5 minutes with... The Temptation of St. Anthony by Dorothea Tanning

Impressionist and Modern Art specialist Vanessa Fusco on a work with an unlikely Hollywood connection by the American Surrealist painter — who is currently having a moment​


Left: Dorothea Tanning’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1945-1946. 47⅞ x 35⅞ in (121.4 x 91.2 cm). Sold for $1,152,500 on 16 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Right: Impressionist and Modern Art specialist Vanessa Fusco

While American Surrealist Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012) is less well-known than her Surrealist counterparts, Impressionist and Modern Art specialist Vanessa Fusco points out there has been an increase in prices for her work at auction in the past few years. 

‘There aren’t many pieces by her on the market, and it’s particularly rare to have a painting like this come to auction — one from the 1940s that is so accomplished and in impeccable condition,’ Fusco says of The Temptation of St. Anthony, which was painted in 1945-46. ‘Considering the relative rarity of her work, and the growing interest in Surrealism and female artists, I think this will be a transformative moment for her market.’

In 1945, Tanning was invited to submit a painting representing the Temptation of Saint Anthony to the Bel Ami International Competition. The winner of the contest would see their work included in an MGM Studio film, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, based upon Guy de Maupassant’s novel and starring George Sanders and Angela Lansbury.

In de Maupassant’s tale, journalist George Duroy uses his charm and good looks to climb from poverty to the top of Parisian society by bedding and manipulating wealthy women. The Temptation of Saint Anthony — the series of trials that the 4th-century monk was said to have suffered during his pilgrimage in Egypt — was thus a fitting subject. ‘From the medieval to modern era, the subject of St. Anthony has a long tradition in art history of representing the struggle between good and evil,’ explains Vanessa Fusco,  specialist at Christie’s in New York.

In all, 11 European and American artists submitted work to the Bel Ami  competition, including fellow Surrealists (and Tanning’s future husband) Max ErnstSalvador DalíPaul Delvaux and Leonora Carrington. The jury included such art-world luminaries as Alfred Barr, Jr., collector and gallerist Sidney Janis and Marcel Duchamp.

The submissions were eclectic in their interpretations: Ernst produced a monstrous, torturous hell; Dalí an apocalyptic fantastical heaven; and Carrington a quiet, serene universe. In her own phantasmagoric fantasy, Tanning depicts a bearded Saint Anthony cowering from his sins. Voluptuous women surround the tormented saint, whose robes swirl in the air above him and give way to nude female bodies, symbolic of the sexual visions he experienced while crossing the Egyptian desert. Trapped by the rocky outcropping of the desert, the saint is forced to confront the temptations that surround him.

‘St. Anthony, alone in the desert, struggles against his visions, half-formed, moving in indolent suggestions’ — Dorothea Tanning

Tanning would later explain the hallucinogenic quality of the painting. ‘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,’ she noted. ‘It is this phase, which I have tried to depict in my painting, St. Anthony, alone in the desert, struggles against his visions, half-formed, moving in indolent suggestions, coloured with the beautiful colours of sex, his desires take shape even in the folds of his own wind-tossed robes.’

Tanning did not win the Bel Ami  prize; the chosen painting, now in the collection of the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, Germany, was submitted by Ernst. Tanning’s version was acquired by the LaSalle University Art Museum, where it has hung since 1985.

‘I first saw this painting at the LaSalle museum over a year ago. It had pride of place at the end of a long gallery, and jumped out at me immediately,’ Fusco says. ‘It’s incredibly impressive, both for its scale as well as the detail in its handling — particularly the robes on the saint. It’s a beautiful Surrealist object.

‘It seems to me that the female characters in her version of the Temptation are much more active than in the other submissions,’ the specialist continues. ‘In Dalí’s version, you have passive female nudes by whom Anthony is tempted. But in Tanning’s painting, the women are in a more confrontational role, actively playing a part in his temptation.’

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