Where to begin with Dalí? Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was a Spanish painter known for his technical skill, visionary craftsmanship and bizarre imagery in his work. He was influenced by Renaissance and Impressionist masters, beginning his early career with a fascination with Cubism. In the late 1920s, Dalí developed a keen interest for surrealism. This interest was introduced in his most famous work, The Persistence of Memory 1931 (below). This is perhaps one of the most famous surrealist paintings of all time. Today, however, we will be looking at a later surrealist offering, the Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937.
Dalí’s artistic repertoire included painting, graphic arts, film, sculpture, design and photography, at times in collaboration with other artists. He also wrote fiction, poetry, autobiography, essays and criticism. Wikipedia
Narcissus was a youth of great beauty who loved only himself and broke the hearts of many lovers. The gods punished him by letting him see his own reflection in a pool. He fell in love with it, but discovered he could not embrace it and died of frustration. Relenting, the gods immortalised him as the narcissus (daffodil) flower. Tate Modern
This painting for me is quite extraordinary. What an awesome and impressive way to present the story of Narcissus. the left side of the painting shows Narcissus before the fall. The pool is deep and the stare is intense. In the background are a plethora of shapely people, presumably his rejected lovers, lamenting his ignorance of them. There is a little blue in the sky to the top left of the painting.
The second half is the metamorphosed Narcissus, whose transformation happened in the moment. His figure is turned into a limestone sculpture which is holding a seed from which the new Narcissus, the daffodil, will emerge. This spherical object can be interpreted as an egg, seed or bulb, all of which signify new life. This is a pedagogical retelling of the of the myth of Narcissus, while being an illustrated poem and exquisite artwork at the same time. There are so many elements to this piece which draw one’s attention. The emaciated horse-like creature at the bottom right of the painting, the chess board at the top right with the lone nude male figure, turned away and the breadth of the blue sky on the right as compared to the left – all of these command our attention.
Note the third Narcissus figure in the background atop the mountain in the back right.
Dalí also composed a poem published in Éditions surréalistes, which read as follows:
Under the split in the retreating black cloud
the invisible scale of spring
in the fresh April sky.
On the highest mountain,
the god of the snow,
his dazzling head bent over the dizzy space of reflections,
starts melting with desire
in the vertical cataracts of the thaw
annihilating himself loudly among the excremental cries of minerals,
between [sic] the silences of mosses
towards the distant mirror of the lake
the veils of winter having disappeared,
he has newly discovered
the lightning flash
of his faithful image.
There is a subtle implication that Narcissus will fade away into the stone until he disappears. This is indeed a cautionary tale against over indulgence in narcissism.
In the 1930s, he explored a surrealistic method that he defined as paranoiac-critical. It consisted of trying to connect with the subconscious in a sort of paranoia state in order to visualize irrational images and optical illusions and also to perceive a connection between elements that apparently don’t have any. During his time exploring this technique, he painted many of his famous works, like The Persistence of Memory and The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Study
Dalí described paranoiac critical painting as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge, based on the critical-interpretative association of the phenomena of delirium” in The Conquest of the Irrational, published in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, New York 1942.
Dalí was also given the opportunity to meet Sigmund Freud, a man he had admired for some 20 years prior to completing the Metamorphosis of Narcissus. He hoped to use the meeting to discuss the psychology of narcissism. He was given the permission to sketch Freud (below).
Despite the memory of this nastiness, and Freud’s general distaste for modern art, he couldn’t help but be impressed with Dali. “Until then,” he wrote to Zweig, “I was inclined to look upon the surrealists… as absolute (let us say 95 percent, like alcohol), cranks. That young Spaniard, however, with his candid and fanatical eyes, and his undeniable technical mastery, has made me reconsider my opinion.” Open Culture
Overall, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is quite a splendid surrealist piece which explores an ancient myth while bringing to the fore the dangers of narcissism and over indulgence. I hope you have enjoyed these musings as much as I have enjoyed considering this striking piece of art.