A Beautiful Salvador’s
Salvador Dalì aspired to define an innovative dimension of beauty by proposing a code of aesthetics deriving from the subconscious and the dream.
On August 1st 1953, Salvador Dalì wrote in his journal
I seated ugliness on my knee, and almost immediately grew tired of it
while recalling the words of Arthur Rimbaud, “One evening I sat Beauty on my knees – And I found her bitter – And reviled her”, suggesting a sour aversion towards the beautiful. Settling a sharp opposition to the poet’s statement, Dalì also contrasted with the Dadaist Manifesto, where Tristan Tzara stated that he had a “mad and starry desire to assassinate beauty” for the sake of randomness. Salvador Dalì aspired to define an innovative dimension of beauty by proposing a code of aesthetics deriving from the subconscious and the dream. The Temptation of Saint Anthony is an application of the code. Here, the artist is not only proposing imagery and shapes drawn from his own dreams, but he is also embedding the vision of the Saint into the picture. Therefore, the painting incarnates a sort of beauty deriving from an abstract, unreal dimension, and must be read accordingly. In this case, the abstraction is not something unreal, but rather surreal, belonging to a reality that lays over the one we live in. In other words, the Temptation does not happen in the reality of the conscious, but in that of the subconscious.
Although by the time he painted The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Dalì had exited the Surrealist movement, he helped in formulating the concept of the surreality and reshaping the definition of beauty in surrealist terms. Combining elements of Dada and Freudian theory, Surrealism denied the traditional idea of aesthetics and identified beauty as “convulsive”, as something born out of the non-form that forms itself anew in unusual, unexplored and untraditional ways. This pictorial abstraction rushes the mind of the viewer with its purely visual quality; the viewer cannot make past references, cannot discern beyond what is painted, but he is forced to focus on the beauty of form.
Throughout the history of art, beginning with the Middle Ages, the theme of the Temptation of Saint Anthony was depicted in the form of a nightmare, adorned with devilish figures and a horrific atmosphere. For example, Hieronymus Bosch’s oil on canvas depicts a chaotic scene, settled in hell, and characterized by violence, destruction, and desolation. In the case of Dalì, the temptation is reminescent of a dream; a vision traced with emphasis on light and visual pleasure. There is violence, there is desperation, and there is a sense of isolation, but the harmony of composition and the grandiose fineness speak words of pleasure to the viewer. Ultimately, the Temptation is playing on the idea of the function of beauty. Modern men are not tempted by evil if the representation of evil is ugly. For the man who pursues beauty and aims at overcoming the conscious reality, it is rather difficult and more proving denying evil that is hidden behind a beautiful form.
The desire to revile beauty derives from a quasi-erotic pleasure in experimenting continuity, in not breaking the cycle. As suggested by Georges Bataille, an object of beauty often sets apart from everything else, asserting its specialty. In this way, the object interrupts the cycle, creating a peak of discontinuity in the world’s monotony. Bataille defines beauty as a disturbing element within the ugliness of nature, thus leading some to attempt to assassinate it and annul its effect. In The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Dalì purposely produces a dreamlike environment where beauty is the cypher of reality. Within the act of the temptation, beauty is part of the continuity and Saint Anthony is supposed to break the cycle by not falling for beauty. By twisting the perspective, Dalì strengthens the concept of the temptation, making it more difficult to refuse. The artist uses the beautiful as an evil weapon to mislead men and as a tester of their faith and a sweet lullaby to their conscience. Being the theater of unspoken desires of the subconscious, the world of dreams sets the stage for an ecstatic vision of marvel coming from within and therefore making it undeniable.