One of my favorite museums is the Whitney Museum in NYC. It is a huge building with huge ceilings and a highly curated collection of American art, keeping it easier to focus on a limited number of pieces. During my last visit, I was drawn to Federico Castellón's "The Dark Figure," seen above. It got me thinking on the subject of dream and vision interpretation.
Castellón's paintings often depict dreamlike images with heavy shadows that evoke feelings of isolation and loneliness. Many of these works were inspired by his dreams, which he believed had hidden meanings that could be unlocked through careful analysis. The Dark Figure shows Federico's dismembered head surrounded by body parts in front of a plastered wall. There is a shadowed female figure only whose hands are shown.
Castellons works often center around themes of death. In this piece, only the hands have a vestige of life and blood, while the dismembered images are pale and bloodless. Moving left to note right, the skin of the subjects becomes less gray.
There are so many ways to interpret this image. It helps to break it down into different dimensions to help the process. Not that this is similar to the process of breaking down a dream. In a dream, we take things at face value and then refocus and decipher the metaphors, often embedded, intertwined, and messaging a strong non, literal meaning. Why this picture got me thinking that it is full of symbolism while distorting reality in interesting ways, just like a dream.
Life and death
Clearly, there is a lifeless quality to the left side—almost death-like. Meanwhile, the hands of the shadow are alive and full of blood. The white ring shifts to the color red as it approaches the shadow. The sky becomes sunnier, moving left to right.
The dismemberment of Castellón and the lifelessness of the body parts have a strong resonance with disassociation. Often in hypnosis, we disassociate someone by saying something along the lines of “that hand” instead of your hand. It is no longer part of the person; it is something else. The motif of walls further heightens the sense of separation. Notice they seem to be covered in some sort of plaster that reveals bricks underneath. Dissociation appears is like an underlying current.
The Shadow Self
Shadow figures are often found in Castellón's works. Here we have a shadow of a woman. Based on her hands, she is older and, might I say, a man. Possibly a mother figure? She is relaxed, standing in shadow, and the weather behind her is calm compared with the storms occurring on the left. She is also beyond the rest of the picture; she casts no shadows which are present elsewhere and is in the foreground. It is as if she is somehow causing the stress in the rest of the picture. She is well-defined and not surreal other than being a shadow with living hands. Everywhere else, the dismembered parts are casting shadows, but here we have a shadow figure who is larger, relaxed, defined, and seemingly in control of the objects behind her in the storm.
Part of me feels this is a wonderful representation of the shadow self that seems not to exist consciously yet creates so much confusion and suffering. Many of the shadows we cast come unknowingly from within us, originating in ever deeper subconscious ways.
What is interesting is that if you are unfamiliar with Jung’s concept of the shadow, this picture takes on a much different meaning. When interpreting dreams and subconscious symbols, there is a language. Some of it is learned, some of it is part of being human, and it often takes many tries to get the full message out of dreams and other subconscious productions. Like this picture, there are many levels of abstraction going on—symbols relate to symbols as one bigger symbol. The relations between the symbols can be as important as the symbols themselves. Our minds process things in similies this is like that, that is different from this, this is as if that… Combining similies into similes into metaphors creates works that have powerful impacts on us subconsciously.
Often people appear to be fragmented mentally. This is very clear when multiple personalities surface as different people in one person. It is also a sense of being incomplete or having a feeling of deep emptiness, in addition, the sense of self. Sort of an empty self and a real self. This work depicts the fragmentation of the physical person in the form of dismemberment and morphing of body parts. The feeling is of a broken self surrounded by others fragments. Nothing on the left side is complete. Even the small wall is incomplete.
Because the picture can break from reality, the rules of reality, think the rules of time and physics, are not enforced and can be manipulated to create points and allow the picture to embed meaning in how the breaks occur or by just letting things occur that are impossible outside of our minds. This creates a rich language outside of observable reality. This is the natural language of the unconscious mind. The conscious mind needs to interpret it against reality to extract deeper meanings. As I write this and explain aspects of the picture, my conscious mind becomes aware of things that I unconsciously already know.
I’m no art scholar, yet I do enjoy thinking about the meaning of abstract ideas and works like this. The arts is feeling fragmented and disassociated, showing Castellón to be incomplete. The walls that hold him up are starting to break down, and there are shadows of his breakdown on the walls. A dark shadow figure stands before all this, seemingly at rest. Perhaps it is behind the breaking down or simply observing it; in either case, the shadow figure seems to be somehow sharing in the responsibility of what is happening. Is it the artist’s mother or some other female character? We don’t know. We do know that it is there taking up much of the space and is not revealed. This is where knowing more about Castellón's life at the time this was created would be helpful. In the same what knowing a person’s situation and past at the time they have dream can help in the discovery of meaning.
What if the conscious mind can step aside and allow the subconscious language to be more in the lead, and it is just taking notes? I feel when we interpret dreams and visualizations. This is a way hypnosis can help by pushing parts of the mind that are usually in the background forward and pushing the typical forward parts back. I think this is what really got my attention, the idea of something mysterious and known in the foreground controlling what is occurring in the background. Almost a reversal of how we picture the subconscious and conscious mind. Most of us picture the conscious mind as a majority of ourselves and the subconscious as a shrouded background actor. When in reality, and proven time and time again across 1000s of hypnosis sessions in my practice, the subconscious mind is actually in the foreground but hidden from us, and the conscious mind is left to respond to it and make sense of its computations. I think this is the reason I found myself so drawn to this image, even if the interpretation is more of my own than the original intent.