art, in which he makes come alive a world which is precarious, always on the edge, wherein on the boundaries of that world the non-normative seems to flourish.

Larry Silver: Bosch obviously is making things up. He brings things out of his dreams and his fantasies. The idea of being able to compose monsters out of your imagination requires, like any modern-day horror movie, imagining something that looks vaguely human, but is made out of parts that are considered both unattractive or loathsome and odd in combination.

Patrick Hunt: Monsters have fangs, talons, fur, scales, feathers, but unusually amalgamated into one being. And in every culture monsters become the repository of this hybrid being that distills our fears.

Natasha Staller: I’m fascinated by the question of how evil has been imagined over centuries, over cultures. And of course, in a very, very, deep way, nightmares deal with this. This is access to the most dangerous, the darkest, the most destructive part of a human’s spirit.

With Munch it’s very, very much a sense of his own losing loved ones, terror of sickness and death, strident cacophonous colors, these shooting lines going backward, fighting off against these wild, undulating curves on fire in the sky. There is a very deeply a sense of someone struggling, a life and death struggle with inner demons.

Jim Ganz: If you’re an artist and if you have a particular bent towards fantasy, it can inspire you to bring forth images from inside your own head, and to share with others through whatever medium it is you’re using, whether it’s prints, engraving, etching, lithography, or painting or sculpture.

Charles Meryon is not a household name today, but in the mid-to-late nineteenth century he was very well-known among the intelligentsia in Paris. Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire all knew Meryon and his work.

He wanted to be a painter, but he was colorblind. So, he eventually took up printmaking, etching. He had a great eye, a great eye for detail and topography and he loved Paris. And he made many etchings that show us the world around him as it was changing before his eyes. Old Paris was in a state decay in the 1850s. In the 1860s there would be great urban renewal.

And he had spent some parts of his life in an institution, in a mental institution. And when he was out he would work on these projects. His friends would try to get commissions for him, and many of his etchings show parts of Paris that look much as they would have to his contemporaries.

He would print some impressions. Then he would go back and burnish the plate in certain areas, rework it, print it in the next state. We call that a state change. And when you follow the progression of the states of this image you see how it starts out as a fairly realistic image of the city. There’s a balloon flying in the air. He gives great attention to the clouds, because he often sees things in the clouds, and in the sky.

As time goes on, he reworks the plate, and soon the sky is filled with these dark birds of prey, swarming down, kind of like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. You can actually follow the changes in Meryon’s mental state, as you follow the changes of state in the etched plate itself.

Melissa McCormick: One of the most interesting things about the representation of dreams in Japanese art is the way in which they really mine the territory of dreams or most specifically the kind of the in-betweenness of dreams. That sort of state of reality that comes at the cusp between sleep and waking.

There are some tell-tale signs of a dream scene. And these would include, for example, an oil lamp that’s lit and the flame is kind of flickering to show that it’s night. Also the reclining figure, the sleeping figure. And sometimes the sleep space is demarcated with curtains or screens that people would actually use to separate off architectural spaces when they went to sleep.

What is the difference between seeing something in a dream and seeing something in reality or in painting? And images that try to capture that sense of seeing while one is sleeping really opens up on to a whole array of questions having to do with perception and the act of seeing itself.

So the dream space can be one in which one can realize desires or fantasies that would be impossible in reality. And this could be the case, for example, for female protagonists who might live an otherwise cloistered existence, who couldn’t actually wander to their lover’s residence, but in their dream life can meet with them countless times. And so in that way the dream realm provides this important kind of fantasy space.

Whitney Chadwick: Surrealists were really in search of a way of resolving the contradictions of Western thought, which is polarized. I mean, it’s set up in a system of polarities—dream and waking, the conscious and the unconscious, life and death, truth and beauty, mind and spirit.

And it was Freud who brought to general consciousness the fact that it is the dream that connects us to the whole, vast unconscious part of the mind, with its repressed wishes and desires and fears.

So the Surrealists’ imagination is connected certainly to the attempt not just to make visible what’s invisible, but to reconnect the invisible to the visible in new ways.

Mary Ann Caws: The Surrealists cared a great deal about there being no separation between what you’re looking at and yourself looking. The whole history of the way the eye is represented, of course, in the eye, looking at it through the window, and looking into the interior soul of the artist seems to me one of the most interesting things possibly that any artist can project upon the canvas, and upon the world. And I keep thinking of that wonderful painting by Magritte called The False Mirror, in which you have an eye looking out and on the pupil is projected a series of clouds. And so it’s both the dream and the real world. And it’s the way that the painter, all painters, project upon the world their own vision and their own dreams.

Whitney Chadwick: Surrealism sought to operate on this fine line between two contradictory states. The paranoiac part referred in Dali’s mind to the state of paranoia, a state that’s often characterized by intense hallucinations based on personal obsessions of one kind or another. The viewer may not come to them with Dali’s particular psyche, but the viewer will recognize in them the fears and phobias that lurk in all of our psyches.

Mary Ann Caws: Surrealism is the art of the child and the mad, but mad in the positive sense. So, mad love is about love that isn’t rational. So that’s, again, about the freshness of the universe. Everything we don’t know, everything that’s mysterious is able, somehow, to pull out from us something more than what we already know.

Sandy Skoglund: The interesting thing for me is this sort of ultimate sanity of allowing yourself to behave insanely. When I think back to why I became an artist, it was all about feeling as though I wasn’t normal. So that feeling of not belonging, of enjoying being by yourself, finding social situations a strain, all of those aspects of reality.

Even before I went to school and knew what an artist was, I was interested in creating my own worlds. I’d draw on everything. The idea of an imaginary life has always been with me. And that is one of, to me, the very healing things about making art, is that it allows you to transform yourself.

In a world where science has achieved so much, it almost seems as though the life of the imagination doesn’t make much sense. What good is it? But human beings really need it. So the life of the imagination, the importance of that, is to in a sense liberate the entire society with the possibility that their daydreams and their visions are, in fact, just as important in a democratic sense as any other person’s. It is a reflection of our humanity in the sense of the incredibly delicate and vulnerable balancing act that we all go through in our lives. Art that depicts the life of the imagination is offering up to everyone the possibility of having internal life.

At the same time, it would seem in a way that I’m celebrating the ordinariness of experience with using common objects. The life of the imagination is really a refutation of the validity of the ordinary wall—the actual wall—and saying that there either is another world, or there are many, many other worlds.

Mary Ann Caws: I think the great value of all of this kind of projecting of your interior vision means that you are somehow given the privilege and the possibility to do it for yourself. So when you see this being done in front of you, somehow it unleashes in you a kind of possibility which you might not have thought you had before.

Jim Ganz: There’s a momentary connection between the viewer today and the artist who created the work. It’s a kind of magical experience to have that direct contact with another human being through a work of art. When the art is intensely personal, it can help you understand yourself better.

Patrick Hunt: Everyone has the capacity to express him or herself at varying degrees. What art does that’s very different than normal expression is empowers not just the imagination of the artist, but the imagination of the viewer as well. Art is a connective experience.

Art, of course, is about seeing. But it is not always about representing the world as it exists, and sometimes it can allow us to see with more than our eyes. From Aboriginal artists who paint the unseen forces of the universe to Surrealists who looked into the recesses of the unconscious mind for inspiration, people have found many ways to record ephemeral feelings, unknowable mysteries, personal fantasies, and inner visions. At the same time, art has been used as a tool to inspire and guide dreams and visions, both secular and spiritual.

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Expert Biographies

Judith Bettelheim, Ph.D., professor of art history at San Francisco State University, specializes in arts of the African Diaspora, Afro-Caribbean culture and festivals, multicultural American art, and Cuban art. She has worked in the Caribbean and in Cuba for various projects, including the exhibitions “Caribbean Festival Arts” and “AFROCUBA: Works on Paper.” She is the author of Cuban Festivals: a Century of Afro-Cuban Culture.


Mary Ann Caws, Ph.D., D.H.L., is Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Professor Caws is the author or editor of over sixty books, mostly in the field of literature and the arts. Caws was co-director of the Henri Peyre French Institute, is an officier of the Palmes Académiques, has been awarded Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller Fellowships, and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her recent books include To the Boathouse: a MemoirSurprised in TranslationSalvador Dali, and Provençal Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France.


Whitney Chadwick, Ph.D., is professor emerita of art history at San Francisco State University. She has lectured widely and taught courses on twentieth-century and contemporary American and European art, with a special focus on women and Surrealism. Chadwick is the author of Women, Art, and SocietyWomen Artists and the Surrealist Movement, and Mirror Mirror: Self Portraits by Women Artists, as well as numerous articles and other publications. Her writings also include an art-historical crime novel, entitled Framed, which earned mainstream critical acclaim. She received her Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University.


James Ganz, Ph.D., is curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Ganz assists the Foundation with maintaining and exhibiting its 100,000 works of graphic art spanning over 500 years. Prior to this position, Ganz worked as Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he coordinated over twenty exhibitions, including “The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings,” as well as shows on nineteenth-century photography and old masters prints and drawings. He has also worked as a special assistant for prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ganz received his Ph.D. from Yale University.


Roy W. Hamilton is curator for Asian and Pacific collections at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. In this capacity, he has developed and executed many Asian and Pacific art exhibitions. Hamilton is the author of several books, including The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in AsiaFrom the Rainbow’s Varied Hue: Textiles of the Southern Philippines, and Gift of the Cotton Maiden: Textiles of Flores and the Solor Islands. In 2006–07, Hamilton received a curatorial fellowship from the Getty Foundation for his research on the textiles of Timor.


Patrick Hunt, Ph.D., teaches art history, mythology, and classics at Stanford University and serves as the director of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project in France, Italy, and Switzerland. Hunt has led archaeology exhibitions worldwide, including the Hannibal Expedition, sponsored by the National Geographic Society. He has been honored as a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and has authored numerous publications, including Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History and Myths for All Time. Hunt is also an avid musician, composer, and artist. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of London’s Institute of Archaeology.


Yukio Lippit, Ph.D., is an associate professor of art history at Harvard University. Lippit specializes in pre-modern Japanese painting, with an emphasis on Sino-Japanese painting connected to Zen Buddhism and lineages that arose from it during the early modern and medieval periods. He has authored several articles and books on his topic of expertise, including a forthcoming project, Painting of the Realm: The Kanō House of Painters in Seventeenth Century Japan. Lippit received his B.A. from Harvard University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University.


Melissa McCormick, Ph.D., is professor of Japanese art and culture at Harvard University. She is the author of Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan and a forthcoming volume focusing on issues of gender in medieval Japanese narrative painting. McCormick received a B.A. from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. in Japanese art history from Princeton University.


Fred Myers, Ph.D., is the Silver Professor and Chair of the Anthropology Department at New York University. Myers’ research focuses on Aboriginal people in Australia, specifically Western Desert people. His many published works include Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art and The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology. Myers has received numerous honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. He was elected president of the American Ethnological Society and has spearheaded NYU’s Morse Academic Plan, a general education program for the College of Arts and Sciences. Myers earned his B.A. from Amherst College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr.


Mary Nooter Roberts, Ph.D., is a professor of culture and performance in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA and is a prominent scholar of African art. Roberts was formerly the chief curator and deputy director of UCLA’s Fowler Museum, and senior curator of the Museum for African Art in New York. She has organized and curated numerous exhibitions and authored articles and books on African art and culture. “A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal,” co-curated with her spouse, Dr. Allen F. Roberts, was hailed by the New York Times as one of the ten best of 2003 and the accompanying book won both the Herskovits Award and the Arnold Rubin Outstanding Publication Award. Other books and exhibitions that she and her husband have collaborated on include Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History, which won the College Art Association’s Alfred Barr Award for Outstanding Museum Scholarship and A Sense of Wonder: African Art from the Faletti Family Collection. Roberts received her Ph.D. from Columbia University.


John Pohl, Ph.D., is the first curator of the arts of the Americas at the UCLA Fowler Museum. Prior to joining the Fowler, Pohl was the Peter Jay Sharp Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas at the Princeton University Art Museum. Pohl has conducted archaeological excavations in North and Central America, curated several major exhibitions, and published extensively on American Indian civilizations of southern Mexico. His books include Exploring Mesoamerica, The Politics of Symbolism in the Mixtec Codices, and Aztecs and Conquistadores: The Spanish Invasion and the Collapse of the Aztec Empire. Pohl received his B.A. from Hampshire College and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Archaeology from UCLA.


Nasser Rabbat, Ph.D., is the Aga Khan Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to being an architect, Rabbat is a historian with a focus on Islamic architecture, urban history, and post-colonial studies. His books include The Citadel of Cairo: A New Interpretation of Royal Mamluk ArchitectureMaking Cairo Medieval, and L’art Islamique à la recherche d’une méthode historique. He serves on the boards of several organizations devoted to Islamic studies and delivers lectures around the world.


Larry Silver, Ph.D., is the Farquhar Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in Northern European painting and graphics of the Renaissance and Reformation periods. In addition to his position at the University of Pennsylvania, Silver has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Northwestern University, and Smith College. He has been the recipient of many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Kress Foundation. A prolific author, Silver has written numerous articles and books, among them Peasant Scenes and LandscapesMarketing Maximilian, and a survey text, entitled Art in History. He is also the co-author of books including Rembrandt’s Faith and The Graven Image. Silver served as a former president of both the College Art Association and the Historians of Netherlandish Art. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University.


Sandy Skoglund is an installation artist whose work fuses her interests in photography, popular culture, and commercialization. Many of her works feature Surrealist tableaux with bright colors and recurring objects. Some of her most well-known pieces include Radioactive Cats and Revenge of the Goldfish. In addition to having her works displayed in prominent museums, such as the Dayton Art Institute and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Skoglund has taught art at the University of Hartford and Rutgers University. She earned her B.A. from Smith College and her M.A. and M.F.A. from the University of Iowa.


Natasha Staller, Ph.D., wrote the award-winning A Sum of Destructions: Picasso’s Cultures & the Creation of Cubism. She contributed to the exhibition catalogue Picasso, The Early Years at the National Gallery and has appeared in television and film documentaries including Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies, narrated by Martin Scorsese. Educated at Wellesley College and Harvard University, she taught at the University of Chicago and Princeton before becoming a professor at Amherst College. There she teaches such courses as The Arts of Spain, Witches, Vampires and other Monsters, and The Modern World. She has been honored with fellowships from the Society of Fellows (Harvard), Getty (Yale), Mellon (University of Pennsylvania) and Guggenheim Foundations. Her next book project is The Spanish Monster.


Ilan Stavans, Ph.D., is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is a prolific and wide-ranging author whose books include The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in AmericaSpanglish: The Making of a New American LanguageLove and Language, and Gabriel García Márquez: The Early Years. He is the editor of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, the three-volume set Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected StoriesCesar Chavez: An Organizer’s Tale, and The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. He has been the recipient of numerous honors, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Jewish Book Award, an Emmy nomination, the Latino Hall of Fame Award, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to his post at Amherst, Stavans has taught at Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Oberlin College, Bennington College, and Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. Stavans is chairman and CEO of Quixote Productions, LLC, which has produced TV series and films on Jewish and Latin history and culture.


Edward J. Sullivan, Ph.D., is a professor of fine arts at New York University, specializing in art from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula. Sullivan’s publications include Baroque Art in MadridLatin American Art of the Twentieth CenturyBrazil: Body & Soul, and The Language of Objects in the Art of the Americas, among others. For his work, he has received many awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. Sullivan has curated exhibitions for museums in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe, and serves on committees for artistic institutions such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and El Museo del Barrio in New York. Sullivan received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from New York University.

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Art Through Time: A Global View


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