For the Bel Ami picture, Loew and Lewin proposed as their theme the Temptation of St Anthony, and for their contestants, they gathered together some of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century art, the majority of them exponents of the Surrealist movement. They would comprise: Salvador Dali, Abraham Rattner, Dorothea Tanning, Leononra Carrington, Horace Pippin, Paul Delvaux, Stanley Spencer, Ivan Albright, Eugene Berman, Louis Guglielmi, and Max Ernst, who would be the eventual winner.
In many ways, the 1946 competition represented a seminal moment for the surrealist movement demonstrating, through application of a common subject, the sheer diversity of style and theme encapsulated by the movement in its three-decade history, and the depths explored by its idiosyncratic philosophy. It was also a year which saw surrealism as a movement in exile, with many of its founding figures now living in North America and Mexico, having been ousted from its birthplace in France by World War II. The effects of these preceding years would be profoundly imprinted upon their later works.
Yet, in this choice of theme, the Bel Ami competition also represented a key moment in the history of another artistic tradition: the life and sufferings of St Anthony the Great. As a theological figure, St Anthony holds a central place in Western Christianity, being among the first hermits, and setting the model for monastic life throughout much of the later middle ages. As a tradition in art, however, he is better known as the subject of proliferation of graphic, unsettling, and often bizarre images produced throughout the later middle ages. These detail the numerous encounters with supernatural entities he experienced throughout his life, as recorded by his biographer Athanasius. These focus predominantly on accounts of a series of attacks by demons, and temptations at the hands of the ‘spirit of fornication’ appearing in the form of ‘a small child, all black’. These scenes would often be depicted in a style not far removed from that of the later surrealists, combining horror and absurdity, with often deeply sexual overtones.
Martin Schongauer -
St Anthony (engraving)
It is the presence of these demons which also underlines the importance of Schongauer’s work. In particular their form. They are chimaeras: compound entities consisting of a motley assortment of conjoined animal parts. While demons in western art had a long tradition of bestial depictions, these tended to follow a more traditional model, seen in examples like the Livre de la Nostre Seigneur and the Codex Gigas. This even appears in earlier St Anthony paintings, such as Sassetta’s St Anthony the Hermit Tormented by Demons. Produced forty seven years before Schongauer’s work, the sheer contrast of style is readily apparent.
One explanation for this choice may lie in Schongauer’s source material. Although the demons do appear as early as Athanasius’s account, in his words they take the form simply of animals. These were, he writes:
...coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed...
This apparent disparity may have arisen from the fact that Athanasius's account was not the principle source the for European artists. That came in the form of a Latin adaptation by Jacobus De Voragine, as part of his Legenda Aurea comprising accounts of the lives of various saints. Compiled around 1260, and enjoying considerable circulation in manuscript and print. His version of that same scene, translated here by William Caxton, omits these crucial details, appearing thus:
And anon they came in form of divers beasts wild and savage, of whom that one howled, another siffled, and another cried, and another brayed and assailed Saint Anthony, that one with the horns, the others with their teeth, and the others with their paws and ongles, and disturned, and all to-rent his body that he supposed well to die.If this was a mistake on the artist's part, or a wilful misinterpretation is unclear, but the decision evidently struck a chord within the late medieval mindset, setting a model for numerous artists to follow over the subsequent decade. This pattern is evident in the works of Grunwald, Koler, Breugel and Bosch, to name only a few. Indeed, it is easy to see the appeal of this idea, both as an expression of horror and an exercise in imaginative skill. But even if this was the initial spark that initiated the St Anthony movement, it was far from the only contributing factor to its unique development.
detail from the Isenheim
One other possible explanation for this style of depiction lies in how demons were understood by the medieval mind. Though tied in heavily with folkloric traditions, the main body of western demonology arises from the philosophies of the scholastic movement, beginning largely in the works of St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas developed his ideas on the subject through a process of logical deduction, determining the nature of fallen angels in opposition to what was understood about the remaining loyal angels. In the text, it is implied that the forms taken by the demons was a voluntary decision taken by the demons themselves. Athanasius even states that ‘Changes of form for evil are easy for the devil’. It is possible to see this decision as being motivated by a desire to blaspheme. By taking on a compound form of multiple animals, they are defying not only God’s creation according to scripture, but also the neo-Platonist idea which served to support it, which saw all living things as versions aspiring to the model of an immutable, perfect form of that being.
Chimaera themselves also take on a particular philosophical character within the scholastic tradition. This is perhaps best demonstrated through the works of the grammarian Thomas Erfurt. His branch of philosophy known as the Modestae or ‘philosophy of modes’, drew a distinction between what he described as 'active and passive means of recognising and interpreting an item (be it through deductive intellect, learned patterns, or passive intuition) within which there resides that item’s fundamental modi essendi or being in itself. In his work, the Grammatica Speculativa, Erfurt actually used the image of the Chimaera as a figure to illustrate this point, explaining how the active modes of signifying chimeras “are taken from the parts from which we imagine a chimera to be composed, which [as a fiction] we imagine from the head of a lion, the tail of a dragon, etc”. Thus, the chimaeric depiction of demons is indicative of their outlaw status within the material world, being so wicked that nothing can directly depict their true form, so they must take on the worst aspects of whatever other animal life alread exists on earth.
One other factor in this trend was St Anthony’s pre-existing position in European folk-beliefs, and it is perhaps this which is hardest to overlook. Although hailing from Egypt, the cult of St Anthony ultimately found its home in Europe, when, in the 11th century, his remains were transported to Paris from Constantinople, where they had spent much of the previous centuries. He was interred within the La Motte St Didier, later the Saint-Antoine-l'Abbaye, where he was later said to have cured several of its worshippers of ergot poisoning. These incidents would begin a long-running association with a disease which was rife throughout the middle ages, and would shape much of his depictions in art.
Ergotism, dubbed St Anthony’s Fire after the saint, is a disease acquired when ergot, a fungus which affects grain, is baked into bread to produce a poisonous compound, resulting in vascular constriction and damage to tissue around the extremities. Inspired the miracles wrought in the Abbey, the name and the image of St Anthony was regularly evoked to bring healing to those suffering, for which images of devotional art were commissioned. The most famous of these was the Isenheim Altarpiece in Alsace which houses the famous screens of Mattthias Grunwald. There was even an order of monks founded specifically to treat sufferers of the disease – the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony. According to tradition, the monks of that order kept pigs, following examples from some parts of the legend where St Anthony allegedly spent some time as a swineherd. This accounted for the appearance of pigs in some of the works, including those of Bosch and Joos van Craesbeeck.
Matthias Grünewald, detail from the Isenheim
Altar (1512–1516) possibly depicting the
effects of ergotism
But in its association with hallucinogenic experiences, the presence of ergotism in the St Anthony tradition begs a number of questions. First: how literally was the subject matter perceived, both to the artists, and the sufferers of the condition. And, in turn: what was the ultimate intention behind its depictions.
Associations of diseases with spirits, particularly mental or neurological conditions, date back to ancient times. This can be seen in medieval Europe, where conditions like epilepsy and sleep paralysis have been identified by the presence of succubi. Yet even since classical times there have been detractors like Hippocrates and later Galen, who have argued a natural cause for these illnesses. Ultimately, both ideas would endure to varying degrees among both educated and illiterate classes, often with substantial crossover.
Since many of the paintings, such as Matthias Grünewald’s St Anthony, were produced for explicitly devotional purposes intended for popular consumption by all strata of society, it is likely that multiple levels of interpretation could have been present in any one of these works. Each of these carrying their own implications. This interplay of interpretations is in fact the focus of Hieronymous Bosch’s St Anthony Triptych. In this painting, it has been argued that alongside fantastical imagery the painting comprises, it is possible to identify various alchemical and medical apparatus associated with the treatment of ergotism.
Therefore, any possible combination of readings can be presented as to the literal or figurative presence of demons for both Anthony’s legend and for contemporary sufferers, creating the potential for quite subversive readings. This uncertainty becomes even more pronounced as the theme expanded beyond its immediately devotional applications, and took on a life of its own throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. And it is this ambiguities inherent within the St Anthony tradition that formed the basis for much of the surrealists interpretation of the theme.
In the gloss to her entry for the 1946 Bel Ami competition, Dorothea Tanning gave the following comments:
It seems to me that a man like our St. Anthony, with his self-inflicted mortification of the flesh, would be most crushingly tempted by sexual desires and, more particularly, the vision of woman in all her voluptuous aspects.
This placing of St Anthony’s sexual desires at the thematic centre of her composition is indicative of much of the surrealists’ reaction to their task of depicting him as art. Of the eleven entrants, there are only two from which explicitly sexual imagery is entirely absent. It is present in a multitude of forms, from the naturalistic to the overtly fantastical. While this is something that had long played a significant part in the artistic tradition, this is nowhere found in the original texts of Athanasius. Nor, however, is it entirely absent. In one notable scene, demonic sexuality is embodied in the form of the ‘spirit of fornication which tempts young people, appearing in the form of a ‘small child, all black’. In a pattern which would repeat when the text later accounts of his daemonic attacks, it is in fact Anthony who summons this entity, so that he may know its nature, and in overcoming it declares:
Sith I have perceived that thou art so foul a thing I shall never doubt thee.
Carried to its logical conclusion, therefore, the horror demonstrated within the St Anthony tradition becomes synonymous with eroticism. So while overt sexuality is absent from many of the earlier St Anthony depictions within the northern tradition (pre-dating the more lurid Italian contributions), the association of horror with sex meant that it was never totally absent from many of the traditional images. This is something which is particularly true of Grünewald’s piece on the Isenheim Altar, where the suggestive positioning of several of the demons demonstrates a sexual element to their actions; something to which Ernst - whose Anthony was based on Grünewald’s – would imply more explicitly. Likewise, the diseased subject in the bottom left hand corner, while generally interpreted as a sufferer of ergotism, could equally be afflicted with syphilis, a reading enforced by his apparently uninhibited pose. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this subject would be transposed directly into Dorothea Tanning’s temptation.
But what perhaps pervades the scene most strikingly is not the acts of the demons, but the apparent mindlessness with which they are done. It is as if they are following a hideous compulsion more than any heretical agenda – a pre-emptive embodiment of André Gide, and his notion of the ‘Gratuitous Act’.
In many ways, the treatment of sexuality in the St Anthony tradition is something in which the surrealists find an unexpected common ground with the earlier artists of the tradition. As a movement whose pursuit of artistic and cognitive freedom tied in closely with its anti-clericalism, they would find little in common with the rigorous asceticism Anthony himself espoused. But nor was their conception of freedom tied up with a belief in the inherent beneficence of human nature of the kind espoused Romantic movement. They instead took their teachings from the 'Divine' Marquis De Sade, for whom natural human will was, like Grünewald’s demons, fundamentally monstrous and uncontrollable. But while Anthony strove to overcome such corrupting influences, the Marquis De Sade advocated a path of uninhibited exploration and embodiment of these impulses in order to see what ultimate form they took. It followed that, if man was defined by his nature, then this represented the purest means of intellectual self discovery. In this sense, De Sade was the effective embodiment of the spirit of Fornication St Anthony would defeat.
Max Ernst - The Torment of St Anthony, 1946
Therefore, in spite of this significant ideological divide, the fusing of horror and sexuality demonstrated within the St Anthony tradition is one which would continue in much the same vein. For the surrealists, this underlying Philosophy of the Bedroom found evocation through a consciously Freudian filter. This took the form in an aggressively abstracted kind of sexuality. The surrealist pursuit of freedom (in which sexual freedom was a fairly high priority) was a predominantly male affair. Within the surrealists depictions of St Anthony, women and female sexuality often live out a dual function as both the source and subject of the horrors they represent. Disembodied and mutilated evocations of female sexuality appear in Dalí's St Anthony, where a headless woman's torso protrudes through a window. Likewise Guglielmi's woman (nude but for long gloves and stockings) is twisted back to front, and Berman's women take the form of limbless, crumbling statues.
Perhaps the most striking example of this trends is in Ernst's contribution. His St Anthony features the form of a nude woman being absorbed into the scenery, her head lost in a mass of writhing tentacles, held prisoner by the seething biota that comprises Ernst's nightmare landscape in a loss of identity that parallels Magritte's The Rape. What this ultimately serves to underline is the synonymity between horror, and sexuality. Like the demons, Ernst’s woman is a living part of the landscape; they are equal symbiotic parts of the same horror that pervades the scene.
The works of the surrealists would ultimately constitute an inversion of the sexual morality of the St Anthony legend. Where, in his biographies, his asceticism and abstinence would lend him strength and guard him against the malign forces of the fallen world, in the world of the surrealists it would represent his ultimate flaw, and the cause of his suffering. Nowhere is this more true than in Max Ernst's piece where, in the gloss to his 1945 painting, he describes how:
Shrieking for help and light across the stagnant water of his dark, sick mind, St. Antony receives as an answer the echo of his fears: the laughter of the monsters created by his visions.
In arguing for a sceptical and consciously Freudian reading of his work, he is effectively denying both a literal and a figurative reading of the tradition – they are neither demons nor appropriately representatives of the demonic in daily life. Yet, in reducing them to the status of self-spawned hallucination, he is in no way robbing the subject of its fundamental power. To the surrealists, dream was not an escape from reality, but a means through which its true depth could be understood, and for which Sigmund Freud had provided the key. What it thus represented, at least for Ernst, was not a subversion but a re-working of the theme, that transposed the power of original subject, directing it to an end more relevant to the 20th century mind.
Ideologically, one of the main detractors amongst the painters of the Bel Ami Competition was Salvador Dalí. While he would join his contemporaries in their opposition to organised religion for much of the earlier part of his career, the years 1940-1947 would see him return to his former Catholicism. This change is reflected in his art, which came to feature increasingly explicit religious themes.
Like many of the other entrants, his painting was modelled on an earlier example of the tradition. In this case, his inspiration came from the Italian Baroque painter Salvator Rosa, depicting a kneeling St Anthony holding aloft a cross to ward off a menacing collection of demons. Yet while similar in composition, the implications of both paintings are distinctly at odds. As an artist, Salvator Rosa had the reputation of a spiritual renegade, commonly identified as a precursor to the Romantics. His other works primarily feature classical themes, with a preoccupation with the more subversive elements of Hellenic aesthetics. The artist himself, in portraits, cultivated a wild character, often painting himself with leaf crowns and goatish features in the manner of a satyr.
Salvator Rosa, 1645
Working nearly two centuries after the original devotional Anthony movement, the differences of style and motivation are evident. And though coming from the Italian baroque tradition, his demons bear far more in common with those of Grünewald and Bosch than his those of his compatriots. His St Anthony appears as a study of human frailty more than of spiritual strength. His sees the saint sprawled across the forefront of the scene, cowering in the face of the approaching demons, or simply reeling from the horror of the scene before him. Yet where Rosa's Anthony cowers, Dalí's rises up defiant. He is naked, but by no means vulnerable. His body appears thin but grizzled, and covered with lean, ropey muscles. It is now the demons' turn to cower, rearing up, and recoiling from the power of Christ.
Salvador Dali, 1946
Dalí's decision to part from his fellow surrealists and depict a triumphant saint, rather than a suffering martyr, is perhaps indicative of the artist's struggle to overcome a number of personal demons, both literal and figurative. Shortly after the competition he would return to France, where in 1947, he would undergo an exorcism. As Dalí would spend much of his career blurring the lines between Dalí the artist and Dalí the man, it is difficult to say for certain just how sincere his return to Catholicism really was. Yet the fact that he did not publicise the incident is a testament to its probable authenticity. This revelation would only come to light much later through the letters of Father Gabriele Maria Berardi, who performed the rite, and whom Dalí rewarded with one of his own original works: a sculpture of a crucifix. The reward of the crucifix itself would only be discovered when it was found amongst Bernardi's personal effects after his death.
Leonora Carrington is another artist of the 1946 competition to strike a significantly different note from the other entrants, not least because hers only nominally dealt with the theme of temptation. Her painting focussed on the idea of the meditative St Anthony, in which he is depicted in a pose of spiritual contemplation; sitting by a river accompanied by a pig, and surrounded by a curious assortment of fantastical imagery. Anthony is set against a dreamlike backdrop of desert mountains, and forests in the dimming light of early evening. The figures that populate this landscape are indicative of Carrington's fascination with the occult, experimenting with imagery from all throughout western esoterica. In her gloss, she identifies the figures to the right as the Queen of Sheba and her attendants, explaining how:
...[they] emerge in ever-decreasing circles out of a subterranean landscape towards the hermit. Their intention is ambiguous, their progress spiral.
The river is also supernatural in nature, miraculously flowing from a clay jar, held aloft by a ram-headed man. Of this, Carrington explained only (and rather cryptically):
One could only quote the words of Friar Bacon's brazen head: Time is – Time was – Time is past. I was always pleased with the simple idiocy of these words.
Leonora Carrington, 1946
The reference is to Robert Green's satirical play The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c.1590), which follows the affairs of Dr Roger Bacon, a 13th century scholastic philosopher and scientist, with a reputation as a magician. The play itself was also the inspiration for a much more famous work: Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. The brazen head, to which Carrington refers, is a magical device that was believed to have the power to answer any question asked of it. When tested however, it is able only answer in the most general terms imaginable: Time is – Time was – Time is past. Bacon is just one of a number of figures reported to have possessed a brazen head, a list which also includes John Dee, Robert Grosseteste, and Albertus Magnus.
Time represents a core theme in Carrington’s St Anthony, in that it depicts a scene outside of time, with the events of Anthony's life (past and future) taking place in the background, fixed in place by the only two constants in Anthony's life: his perpetual contemplation and devotion to God. The river also separates periods in time, dividing the leafless winter pastoral scene on the right from the lush summer vegetation to its left, perhaps in some fanciful evocation of Heraclitus's principle that no man ever sets foot in the same river twice. Anthony himself also has three heads, perhaps another reference to the three-fold nature of time present in the painting. Curiously, hers was not the only three-headed Anhony to feature in the 1946 competiton: Louis Guglielmi's entry also has three faces, in alternating expressions of despair. When approached on the subject of Anthony's multiple heads, Carrington answered simply 'why not?'
For her model, Carrington chose Hieronymous Bosch's Temptation. This was Bosch's second major St Anthony piece, his earlier, and much darker take on the subject was his Tryptich depicting various scenes from St Anthony's life, including the demon attack. The demons aren't absent from his later work, however, but are pushed to the fringes of the scene, and reduced in stature to comical goblin-like creatures. Their tiny assaults seem to be met with indifference by the brooding saint, perhaps knowing himself to be spiritually (if not physically) unassailable while in this state of contemplation. Likewise, the threats of worldly corruption are not wholly absent in Carrington's work. These converge on the bald-headed girl to his left, whose temptations comprise both sex and food. Carrington remarks:
The bald-headed girl in the red dress combines female charm and the delights of the table. The mixture of the ingredients has overflowed and taken a greenish and sickly hue to the fevered vision of St Anthony, whose daily meal consists on withered grass and tepid water with an occasional locust by way of an orgy.
Food was perhaps deemed insufficiently dramatic for many of his artistic depictions, but it does play a central part in his legend. During his temptation by the devil in the desert, mirroring Christ's own struggles in the wilderness, Anthony is tempted by the promise of a silver dish bearing honey cakes. This theme was also taken up in Flaubert's novel of 1874: The Temptation of St Anthony, where food is presented as one of the most potent of worldly temptations, and a barrier between man's soul and spiritual enlightenment – which he calls 'the celestial light'.
When Carrington’s painting was sold at auction in 2014, the catalogue frankly states that her Anthony could never have won the competition. For Loew and Lewin, their concern was predominantly the darker and more graphic elements of the St Anthony tradition, in which Ernst's creation fairly outdoes almost everyone present. Yet what this perhaps most profoundly demonstrates is perhaps the most enduring aspect of the St Anthony tradition throughout history: the preoccupation with shock.
While it would be trite to characterise the trend towards spectacle itself as a form of temptation, there does seem to be an undeniable element of morbid fascination at work in these pieces. Yet this is something that lies at the very heart of the St Anthony tradition in art – an unforgiving critic may perceive the tradition that sprang up around his legend as an elaborate excuse for artists to indulge their more subversive tastes while enjoying the patronage and leniency afforded by the clerical authorities, just as a more lenient one may see their iterations into the sinister darkness of philosophical depravity as a test of spiritual courage equivalent to St Anthony’s own. The truth of the matter perhaps lies somewhere in between. In any case, it is clear the artists themselves were not ignorant of the complexities of their subject. Bosch's meditative Temptation can therefore be seen as a counter-weight to his unforgiving Tryptich, just as Grünewald's brutal scene has its own counterpart on the Isenheim Altarpiece that evoked the more wholesome legend of St Anthony and his meeting with St Paul the Hermit, described by Jerome. In this respect, it is perhaps possible to see these historical contradictions living on in the works of the surrealists, collectively seeking to expand the scope of the Sr Anthony legend into their own, terrifying century.
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