Study for Soldier Take Warning

Gouache, pen, ink and pencil on brown paper
Signed and dated lower right
The authenticity of this work has been confirmed by Nicolas and Olivier Descharnes, and is listed under archive number D2059_1942.
R. Descharnes & G. Néret, Salvador Dalí, 1904-1989, The Paintings, 1904-1946, Cologne, 2006, no. 807 (illustrated in color p. 356)
17 1/2 x 12 1/4 in. (44.5 x 31.1 cm)
Framed dimensions: 28 3/4 x 23 3/4 in.

Study for Soldier Take Warning is one of the greatest Salvador Dalí artworks. It is original. It is rare. It is pristine. It is for sale. Beyond that though, it is the very essence of both Surrealistic and Dalínian.

Salvador Dalí was a complex person. Everything about him was complex, some areas more so than others. The reason why his Study for Soldier Take Warning (1942) is so important is because it exists on so many levels and with so many facets that are quintessentially Dalínian. This one work captures the heart and essence of the man, the artist, and the art. In order to fully appreciate this masterpiece, it is necessary to explore each of those levels and each of those facets, for to do otherwise is to dishonor it.

This piece succeeds on every level. Its base function is that it fulfills its intended purpose, which is its superficial level. It also speaks of Dalí’s use of symbology, including the bats flying from the depths and representing evil and darkness. It uses typical optical illusions in its creation of the skull, representing death. It shows a light to attract the attention of the young soldier. More than that, it is integrally tied to the heart of Dalí’s personality, including all of its weaknesses. It speaks to the horrors of war as well as the accepted social and gender norms of the day. And it was completed during the very zenith of the artist’s career.

The barest, most essential layer is that superficial one. This work was commissioned by the United States government through the War Department, now known as the Defense Department. Dalí fled his Parisian home for New York City shortly after the outbreak of World War II, like so many others. America entered the war only after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, well after Hitler began his takeover of Europe in September, 1939. The first year of American mobilization was therefore 1942, and the War Department was gearing up in as many ways as it could think—including the education of its troops. In 1939, U.S. military forces totaled 334,000, which rapidly increased to more than 12,000,000 as the war effort expanded. As always, the new soldiers were almost always young and inexperienced, so they had to be taught not only how to fight and survive, but also how to conduct themselves as new adults. They suddenly went from a sheltered, protected home or college life to independence, albeit under the command of a rigid military structure, but one that still permitted “liberty” time away from bases and therefore oversight.

One of the facets of the education of these young men was sexual, for obvious reasons. In teaching moral behavior, a number of paths could be chosen from the abstract moral reasoning of the overarching rightness and wrongness based on universal ethically-principled behavior, down to the extremely concrete (and lowest) stage of obedience and punishment. Children begin their journey of moral development by noting that when they behave well, they are rewarded and when they do not, they are punished. Many people never grow past that phase, so for example they do not speed in their cars because to do so could result in having to pay a fine. Much of societal rules, and consequently laws, is based on the avoidance of punishment, up to imprisonment and even death.

The army neither had the time nor the inclination to engage in the arduous task of developing moral reasoning among its new members, not least of which was due to the simultaneous need to teach them to kill as many enemy combatants as quickly and efficiently as possible. Teaching people ethics and morality is pesky and complex in such an environment, so the rules were simplified to help keep soldiers alive and healthy (in that order) so they would be able to fight for the country another day.

Sex education was one important way to keep soldiers healthy. There was no time to teach them high moral reasoning as that would only yield results on a long-term basis, and most would never reach beyond the foundational level anyway. The chosen path was to teach the avoidance of punishment—and what can be more punishing to a young man who just left home than the threat of venereal diseases?

Salvador Dalí was available and agreed to use his talents for the common good. The same man who had been thrown out of the Surrealist Movement by none other than André Breton for being too sympathetic to non-communists (including the Spanish fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco) and being too commercial, which in itself was an outrage to the communists and anarchists driving the Surrealist Movement. The same man who, strangely enough while living in America, sought ways that he could make more money through both endorsements and marketing creativity and development.

Dalí moved into Pop Art in the latter 1930s, with such works as Mae West Lips Sofa (1938) and Lobster Telephone (1938), which helped in his transition to commercial endeavors. It also helped in terms of his appeal to marketing professionals, including those in the American War Department.

Mae West Lips Sofa (1938)

Lobster Telephone (1938)

To understand Dalí more fully, one must understand his relationship with Sigmund Freud, whose popularity curve, not coincidentally, matched that of Surrealism itself. Surrealism began in the early 1920s as a social movement, led by writer André Breton. Whereas Cubism was a re-interpretation of reality, Surrealism was a rejection of it. Surrealism celebrated the irrational by de-coupling linkages between subjects and their component parts. The concept was to free the imagination, and was largely predicated on the works of Freud’s psychoanalysis.

The rejection of the rational had strong overtones in the social and political areas. Proponents rejected societal structure and customs in their pursuit of freedom. This led many surrealists to align themselves with communism or even anarchy. Not surprisingly, that in turn led to a fractured movement, with numerous splits and schisms. Breton himself was a friend of, and collaborator with, Leon Trotsky, the driver of Russia’s lurch into communism.

In understanding the barest rudiments of Freud, and recognizing Freud’s belief that the truth of being is depicted in dreams, it is possible to understand the forces driving the Surrealistic movement. This is the reason that Freud’s theories were gaining popularly, or perhaps notoriety, at the same time that Surrealism was on the ascent.

To an artistic mind, the thought that dreams play a central, even pivotal, role in representing reality would indicate that reality is not governed by traditional society and personal forces, but rather by the forces hidden deep inside the mind. Therefore, in order to gain access to those areas, one must throw off any and all restraining shackles. Doing so would result in freedom, and that in turn could lead to freedom of expression. Rationality is a shackle in this model. Repression is an enemy. Dreams must be explored to see true reality, not the filtered reality determined by the Ego.

Freud postulated that there were three parts of the human in terms of governing forces: the Id, the Ego While these entities had no physical location, they comprise theoretical constructs that explain forces governing behavior.

Generally, according to Freud, the Id operates behind the scenes in the unconscious, driven by a “pleasure principle” where basic instincts are gratified. The two instincts he identified were Eros and Thanatos. Eros is comprised of breathing, eating and sex. Together, the resultant energy is referred to as “libido”. Thanatos is the negative force counteracting Eros. When the destructive Thanatos forces are expressed, they are aggressive and violent.

The Ego develops in infancy and is the force that harnesses the Id in order to operate in socially acceptable ways. It is based in reality and can, unlike the Id, operate in both the conscious and the unconscious mind.

The Superego develops in childhood and governs morality. It is similar to the Ego in that it attempts to govern behavior, but does so in terms of moral behavior rather than reality behavior. Guilt is therefore a function of the Superego. There is a constant struggle between the elements of the mind. If the Id desires sex, but the Superego argues that such actions would be immoral, it is the Ego that must determine the solution.

According to Freud, the human mind has a number of coping mechanisms. Repression is a means of putting hurtful thoughts “out of mind”. Denial is a force that refuses to acknowledge obvious truths— “smoking will kill me, but I want to smoke anyway.” Projection moves a person’s shortcomings to another person, thereby freeing the person to do things they might otherwise not do. Displacement is a substitution of one action for another. An angry worker kicks the dog. Regression moves a person back to a different time when the person felt comfortable. Sublimation satisfies an unacceptable impulse through an acceptable one. Lifting weights in order to work out anger is an example.

Dalí was putty in Freud’s hands because Freud could explain Dalí to Dalí. In its purest form, Surrealism utilizes psychic automatism by which expression, either verbally or in writing, shows the true function of thought—thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations. Dalí believed that he was the very essence of Surrealism, as evidenced by his statement that, “The only difference between me and the Surrealists is that I am a Surrealist.”

His adherence to the cause is most identified through his use of the “Paranoiac-critical Method,” which he said, in true Dalínian fashion is a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge, based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.”

Dalí was a strong believer in the importance, perhaps even the preeminence, of the subconscious or unconscious mind. Based on the wholesale rejection of the society that brought about such massive death and destruction as was witnessed in World War I, and the subsequent rejection of the rational underpinnings of a society that could cause such mayhem, another course of human behavior was sought. Hence the rise of Sigmund Freud, whose psychotherapeutic methods were used to treat the innumerable soldiers suffering the psychological injuries of war, and thus became the basis for forward thinkers in the years after the war.

If rationality brought about warfare and a class system that both elevated and subjugated members of society in an essentially random manner, then irrationality would represent the antidote. Within any society, iconoclasts purport to pronounce the path to the future while destroying the status quo. So in the 1920s, the path forward was highlighted by the notion that through the tapping of the real mind, the subconscious, truth could be revealed.

In order to support this process, Freud sought an understanding of, arguably, the greatest mind in history—that of Leonardo da Vinci. He published Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood which explored the artist/inventor’s sexuality in an attempt to connect great thought with Freud’s theory. Indeed, da Vinci did use irrational methods, as would be expected of an artist and inventor who made such quantum leaps past the minds of the time. If one is to invent or design, one must move past the forces that created the present.

Dalí was influenced both by Freud and da Vinci, interpreting them into his own paranoiac-critical method. ngs, the paranoiac believes things that are false, but in the process allows their mind to elevate to a new level of reality.

There is little doubt that Dalí had psychoses and neuroses, including multiple phobias. The question is whether he suffered from them or reveled in them. It is likely true that without his psychological issues, there never would have been a Salvador Dalí. Among his ailments, or critical aspects of influence, were his deep issues with sex. His father, in his attempt at keeping the young Dalí on some form of strait and narrow, provided as much negative feedback and context in all aspects of sex as he could muster. This led the young man to a eurotophobia, a fear of female genitalia, that would last his entire lifetime. He was fearful of any contact, as he was fearful of the consequences of contact—sexually transmitted diseases.

This manifested itself in a series of ways, but is of particular importance in Soldier Take Warning. It is no accident that the two young women shown in the work are, in reality, simply parts of a skull. The two lack faces as they themselves represent death. Dalí was not new to the concept of using a skull in art, and the practice dates back hundreds of years to at least a German artist, who painted in the Dutch tradition, Hans Holbein, who painted a dual portrait of Jean de Dinteville, the French Ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, along with Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur, in a work entitled, The Ambassadors (1533). The tly shows an anamorphic skull, which can only be identified through a sharp-angled view from the lower left to the upper right.

Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533)

Dalí used the skull himself in various forms beginning in 1920 and then in rapid succession in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

L’Amour de Peirrot (1920)

Ballerina in a Death’s Head (1939)

The Face of War, (1940)

Sketch created In 1941, in conjunction with the movie, Moontide

Thus, it was nothing new for Dalí to use the skull in Soldier Take Warning. But there are some key areas that are important in this version of the skull. Of particular note are the teeth.

On the surface, the teeth are simply the thighs of two women, broken into six teeth by use of the garters that are holding up the women’s stockings. However, the meaning is far deeper. Dalí is using the teeth in a truly Freudian manner. Freud coined a term in Latin, Vagina Dentata, which literally means “toothed vagina.” The concept was not really Freud’s invention however, as various cultures created myths of women with teeth in their vaginas in order for men to ward off sex with unknown women. Of course, on a figurative level, the teeth represented sexually-transmitted diseases, which was the clear message the War Department wanted Dalí to convey. Dalí, with his own eurotophobia was only too ready to show the potential problem in this manner. For Dalí, his phobia may have stemmed from his father’s methods of sex education, but his entire phobia structure resulted from his fear of being emasculated by females—a fear with some level of reality in terms of his relationship with his wife and muse, Gala. Unlike Dalí, Gala multiple partners throughout her marriages, to the point that Dalí was not even permitted into the house he gave her without prior approval.

There is no doubt that Soldier Take Warning is a very personal expression for Dalí. One of his most iconic works is a 1951 photograph that was created in collaboration with Philippe Halsman, entitled, Voluptas Mors, or “Voluptuous/ Desirable Death.” The photo shows seven nude women, who are posed to form a skull. The key to understanding the work is that Dalí places himself into the image where the young American soldier had been in the painting. Dalí’s struggle is the soldier’s struggle and Dalí focused on the women as the root of his emasculation. The placement of the six feet is certainly no accident, and is identical in meaning with the Soldier Take Warning paintings.

Soldier Take Warning is not only a product of the artist’s mind, but also a reflection of societal norms of the time. The idea was specifically not that the young, innocent-looking man should simply take the correct moral action through his own resolute strength—instead the hazard was placed squarely on the two temptresses, whose beguiling ways could lead the young man into disease and even death. After all, they themselves were already faceless and dead.

Finally, there are a few other elements that comprise this amazing work of art. “Like moths to a flame,” the moths behind the women are drawn to the light and thus their own destruction and death. The concept is that moths cannot control their attractions, even if that results in their demise. It is beyond their control, as nature has programmed them beyond their ability to resist. Even the man between the soldier and the women is attracted to the tempting light, as can be seen by the shadow cast behind him as he yearns for fulfillment and a quenching of the burning temptation within him. People, like moths, are programmed to seek release, even when that very action will harm or kill them.
Soldier take warning!”

DALÍ, Salvador, 1904-1989 Study for Soldier Take Warning, 1942

Study for Soldier Take Warning (1942)

Soldier Take Warning (1942)

While the Study for Soldiers Take Warning and the finished, Soldiers Take Warning have been used interchangeably, there really are two distinct works. The two are quite similar, though not identical, even when excepting the colors used in the final version.

Study for Soldier Take Warning is a work with few peers. It’s story is fascinating and a part not only of art history, but also history in general. A rare work that necessarily also rarely becomes available for individuals to acquire enjoy for their lifetime, but also for the enjoyment of future generations.