HYPNOS awake: an exploration of sleep

The subject of sleep is one that comes up time and time again, and it begs the question as to what it is about sleep that inspires the artist? Though sleep is a basic human function, it is unique to every individual experience. Fitzgerald wrote, "It appears that every man's insomnia is as different from his neighbors as their daytime hopes and aspirations". Sleep is an activity that every person does; it is an aspect of human nature that cannot be shared, when one falls asleep, one falls alone, wherein lies the appeal for the artist. The inactive action of sleep, of being conscious but not cognizant, of lying in reality but dreaming in fantasy, evokes a multitude of emotions and a series of possible connotations to the artist. Common themes and considerations in the realm and depiction of sleep through art include dream imagery, religion, sleep and innocence, sleep and the erotic, and the abandonment of consciousness. "Hypnos Awake" explores the methods and devices in which artists use, such as stories and mythology, to articulate their understanding of sleep, as well as the various themes and idea’s they’ve had about this mysterious human experience.  


In Giorgione’s "Sleeping Venus", Venus, the Greek god of love and beauty, is asleep in a pastoral setting. She looks peaceful and in place in the painting, with her curves emulating the hills behind her. Her hand and arm placement, one stretched above her head and the other rested on her genitals, create an extremely erotic picture. In this painting, her sexuality and eroticism, two things that Venus is associated with, are enhanced by sleep.
"Sleeping Apollo" portrays sleep as weakness. Here, Apollo lies asleep, unaware of the activities surrounding him. Apollo is the Greek god of music, truth and prophecy, linking him to reason and premonition. The abandoned books and instruments sprawled in front of him suggest his removal from the rational world, in addition to his location in the back forest, covered by darkness. In this painting, sleep is associated with the abandonment of reason, of being segregated in the realm of sleep from the outside world.
In "The Dream of St Helena", sleep is portrayed as the state in which the divine communicates with humans, a common occurrence in mythology and religious stories. In these stories, it is necessary that the protagonists enter a state of sleep to hear their god speak to them. In this painting St Helena sleeps as two cherubs carrying a cross fly above her head. Saint Helena was said to have received divine guidance in a dream to discover the place where the Cross, in which Christ had been crucified, was buried.
Another depiction of the divine communicating to humans in a state of sleep is in Salvator Rosa’s “The Dream of Aeneas”. In the epic tale of Virgil’s “Aeneid”, the god Tiber comes to Aenea’s in a dream to tell him of his destiny. Here, sleep is depicted as the only state the divine can be revealed, and where the sleeper can realize a higher state of realization and destiny.
In Van Gogh’s “The Siesta”, sleep is not just for immortal beings or those that are the subject of divine intervention, but rather a healing state of comfort and rest that is available to all. Sleep being depicted as “rest” is also a common artistic theme, where after days of hard work, the only course of escape is to move into another state of being, sleep.
“The Cradle” portrays an infant sleeping peacefully as the mother watches. Here, there is a clear contrast of sleep and wakefulness. The mother watches her sleeping infant calmly, relaxed, but vigilant as a mother protects her child. The alertness of the mother reminds us what sleeping is not, a state of consciousness and strength, as she must watch over her snoozing child.
The depiction of dreams becomes an excellent way for an artist to explore sleep and the inner workings of their unconscious mind. In “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, the artist is depicting sleep as horrifying and disturbing. The invasion of dreams, for the artist, comes with the invasion of monsters. The artist’s nightmare’s reflected his view of Spanish society, which he represented as demented and immoral.
In Rousseau’s “The Dream”, the artist portrays elements in the painting that juxtapose each other. The sky is bright, indicating day time, despite the full moon. Also, the woman is lounging on a sofa in the middle of a jungle, and there is a strange animal in the center playing a flute. The juxtaposition, the strangeness of these things contrasted with the reality of the painting, portrays the feeling of eeriness and perplexity that is often associated with dreams.
In Fuseli’s “The Nightmare”, a woman is seen with a demon-like creature on her abdomen and a horse’s head eerily peering at her from behind the curtain. Though she is asleep, she is terrified, and probably in a state of sleep paralysis, a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep where she cannot move or react to the visions around her.
Rousseau’s’ “The Sleeping Gypsy” portrays a lion approaching a sleeping woman. This painting represents the danger of sleep, and reminds the viewer that though sleep may be restorative and positive, there is a lurking danger and vulnerability that is associated with it.
Credits: All media
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