Ria Higgins

Dreamsongs: From Medicine to Demons to Artificial Intelligence

In the window of the Colnaghi Gallery is a black and white close-up of a sleeping man. Young, beautiful, serene, perhaps dreaming. It is a still taken from Andy Warhol’s first avant-garde film, Sleep (1964), and the man in it is John Giorno, a beat poet and Warhol’s lover at the time. The film was nearly six hours long and Giorno went on to become famous in his own right, leading a life with a string of lovers that included Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Little does this image reveal the depression from which he suffered, however, and his attempt at committing suicide. His demons are there. We just don’t see them.

This is the introduction to the Colnaghi’s latest exhibition, Dreamsongs: From Medicine to Demons to Artificial Intelligence, and it brings together artists from practically every century, including Henri Rousseau, Henry Fuseli, Salvador Dali, Peter Blake and James Turrell. The curator, art historian Bjorn Stern, says the show is inspired by the fifth-century Roman scholar, Macrobius, who in turn was inspired by Cicero, 400 years earlier. Macrobius devised a way to classify dreams and divided them into five categories: the enigmatic, prophetic, oracular, nightmare and apparition. Stern uses this to structure the show, and it acts as a useful springboard from which we dive in.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, (Kronach 1472 – 1553 Weimar), Melancholia, 1532, Oil on panel, 52.4 x 74 cm. Courtesy of Colnaghi

The state of our mental health affects our dreams. It is an area which artists, as well as psychologists, have explored for years. In Lucas Cranach The Elder’s Melancholia, a wealthy young woman sits in the corner of a room. Blonde ringlets fall about her face and fine gold jewellery sets off her bright orange silks. She is with her babies. They are a joy to behold: smiling, dancing, sleeping. Only then do we notice her downcast eyes, the knife in her hand and tiny apparitions in the top far corner – devil-like creatures, tormented naked bodies, a fleeing skeletal horse. Enigmatic symbols ripple out. Is she reliving a nightmare? Is this a cry for help? Is she about to kill herself – or her children?

There are over a hundred works in the show, and they are eclectic in the extreme. Among them a Jean Cocteau necklace, William Blake illustrations, a mystical clay cube by Eduardo Chillida and a bronze inkwell by Sarah Bernhardt, the famous nineteenth-century French actress who was also known for her sculpture. Interestingly, Bernhardt was obsessed with death and even kept a coffin in her bedroom. In this piece, she has cast herself as a beautiful Sphinx with theatrical trimmings, books, bat wings, and griffin claws.

Sarah Bernhardt, Fantastic Inkwell (Self-Portrait as a Sphinx), 1880, Bronze, 31.8 x 34.9 x 31.8 cm. Courtesy of Colnaghi

In ancient art, Spinx’s were often associated with young men who die young, but in Cajsa von Zeipel’s obscene vision of ever-lasting youth, her subject has no intention of dying at all. In the Swedish artist’s sculpture, The Debutant (2019), we see the translucent skin of a woman’s head and torso in mid-transfusion. She oozes designer hoodie gear, millionaire nails, perfect cheekbones and a killer pout. But what could be mistaken for a medical tube is, in fact, her large intestine, which is hooked up to an overheating silicone pump, in an effort to try and bring her melting body – and hair – back to life. She is so pretty in baby pink, but her sunken eyes are dead to the world.

Cajsa Von Zeipel, The Deputant, 2019, Silicone dragon skin, aqua resin, glass beads, hoodie, epoxy resin, fake nails, 73.5 x 43 x 28 cm. Courtesy of Colnaghi

This nightmarish search for perfection chimes with another work in the show, eerily prophetic considering it was painted over 400 years earlier. The Legend of the Baker of Eeklo is inspired by Flemish folklore and attributed to the Antwerp artist, Jan van Wechelen. In it, we see a busy village bakery. There is an orderly queue of customers in Puritan dress. But instead of selling rustic sourdoughs, this bakery does while-you-wait face-lifts. Your head is severed, re-painted and baked. Bizarrely, these dream makeovers work…  Well, most of them. And all is not lost for those unhappy with the results: the baker will replace your head with a nice, green cabbage.

Just be careful what you dream for.

Attributed to Jan Van Wechelen, The Legend of the baker of Eeklo, c. 1570-80, Oil on panel, 74 x 103 cm. Courtesy of Colnaghi

Dreamsongs: From Medicine to Demons to Artificial Intelligence is at the Colnaghi Gallery, 26 Bury Street, London, SW1 until November 23. 

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