Salvador Dali (1904–1989) painted Sleep during the Parisian Surrealist movement in 1937. The painting depicts a large head with prominent facial features and closed eyes. The figure has no body, but there appears to be a thin neck that tapers off and hangs limply over a crutch. The background of whites and blues is bare except for a dog, also supported by a crutch, a boat, and a small town in the distance. Dali’s Sleep is a striking example of an artists’ surrealist use of dream imagery to push past the tangible, conscious thoughts of everyday life. Through the lens of a sleeping giant and the abundance of crutches, Dali uses sleep as a metaphor for the implications of reliance in the 20th century.The Surrealist movement was ignited by André Breton, a French writer, in 1924 with the publication of his Manifesto of Surrealism.1
During this time period, Surrealists rejected rationality and artfully expressed human experience as motivated by the unconscious and dreams.2 Dali, like many Surrealist artists, had a fascination with Sigmund Freud. In the early 1920s, Dali read Freud’s book, Interpretation of Dreams, and said it was “one of the capital discoveries of [his] life.”3 Dali internalized Freud’s feelings on the importance of dreams and was fascinated with Freud’s many psychoanalytic studies.
During this time period, artists started paying more attention to their own dreams and found distinct ways to artistically represent them. Images and feelings that would have otherwise been ignored and dismissed were now the cornerstone of an artistic movement – the subconscious held meaning. Dali searched for ways to incorporate psychoanalysis and paranoia into this art, and often did so through symbols. Dali called these symbols, like the crutches depicted in Sleep, “surrealist objects.” He wrote extensively on the psychological connection between these objects and their metaphorical representations.1Dali’s interest in Surrealism and dreams is not only present in his artwork, but also in his memoir, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. In the memoir, he titles a section “Intra-Uterine Memories,” followed by 2 more sections on memories, “False Childhood Memories” and “True Childhood Memories.”4
If Dali can distinguish false memories from true memories, then why does he place so much importance on events that did not occur? “The difference between false memories and true ones,” he wrote, “is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant…it has often become impossible for me to know where reality begins and the imaginary ends.” Dali sees more brilliance in false, dream-like thoughts than in truth. He uses these false memories and illusions to illustrate his beliefs that subconscious thoughts and memories, true or fabricated, characterize one’s existence.In true Surrealist form, Sleep includes a bizarre, dream-like scene with a distorted figure. The viewer’s eye is initially drawn to the face of the figure, then travels along the thin neck, following shadows. The giant figure in the foreground is one Dali wrote about in his memoir. “I have often imagined the monster of sleep as a heavy, giant head with a tapering body held up by the crutches of reality.”4
The sleeping head is representative of sleep itself.In the same memoir, Dali wrote extensively about his interactions with Parisian aristocrats and compared them to storks, only standing with one leg on the ground – one foot in reality and the other floating elsewhere. Dali documented an instance where he, along with his peer intellectuals whom he deemed “invalids,” decided to support the snobbish aristocrats. Facetiously, Dali showed up for his supporting role not empty handed, but with crutches.4 The “pathetic crutch” is a repeated symbol in Sleep. In the painting, there are many small, seemingly superfluous crutches concentrated around the nose and mouth. Dali addresses such crutches in his memoir as extravagant nose crutches made of gold and rubies with the intent of holding up one’s nose, a fitting pose for the aristocrats he mocks in his paintings and writings. He says they are “an absolutely useless kind of object to appeal to the snobbism of certain criminally elegant women.”4
Dali’s use of crutches could be claiming that aristocrats, even in sleep, feel as if they need to rely on others for a connection to the common world. Dali most likely pitied the aristocrats who were so strained and dependent on social order that they could not appreciate the most illuminating aspects of life – dreaming and sleep.Through Sleep and his memoir, Dali relates his feelings on social class with his admiration for the subconscious dream state. Sleep is often viewed as a time where all are equal. Social classes cease to exist, worries momentarily subside, and one can finally untether from society.Through dreaming and the abstract representation of sleep and its implications, Dali created his masterpiece, Sleep. Surrealist techniques allowed Dali the creativity to express subconscious thoughts and ideas in a tangible way on the canvas.
Through the monster of sleep, Dali urges viewers to question their relationship with social structures around them. In doing so, Dali mocks those who cannot connect with the freeing aspects of their subconscious through his use of crutches. As Dali and his Surrealist peers envisioned, Sleep forces the viewer to question their own reality and their place within fragile societies.
The authors have declared that they have nothing to disclose.
Published online: July 09, 2020
© 2020 National Sleep Foundation. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Registered Address: Innovative Foam Ltd, 506, Vardhaman Chambers, Horniman Circle, Fort, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001. CIN: U74120MH2013PLC248465