“CABBAGE head” is Dutch for stupid, and sheds light on one of the opening works in “Dreamsongs: From Medicine to Demons to Artificial Intelligence”. The Legend of the Baker of Eeklo (1570-80), attributed to Jan Van Wechelen, shows a graphic-novel sequence of figures lining up at a bakery to be decapitated, and then fitted with a temporary cabbage on their torso to stem the bleeding, while their old heads are remodelled, fired in the oven, and then reattached. A popular subject in Flemish art, its moral is to be content with your appearance, as the new head from the magical baker’s may not always work out. The fine detailing of the figures and objects, including baskets of cabbages and severed heads, and the everyday production-line nature of the scene, add to the disquieting effect.
Dreams, visions, and prophecies have featured in art since Antiquity. The curator, Bjorn Stern, argues that exploring the inner world allowed artists both to explore the hidden and unseen, escaping the approved subjects of court and religion, and also to reflect the preoccupations of their time. The guiding spirit of Colnaghi Gallery’s exhibition is a quotation from the Canadian video artist Natalie Melikian: ‘”Dreams do not exceed the context from which they were formed.”
Courtesy of ColnaghiEvelyn Dunbar (1906-1960), Joseph in Prison (1949-50), signed with initials, oil on canvas
Arranged according to Macrobius’s five categories of dreams (dream, vision, prophecy, misleading dream and nightmare) rather than chronologically, this densely packed exhibition aims to echo the experience of a dream. A sightline that takes in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Melancholia (1532), before falling to a Seville School statue of Infant Christ Sleeping (1659-69) by Morelli, and then a pink silicone, highly sexualised, lifesize female torso from the future, The Debutant (2019) by Cajsa von Zeipel, certainly feels free-flowing and unscripted..
Cranach’s work shows a young woman whittling a stick, while jellybaby-style, Elastoplast pink babies dance at her feet, to the drum and pipe rhythm of two baby musicians in the background. At the mini musicians’ feet, two babies have keeled over with exhaustion. As a parishioner, and later portraitist of Luther, Cranach would have been familiar with Luther’s dismissal of melancholia as the “bath of Satan”.
Earlier in the exhibition, an engraving, The Dream of the Doctor (1498), by Dürer, contemporary of Cranach and fellow admirer of Luther, features a winged female figure, who recurs as a source of disturbance through the centuries. She fills the canvas in Johann Henri Fuseli’s St John’s Vision of the Seven Candlesticks (1796), a Romantic riot of sinuous human forms and shades of shadow and light, by this Swiss painter who gave up the Church to become an artist in England.
Courtesy of ColnaghiFrederick Charles Underhill (1851-75), The Temptation of Saint Anthony, oil on canvas
Moving to the mid-19th century, the winged temptress takes centre stage in Frederick Underhill’s The Temptation of St Anthony. Even the brown demons and sprites coming out of the cave walls seem to cower under the towering female figure. Frantic brushwork highlights her white, barely there, diaphanous draping, against the dun background,
In popular imagination, Joseph is synonymous with biblical dreams, and the war artist Evelyn Dunbar’s Joseph in Prison (1949- 50) is a spirited, mid-century treatment of the story, with Joseph in red, dynamic and central, against an olive-and-black background of sleeping, passive cellmates. The arrangement and lines bring to mind Henry Moore’s drawings of people sheltering in Tube stations during the Blitz.
Courtesy of ColnaghiFlemish School, Tricephalous Christ (The Trinity), c.1500, oil on panel
When visions are rendered on to objects, the bridge between inner and outer worlds feels all the more tangible. Cranach’s mastery of woodcuts and printing in vast quantities allowed the iconography of the Reformation to reach a wide audience. Stern is proud to display Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job (1825) as a book, so that we can experience the impact of the swirling lines and fine details flat on the page, part of a whole, rather than framed and isolated on a wall.
A Flemish Tricephalous Christ, from the early 16th century, is the most magnificent object of all. Probably designed as part of a travelling altar, it conveys the Trinity through three images of Christ’s head merged into one, with the left eye in profile and the right facing straight ahead. The detailing and quality of modelling is exquisite, from the starburst halo behind his head to the embroidery on his cuff, and the hills of the world captured in the globe in the bottom-right corner.
This tiny oil-on-panel painting is a rarity, based on that Early Netherlandish painter Quentin Matsys’s Christ the Redeemer, with Christ’s hands held in blessing. Wrestling with the age-old theological question how to make the Trinity comprehensible, it is real artistic and religious creativity in one object.
“Dreamsongs: From Medicine to Demons to Artificial Intelligence” is at Colnaghi, 26 Bury Street, London SW1, until 27 November. Phone 020 7491 7408. Advance booking required. www.colnaghi.com