The Art of Nightmares

an essay by Nazir Tanbouli


fuesli, the nightmare (wikimedia commons)

Why do artists sometimes create horrific images that burn themselves into the memory, creating a sense of unease and unsettling the viewer? And why are audiences drawn to such images, seeking them out time and time again? Yet, why do such images appear to be made only at certain times – times either in the artists’ life or at times in history?

I am interested in the regular but infrequent appearance of the nightmare in art. Depicting nightmarish images, that seem to “pop” out of my unconscious is something I have been aware of in my own drawings and paintings in the past few years. At first I thought I was alone in this. However over the past year and a half, I have been meeting other artists, and attending exhibitions, where nightmare images are presented, and appear to be resonating with audiences. This movement is small as yet, but I think it is significant. For this reason this essay researches the roots of the appearance of the nightmare in visual art, and connects it to the shamanic role of the artist in explaining the world to the tribe Furthermore, the deep connection between shamanism and art itself is explained.

Using Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, and Jung’s notion of the archetype as guides, this paper shows that drawing the nightmare is something that an artist does in his/her function as shaman, seizing upon archetypal and symbolic elements that transform the nightmarish image form the personal unconscious of the artist into the collective unconscious of the tribe – that is, the audience. And by articulating the nightmare through art, the artist reassures the audience that they are not alone, not mad, that the nightmare they are fearing, we all fear it too; and that maybe collectively we can stand against our fears.

Starting with the Gothic horror of Fuesli’s Night Mare I look at artists’ nightmares from the first half of the 20th century up to the Abu Ghraib paintings of Fernando Botero.


DOWNLOAD The Art of Nightmares by Nazir Tanbouli

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Citation text:

Tanbouli, Nazir (2010) “The Art of Nightmares” Unpublished Masters thesis. Camberwell College of Art,  London, UK. Available on

all text copyright Nazir Tanbouli,2010 all rights reserved.

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