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When the imagination is free to roam, art itself is a kind of dream; delightful, reassuring, unsettling and even terrifying.

Selected from the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery Collection, the free exhibition 'Dreams and Nightmares' at The Higgins Bedford (on display until 22nd March 2020) explores our sleeping subconscious in art and features works by William Blake, J. M. W. Turner and by Edward Burne-Jones.

The world around us often reflects what we experience in our dreams and nightmares. William Blake was a Romantic artist and poet at a time when Neoclassicism dominated the cultural arts.

This watercolour represents the struggle between opposing forces and mirrors Blake's own struggle against the conventional style of his time. The flames behind the dark angel dominate much of this work, signifying the individual passion, inspiration and creativity that should be free and not tied down, as the dark angel is here.

The Bellman

The Bellman (from 'Il Penseroso') 1881

Samuel Palmer (1805–1881)

The Higgins Bedford

Though Blake's works were often overlooked in his time, he provided inspiration for many other artists, including Samuel Palmer. Primarily a landscape artist, this is the most famous of Palmer's late watercolours and captures the nostalgia of the time he spent living and working in the village of Shoreham. The effects of the light present a more idealistic view of pastoral life, like a particularly vivid dream.

On Death Part Two, Dead Mother

On Death Part Two, Dead Mother 1898

Max Klinger (1857–1920)

The Higgins Bedford

Inspired by Adolph Menzel and Francisco Goya, Max Klinger created Symbolist works focusing on themes of myth, fantasy and the unconscious. Death was a frequent subject in his works as portrayed in this piece from his last major print cycle.

At first, this image seems to have a consoling message of renewal represented by the tree in the background, but delving deeper, the odd positioning of the child is similar to that of an incubus (a nightmarish demon) and makes the viewer wonder if the child is the victim or actually the monster.

Cupid Delivering Psyche

Cupid Delivering Psyche 1867

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898)

The Higgins Bedford

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) once said 'I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful.'

This watercolour is part of a series made to accompany a poem written by his friend William Morris. It depicts the mythical story of the lovers Cupid and Psyche as he rescues her from the Underworld. The small figure of Charon (the boatman that guides the dead), rowing away in the background along with the touches of gold around Psyche's head suggests that she has been granted the immortality of the Gods, becoming equal to her lover Cupid who is already an immortal.

The Great Falls of the Reichenbach

The Great Falls of the Reichenbach 1804

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)

The Higgins Bedford

When a brief peace was agreed during the Napoleonic Wars in 1802, J. M. W. Turner crossed the Channel for the first time to reach the Swiss Alps.

This watercolour is the most impressive of Turner's Swiss views as the enclosed angle seems to suggest the insignificance of humankind beside the vastness of nature. It gives a sense of 'delightful horror' reminiscent of a nightmare, even though the viewer is perfectly safe.

The Celestial Art

The Celestial Art 1894

Odilon Redon (1840–1916)

The Higgins Bedford

Symbolist artist Odilon Redon frequently portrayed fantastical subjects set in imaginary dreamworlds that explored the unconscious and reflected emotions and ideas open to interpretation.

In this work a figure gazes down at a sheet of music whilst an angel playing the violin hovers above, representing the nostalgia of Redon's youth (he had grown up in a musical house) and recognising the importance of music throughout his life.

The free exhibition 'Dreams and Nightmares' is on display at The Higgins Bedford until 22nd March 2020.