Curator & Art

“Lose control”: Temptation and contemporary art

Who hasn’t once felt aroused by the desire of doing something which deep inside would give such an indescribable pleasure but, also, has trembled with fear because it would be so incorrect? The infamous 50 Shadows of Grey (Sam Taylor-Wood, 2015) premiered just a few days ago, and now it seems the issue of temptation is back. But, hasn’t it always been present?


1a: Alfonso Crujera, Las Tentaciones de San Antonio. El elogio de la pintura I, 2002. 1b: Roberto González Fernández, Las Tentaciones de San Antonio, 2001.

Popularly Saint Anthony is known as the patron saint of pets and other domestic animals, although some who haven’t had a strong Christian education may have forgotten an important passage that have chased the human being through all of his existence and, therefore, it has been reflected in art since the Middle Ages and until now. The Temptations of Saint Anthony, narrated in several legends and, mostly, in the biography of Anthony’s life by Athanasius of Alexandria, describe the incidents that, isolated in spiritual retirement, our protagonist had to face in order to avoid falling into the Devil’s tricks: ferocious beasts, deafening noise and, especially, the sinful vision of a woman, which changed from being the Prince of Darkness itself disguised to an instrument of evil within full rights.


2a: Dominique Ingres, El baño turco, 1862. Museo del Louvre, París. 2b: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, El nacimiento de Venus, 1879. Museo de Orsay, París.

Flaubert wrote at the end of the 19th century what he considered his masterpiece, although at present is almost forgotten: The Temptation of Saint Anthony. In it he reflected on insanity, wishes externalized as phantoms of repression and the significance of temptation to the origin and continuity of any tale: if committing a sin were not an option, struggle and, therefore, narration would not exist. Simbolism and Surrealsim, which loved the pairing of eros and thanatos, appropriated this theme to show women as the femme fatale archetype, an object of doom. But they were not the only ones and we find examples in every type of artist and trend. In 2003, at the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Antonio Pérez Martín presented an exhibit that gathered his cultural activity as a collector: he asked almost fifty artists, mainly Spanish, to reinterpret the issue of temptation.


3a: Félicien Rops, La Tentación de San Antonio, 1878. Bibliothèque Royale Albert I, Bruselas. 3b: Salvador Dalí, La Tentación de San Antonio, 1946. Museos Reales de Bellas Artes de Bélgica, Bruselas.

Western civilization, inevitably marked by Judeo-Christian morals, has identified sex with lust and sin. Because of that artists, when they approached this theme, focused mostly in human “low passions”. But there is a paradox in our current world: temptation is no longer avoided but encouraged everywhere by our society. If 19th century’s Academy salons took pleasure in sensual –and sexual- feminine bodies under the apparently innocent form of Classic goddesses and exotic odalisques, the triumph of Capitalism and mass media in the 20th century meant the rise of a well-known motto for advertising: “fall into temptation”. Pop Art, especially the american one, using its usual ambiguity between fascination and veiled criticism, openly showed curvy ad girls, wearing little or nothing, in which conspiratorial look turned the observer into a voyeur.


4a: Peter Phillips, Sólo para hombres. Protagonizada por MM y BB, 1961. Colección CAM-Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisboa. 4b: Fernando Álamo, Las Tentaciones de San Antonio Pérez Martín, 2002.

Vision is, in fact, the main sense in temptation, and it may be real or, mostly, imagined. Tempting desire resides always in fantasy and, as it was said before, delights and torments at the same time. What tempts us is something that subverts the established order and we are afraid to think that it actually can come true –“careful the wish you make” says another recent film, Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2015)-. Unfulfilled dreams are the driving force of human ambition: without them, what other purpose would last in life? Temptations are in this changing veil, in this opened chest that invites us to look in spite of knowing that under the cover punishment awaits. Our dark wishes dominate us and, through them, it is easy to be dominated.


5a: Guenda Herrera, Las Tentaciones de San Antonio, 2002. 5b: Miguel Ángel Pascual, Las Tentaciones de San Antonio (serie), 2002.

Diego Fraile



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