Salvador Dali, inspired by Roman poet, Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC – AD 17/18) (wikipedia)[b], painted Metamorphosis of Narcissus in 1937. In true surrealistic style, Dali’s painting contemplates the transformation, narcissism; the painting reveals “the human drama of love, death and the transformation known in psychoanalysis as ‘narcissism’.” (Maurell i Constans, 2005). Coupled with a poem by the same name, Dali encourages the viewer to experience the poem and the painting together “in a state of distracted-fixation” (Maurell i Constans, 2005).
At first glance, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the golden body of Narcissus bent over a pool of water. From a distance, one can see the perfection of his body; moving in closer, however, we see the flaws. Narcissus’ head becomes a cracked walnut. What appears to be a tuft of hair from a distance takes on the appearance of flames from the walnut’s crack on closer inspection. By concentrating on the painting, as Dali suggests, in “distracted-fixation”, the form of Narcissus disappears into the landscape of the painting, transforming into the stone-like hand on the right.
Taking a closer look at the hand emerging from the banks of the water reveals the cracked egg from which the narcissus flower is bursting forth. On closer examination, the viewer will see that the crack in the egg is also the shadow, or reflection, of the flower’s shape. The shape of the hand and of the form of Narcissus are identical. This repetition of form confuses the eye at first, the hand actually takes the form of a statue of the man. By focusing on the thumbnail, with it’s crack so similar to the one in the egg, that the form is clarified. Note how Dali repeats the line of reflective demarkation on Narcissus’ form to the hand. Dali carries the reflection of Narcissus, the man through to the form of narcissus, the flower.
It would seem that Dali used the egg, or oval, shape as a nod to his inspiration, the poem by Ovid. Additionally, by repeating, or echoing the forms throughout the painting, perhaps Dali is referencing Echo’s unrequited love for Narcissus. In Ovid’s poem, Metamorphoses, Echo pines for Narcissus’ love until she withers to nothing but a voice, an echo (Maurell i Constans, 2005). Also, the landscape described where Nemesis tricked Narcissus to “get to know himself” is depicted realistically within Dali’s painting (Maurell i Constans, 2005).
Moving to the dreamlike figures between Narcissus the man and the narcissus flower, the viewer can see that there are both men and women loitering, almost waiting to see if Narcissus will recover. The myth of Narcissus is that as a young man, he had numerous admirers, both male and female, which he rejected. It is interesting that a Narcissus-like form is positioned on the chess board, away from the population. Almost like he imagines himself singular and above the throngs. The depiction of yet another Narcissus-like figure on the horizon rounds out Dali’s nod to narcissism.
Interesting to note the odd shadow emanating from behind the stone hand. The shape is reminiscent of a pawn chess piece. One could also interpret the shape as a child-like rendering of the human form; note the head and shoulders. Either interpretation allows the viewer to surmise that, although Narcissus is the son of Leiriope, a sea nymph and Cephissus, the river god, he is still vulnerable to the foibles of human beings. The shadow, perhaps, is the true foundation for Narcissus’ self-absorption – he is affected by his mortal frailties. Additionally, casting a pawn-like shadow is a nod to the fates; even beautiful Narcissus has no control over the chance of life. He is at the mercy of his environment and his superiors.
While Dali has succeeded in combining the technical genius in the details, he has also managed to bring his unconscious thought to a realistic visual rendering in this painting. The ability to mirror images, allowing one thing to be more than a representation of a single item is a reflection of Dali’s paranoid-critical activity (Harris ; Zucker, n.d.). This seemingly frightening state of mind was the core of Dali’s creativity, according to Harris, et al. Freud met Dali in London in 1938, and his thoughts on the surrealist movement were forever changed: “ Until today I had tended to think that the surrealists, who would appear to have chosen me as their patron saint, were completely mad. But this wild-eyed Spaniard [Dali], with his undoubted technical mastery, prompted me to a different opinion. Indeed, it would be most interesting to explore analytically the growth of a work like this…” (Maurell i Constans, 2005). Dali’s ability to blend the classic mythologies with modern psychoanalytical and artistic technique is again his nod to the duality of man. Even with the warped images, Dali’s technical skills are masterful. His shading, shadowing and attention to detail combined with the dreamlike images present an interesting dichotomy. He has enabled the viewer a peek inside his dreams, a glimpse of his mind. The depths of Dali’s fantasies are portrayed with such technical proficiency that it is disarming when an object transforms right before the viewer’s eyes.
Harris, Beth MD and Zucker, Steven MD. http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/dali-metamorphosis-of-narcissus.html
Maurell i Constans, Rosa Maria (December 25, 2005). “Dali and the Myth of Narcissus”; El Punt Magazine.
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