The Dream Artist Nobody Knows About

“I experience a power within myself which is not the same as my conscious ego. It has forced me to adopt a path quite foreign to my conscious attitude, a path which totally contradicted my will and everything I considered important. Before I was able to obey this power, I first needed to be crushed and almost destroyed. I often felt it was a pity this process had taken so long, but now, looking back over thousands of dreams and the sacrifices of a long, hard development, I can see how valuable the experience has been.”

Peter Birkhäuser, Light from the Darkness

Peter Birkhäuser was born on June 7th, 1911, in Basel, Switzerland. His childhood was overshadowed by the early death of his mother, but even as a child he had decided he wanted to be a painter. A medieval picture of a knight in armour in the Basel art gallery had fascinated him so much that he thought to himself: “I must become a painter. I want to learn to paint knights like that.”

Birkhäuser studied art and for two decades his artistic activity had found general sympathy and approval. One evening, while he was working in his studio, a moth fluttered and settled against the outside of the windowpane. Birkhäuser turned this event into a painting in which the moth appears to be of monstrous proportions. He interpreted this picture years later as a representation of his own state of mind. The moth, an image of the soul, was prevented by the glass from reaching the light, that is to say his consciousness. He had grown up in a rationalistic and agnostic environment, and his instincts were all against the unconscious or the religious.

Moth (1944-1945)

The problems the moth painting presented had involuntarily developed into a midlife crisis in Birkhäuser’s life when he was about thirty. He lost his old enthusiasm for his work. Painting required more and more effort. They stood around for long periods half-finished, and completing them only brought feelings of disgust. Painting produced a sense of impotence, and he suffered more and more frequent fits of depression.

It was in this state of perplexity that Birkhäuser and his wife, Sibylle, came upon the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung, and, impressed, began to note and analyse their dreams. Birkhäuser and his wife entered analysis with Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz and developed a friendship with Jung himself.

Near the beginning of his analysis, Birkhäuser dreamed of a huge praying mantis which attacked him, and against which he was determined to defend himself.

The creative side of Birkhäuser’s personality demanded a quest for a new spiritual value. Over the course of 35 years, he kept notes on over 3400 of his dreams, and his work increasingly focused on the images emerging from his unconscious. His new work was not well-received by the art community of the time, but, viewed today, his vivid paintings bear striking testament to the disruptive and transformative reality of individuation, the purpose of Jungian psychology, which is to seek wholeness of personality by bringing the unconscious contents into reality.

In 1953, Birkhäuser painted “The World’s Wound”. In rage and despair he smudged the picture on to the canvas with no faith that anything reasonable would come out. He had been haunted by the face in his dreams for four years and felt that this painting of a split man was in no sense a product of his conscious will.

Birkhäuser’s new and bizarre paintings were met with blank incomprehension. During this time he was unable to support himself from his art and was forced to live from advertising work. His wife, his most loyal and constructive critic, died suddenly in 1971. That year Birkhäuser saw the beginning of a serious lung problem and increasing physical handicaps. However, the last five years of his life were accompanied by striking progress in his spiritual development and artistic productivity. He devoted himself exclusively to bringing these unconscious images into reality.

Few artists have so powerfully evoked the uncanny otherness of the unconscious. Overcoming his dead tradition and sterile art was no easy task. Just how hard this struggle with himself must have been is suggested by the fact that it took the artist twelve years to make the great break and paint a picture entirely according to his own imagination, with no model from the real world.

The fantasy pictures reflect not only the artist’s own personal psychological situation, but also the spirit of the age, revealing what is taking place in the depths of the collective unconscious in all of the people of our time. Because of this, they are not easy to decipher: they are simply there, and wish to be experienced. He stated that:

“This mysterious power has its own will and ends. It knows things that no human being could know. So I’m sure it would not be wrong to give it the name of God. It is after all greater than every human faculty. It is what we impute to God, to know the future, or to know what an individual should do in the decades ahead.”

Peter Birkhäuser, Light from the Darkness

In 1980, a selection of his works was published in the book Light from the Darkness: The Paintings of Peter Birkhäuser, edited and introduced by his daughter and son with commentary on the paintings by Marie-Louise von Franz, who writes that:

“Peter Birkhäuser’s pictures are pure products of his unconscious mind. These commentaries do not represent any conscious thoughts of the artist’s. They are attempts subsequently to achieve an understanding of the paintings and thus to hint at possible interpretations.”

Peter Birkhäuser, Light from the Darkness

So, without further ado, here are some of the dream paintings of Swiss artist Peter Birkhäuser.

1. The World’s Wound (1953)

As mentioned before, this painting represents Birkhäuser’s struggle with his midlife crisis, when he realised that he could no longer paint his outer world as he once did. It was originally called “The Split One”, but had been renamed “The World’s Wound”, taking a collective view, instead of a personal one.

In his dream, this man was desperately trying to reach Birkhäuser. He personifies the tragic inner split of modern man, who through an over-reliance on rationality has lost his spiritual  and inner meaning. We can no longer overcome this split, but we can become conscious of it. Then the creative spirit of the unconscious could be reintegrated with our consciousness. The eye on the left is opened in fearful vision, that on the right remains sceptical and cool.

It was after this encounter that Birkhäuser felt urged to give up painting motifs of his own choice and devote himself to representing the sufferings of our age as reflected in the collective unconscious.

2. The Cat (1949-1955)

The cat represents the ‘old woman’ and her mysterious animal eyes. In dreams she threatened the artist’s life, but also appeared as the guardian of undiscovered treasures. She is the ‘Great Mother’ who can paralyse those who desire to regress to her, but who also possesses the age-old secrets of the instincts and nature. In other dreams she also appeared as a murderous praying mantis, just as Birkhäuser had experienced near the beginning of his analysis.

Her negative aspect is a reflection of a negative attitude towards her. This gives her the expectant, watchful look, as if acceptance of her would reveal quite a different side. Then she could become, like the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet, a bringer of joy and vitality.

This was one of Jung’s favourite paintings, and it hung in his consulting room.

3. Depression (1954-1955)

Every new creation is preceded by an annihilation of the previously held conscious views. Everything has become stale and meaningless, and the unknown psychic realm reaches out to grasp us with tentacles like mist, like liquid or ectoplasm. Depression dissolves the head of the painter, as he sits idly with his back to the easel, suspended in space, with nothing solid beneath his feet. Only by turning round to face the uncanny powers can he discover their secret intentions.

4. Depression #2 (Date unknown)

In this other painting also entitled Depression, the artist continues to be enveloped by the tentacles of depression. This neurosis is the suffering of a soul that has not yet found its meaning, it is the “cry of the soul for growth.” However, we should not try to cure it – because it cures us. We should not try to get rid of it, but to experience what it means, what it has to teach, what its purpose is. We should even be thankful for it, for it is what allows us to open new doors.

5. Duel (Date unknown)

Conflicts are part of our nature. The figure on the right is menacingly holding a sharp weapon, a symbol of discrimination. One needs difficulties, they are necessary for health. The serious problems in life are never really solved. If ever they should appear to be so, it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of a problem lies not in its solution, but in our working at it incessantly. This alone keeps us from petrification and stultification.

6. Coming Up (1954-1955)

This poor workman would not attract a second glance, hunchbacked and wretched, he is clad in his working clothes, and apparently has been working in the sewers, as he comes up from a ladder. His face mirrors the sadness of a being who has never been loved, for we have turned away from our unconscious soul. But in folklore a hunchback is a bringer of luck; he carries a lamp, a chance to bring light into the darkness of our modern world by climbing out of the underworld.

7. The Inward Gaze (1954-1955)

If we look inwards, the ‘other’ looks at us too, but with a strange faraway eye. Our inner world reveals strange figures: a devouring witch, a beautiful woman and a snake. Images of seductive beauty and the cruellest abysses of nature. Birkhäuser was often persecuted in his dreams by a strange ‘old woman’, an unrecognisable, terrifying enemy.

This is the dark side of nature, inertia and death, from which the creative artist has to wrestle free again and again. The figure who sees this vision is colourless – his consciousness is drained of life, and the whole play of colours has gone into the reality of his unconscious, where a fog rises from below, an old symbol of resurrection.

8. The Fourth Dimension (1956-1957)

This one is based on a vision which Birkhäuser had on his way to see Jung one day. The horizontal town represents our usual conscious three-dimensional world, and through the mouth of the large face at the top flows water vertically, right down without touching the town, a cosmic background that symbolises the fourth dimension. Two incommensurable events are taking place on two totally different planes. In the cosmic background appear eyes, some clear, some dim, partly animal and partly human. The vision portrays the ‘other side’ of our world, in which a new God image becomes dimly visible, for those with eyes to see.

Jung gave the painting its name, and was enthusiastic about it, commenting on it in detail in his paper “Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky”, where he focuses on the psychic significance of UFOs with archetypal imagery, concluding that they have become a “living myth”, carriers of technological and salvationist fantasies, symbols of unconscious psychic projections.

9. Imprisoned Power (1958)

The fiery creative power of nature lies within the depths of a mountain. The animal that is imprisoned is a content of the unconscious exerting a strong pressure; it is something in the soul, perhaps also in the body, which could provoke an explosion. Inadequate emotional outbursts often characterise such a situation.

Flames shoot out and stones thunder down – it could erupt and destroy everything anytime. At the bottom, a man leaves his car and runs away in terror. The round golden eye of the animal is like a seed of light in the darkness, for the creative powers also possess the possibility of insight and consciousness. Like the eye of a bird it focuses on the far rather than the near. The animal is a sort of Behemoth, the dark female side of God, waiting to be liberated from its prison in the depths of the earth.

10. Fire Gives Birth (1959-1960)

The sea of flames of the Godhead, which gives birth to all the colourful and wondrous forms and shapes of nature. The content is breaking out from the hot fires of libido, one could also say from the waves of emotion and excited feeling. It is creative energy. Out of it we finally emerge into the suffering and beauty of life.

11. The Outcast (1960)

From the grey monotony and functional technology of our industrialised towns the spirit of the soul, the creative secret of nature, is banished. With heavy steps the creature retreats towards the left, into the unconscious. He trails behind him a tail of flames, which is also a rainbow. The latter hints that reconciliation with God is still possible, but the fire could destroy all our towns. The face of this outcast spirit is halved, like the man with ‘The World’s Wound.’

12. Puer (1960)

Puer aeternus is eternal youth. This is the boy-god predicted in Revelation as the child who was snatched up to heaven. He is the complete man of the future.Wherever he stretches his hands, new life begins to bloom.

This painting appears in the book Man and His Symbols and symbolises the Self, which does not always take the form of a superior wise old person. Here the Self appears as a marvellous youth. He sits on a white boar-like horse who moves through the dark heavens.

The round object like a sun behind the youth is a symbol of totality and the boy’s four arms recall other “fourfold” symbols that characterise psychological wholeness. Before the boy’s hands hovers a flower – as if he need only raise his hands and a magical flower will appear. He is black because of his nocturnal or unconscious origin.

13. The Magic Fish (1961)

The two youths are united as the fish swims down and to the left, where they may bring a new meaning from the depths of the unconscious. The future world saviour is personified in his double form and remains hidden inside the fish in the depths of the sea, the mortal and the immortal hold each other in a close embrace.

The fish’s eye is like a flower – earth’s answer to the light of the sun. Above it all is the eye of God, a huge blue eye which suggests that something in the cosmic background ‘sees’ everything.

14. A Birth (1961)

Out of what looks like a mass of intestines or brain folds, in other words, out of layers of the psyche far removed from consciousness (the collective unconscious), a transparent man-like being is born, not onto the earth, but into free space. This being is simultaneously an eight-petalled flower, which has always symbolised psychic totality, like the ‘golden flower’ of the alchemists and Taoists. It is the image of the resurrection of the inner being, the image of the Self, the wholeness towards which we all strive.

15. Alarm (Date unknown)

A terrified and frustrated woman beats on the door in alarm, but if she would only turn around, she would see the symbols of wholeness which are behind her, that which could restore the balance in her life.

16. The Hidden Power (1964)

This secret ruler reminds one of the hunchback in ‘Coming Up’. Invulnerable in his heavy armour he walks towards the left. Creative power is often contained in the images of dwarves, creatures who mined the treasures in fairy tales. The figure walks through the streets of a modern city. It emanates light, and its head and shoulders contain the form of an egg –  a germ of new life. The armour is finely wrought, for creativity seeks perfection of form.

17. Moira (1965)

The anima (the female soul) of a man is also his fate, an eternal pattern that is mirrored in every mother, wife and lover. In the picture she looks towards the left, towards the unconscious, and her hair (involuntary thoughts) have the green colour of vegetation. They form a bed in which ‘her man’ can rest.

The anima is a core concept in Jungian psychology. A positive anima integration opens the way into more profound inner depths, symbolising man’s potential for creativity. Because she is his greatest danger she demands from man his greatest, and if he has it in him, she will receive it.

18. Untitled “The Four-Eyed Anima” (Date Unknown)

This painting is reproduced in the book Man and His Symbols. A negative anima appears as an overwhelming, terrifying vision. Anima moods can sap the life of a man, his whole life takes on a sad and oppressive aspect. The four eyes have a symbolic meaning, as the quaternity contains the possibility for achieving wholeness. By integrating one’s anima, one gets closer to individuation.

19. At The Door (1965)

The divine creative power comes to the painter at night out of cosmic space, wanting to generate and form. Here, the man locks the door, for he is afraid of his uncanny visitor. The latter, however, actually brings light and life, as opposed to the dark, narrow space where the artist has been living.

One of the frequent nightmares consists in being chased by a scary monster or shadowy figure. However, it is only when one confronts the figure and questions it, that it starts to take on an amiable appearance. The shadow, another key figure in Jungian psychology, becomes hostile only when it is ignored or misunderstood.

20. With Child (1966)

While a firestorm sweeps over the earth, the immaterial woman prepares in the dark depths the birth of a new life, the immortal self which transcends death and which will emerge in the “fullness of time.”

21. Anima with Crown of Light (1966)

The anima is a messenger bringing new light. The blue radiance of the spirit shows on her head, whilst she looks inward. She brings the gift of life and light. She is the soul of man, but she carries in one hand a lotus blossom, and in the other a claw which suggests her instinctual side. When dealing with the anima, one must be cautious, but she carries the possibility of great meaning.

22. The Observer (1966)

Before we know ourselves we are already ‘known’. The Self watches us like a superior observer, as private protection, intimate understanding as an individual judge, an inexorable witness, allowing no self-deception. He is both subhuman and superhuman and sees things far beyond our conscious mind.

23. Bear at the Tree of Light (1968)

“He lives in wait for me like a bear”

Lamentations, 3:10

The dark God longs for the fruit of the tree of light, the consciousness of man. The tree is an image for inner growth (individuation) during which we continually find illuminating realisations. Only if the bear finds no light does he become dangerous. In this he resembles the visitor ‘At the Door’, so it now becomes clear what this visitor had wanted.

24. Dark Brother (Date unknown)

Here we see the manifestation of the shadow, the dark side of the personality, which is the foremost issue with which one must deal with in the individuation process. As the alchemists would say: “The diamonds are often found in the dunghill.” Sometimes the most precious elements are found in the most unlikely places.

25. Spiritus Animalis II (1968)

The tortoise is considered in mythology to be the spirit of the earth. It also personifies complete introversion. Its shell was used by the ancient Chinese for divination, heating it up and reading the future from the cracks. This tortoise man –  a symbol of the self – is glowing with an inner fire, and his knowing eye hints at secret wisdom.

26. Window on Eternity (1970)

There is that within us which frees us from too narrow a view of reality. The decisive question for a person is: is one related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of one’s life. If we feel and understand that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change.

Whoever opens his soul to the divine receives the revivifying experience of a higher world order. A “window on eternity” opens up.

The artist has himself become part of this spirit, for it uses the hand of a mortal man in order to reveal its mysterious cosmic constellations.

27. Sun of the Night (1970)

A nocturnal, owl-like creature with uncanny eyes rises from the horizon like the moon. Its look seems somehow foreboding as if it were in possession of a remote knowledge which certainly surpasses human consciousness. Its strangeness and even eeriness make clear that the encounter of the individual with the spirit of the unconscious isn’t anything like an easy task.

On the contrary, the human being in his small house seems to be completely and utterly at the mercy of that supreme and alien power of the “Other.” Compared to the powerful Sun of the Night the small house with its warm human light appears rather unimportant. And now this dwelling place offers a vessel to the human, that is, a protected place of shelter. The human being needs such a place, in  order to listen to the objective psyche, to the spirit of the unconscious.

28. The Woman with the Cup (1971)

Birkhäuser did not understand this painting after he had completed it, but its meaning became apparent when his wife, Sibylle, died a few months after he had painted it. This woman is a visitor from the beyond, and she encourages us to live life with meaning each day. The ‘white lady’ is popularly considered a harbinger of death (thus the darkened eyes) and she brings the cup of suffering and transformation. The delicate vessel is reminiscent of the Grail which provides truth and spiritual nourishment. The whole ghostly figure seems to be outside the colourful realm of life.

29. 24 of March 1971 (1971)

This is the date of the unexpected and sudden death of Birkhäuser’s wife, Although the whole framework of life (the house) has been shattered by the lightning, a suggestion lies beyond that what appears to be senseless and accidental is in fact the work of a cosmic force with human characteristics, in other words, that meaning could after all be found in such a tragedy.

30. Constellation (1971)

This was painted after his wife’s death. The serpent is the healing agent leading us to the centre which is the goal of our journey in life.

31. Lighting the Torch (1974)

The creative person experiences the divine grace of being allowed to light his small torch at the fire of the Creator. Birkhäuser once dreamed that he was given this grace. The animal face in the fire in the form of an eight-petalled flower signifies enlightenment and order in chaos.

32. Having Speech (1975)

The split man of ‘The World’s Wound’ has been transformed by the artist’s experience of the unconscious and by following its inspiration. Blood flows into the scar so that it could heal. The eyes look in the same direction and the man, formerly a despairing mute, now begins to speak.

33. In The Night of 13 October 1942 (1975)

Birkhäuser dreamed on the 13th of October 1942, that with his wife he was climbing a steep, narrow ramp within the tower of Basel cathedral. A miraculous being, half fish and half insect, climbed up beside the ramp on two threads. At the top it turned into a fish’s head, shining silvery in every colour. From its mouth emanated a blue light. Courageously, Sibylle stood still, the fish approached her as if to kiss her and she became completely illumined by the blue light.

His wife easily made her way to the top, but the artist had enormous difficulty getting past the creature. When he finally did so and reached the top of the tower, he faced an enormous gulf between him and the other side of the tower. He felt he could not make the leap, but finally he leaped across the gulf, as he did so he saw a green triangle in the wall of the tower, and in its centre was the eye of God. It penetrated him with its overwhelming light. This dream vision is the experience of ‘vocation’.

34. Spiritus Naturae (1976)

Birkhäuser often dreamed of wild cats and the aura of power shining from them. They represent the instincts, but they also have a spirit of their own, a way of seeing things in the light of the unconscious psyche. Birkhäuser’s artistic eye could ‘project’ inner experiences in this way, and he was able to see the reality of the psyche.

35. Lynx (1976)

This is the Birkhäuser’s last finished painting, he painted it shortly before his death at the age of 65. In the hospital bed, he was surrounded by electric sparks and feared that he would not escape.

The creative artist serves a spirit of nature which tries to manifest itself through him. But sometimes its enormous energy is too much for him, especially when the body becomes older. The frail human being has to surrender to the powerful god. The lynx is a far-sighted creature which can see in the dark. Its name is related to “lux” (light).

Through his confrontation with the unconscious, Peter Birkhäuser dedicated his whole life to show us that no matter what, we can find light from the darkness. The solitary light emanating and glowing from the deepest depths of the darkness is what makes it a truly remarkable source of light. For it is this inner inextinguishable fire of life that guides us out of the darkness.


The Dream Artist Nobody Knows About

Few artists have so powerfully evoked the uncanny otherness of the unconscious like Swiss artist Peter Birkhäuser.

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