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Dali’s Dream of Narcissus

by Julie B.

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2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Salvador Dali, Métamorphose de Narcisse. Oil paint on canvas. Tate Modern.Salvador Dali, Métamorphose de Narcisse. Oil paint on canvas. Tate Modern.


Metamorphosis of Narcissus
is one of Salvador Dalí’s most famous works. It reveals both the influence of classical mythology on many Surrealist artists and Dalí’s personal connection with the figure of Narcissus. It also brought the Narcissus myth a renewed fame in the art world and influenced a new focus on the image of the self in modern art as well as overt references to Narcissus, such as in Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden (1966). Metamorphosis of Narcissus was painted in 1937, a time of both sorrow and success in the artist’s life. Federico García Lorca, a former close friend and almost-lover, had been executed during the Spanish Civil War. The occasion gave him pause to reflect upon Lorca’s life and in particular his art, which often dealt with mortality. On the other hand, Dalí’s own life was highly successful. He had just had his works exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in December of 1936, and he was consequently growing in popularity in the United States, with his recent painting Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War (1936) attracting great attention alongside his now-famed Persistence of Memory (1931).[1] He was set to create a Hollywood film in 1937, and in general he was living the life of the wealthy and famous.

These two factors culminated in a period in the artist’s life when he was focused on the image of the self—a particular strain of the interest in voyeurism which marked much of his art.[2] The crowning focus of the period was the mythological figure of Narcissus, the ultimate self-voyeur. Narcissus is a figure that could be associated with masturbation, a prominent theme in previous paintings such as The Great Masturbator. He is also readily associated with homosexuality; Dalí’s focus on Narcissus is frequently associated with his own interest in men, including Lorca.[3] Dalí is himself readily associated with Narcissus, and he chose to present the painting to Freud upon meeting him in 1938—although Freud was thoroughly unimpressed.[4]

As in other works by Dalí, smaller background figures act as voyeurs privy to the main action of the painting. The artist referred to these as the ‘heterosexual group’. These figures are isolated from another, smaller figure: a statue, perhaps of Narcissus himself, indicating his cold nature and matching Ovid’s own description of Narcissus as marble-skinned. The two focal figures of the painting are images of a crouching Narcissus. On the left, Narcissus beholds his reflection in the pond. He is still full of life and warmth as he experiences love, though his head appears withered as though he is already feeling the physical and mental effects of his irresistible self-love. The figure on the right appears at first glance to be a copy of the figure on the left, but the body is a limestone hand lifting an egg which resembles the head of Narcissus. This is the transformed Narcissus, the aftermath of the Narcissus on the left. He is now truly a statue, an object rather than a man, and only his hand appears, as if the rest of his body is submerged under the nearby pond and either Narcissus himself or his reflection is reaching out. Ants, a symbol of sexual anxiety in much of Dalí’s work, crawl at the base of the hand. From the egg sprouts the Narcissus flower, the new life that he will lead. Dalí himself explained that he aimed to include the moment of the metamorphosis. He claimed that the figure of Narcissus on the left would disappear from view if looked at from the right distance and for the right amount of time; at this moment only the figure on the right remains, and the metamorphosis of Narcissus from man to statue occurs.[5]

Metamorphosis of Narcissus is only one of Dalí’s explorations of the Narcissus myth. In 1939 he made a window installation at the Bonwit Teller department store in New York City, “legendary due to an altercation in the course of which a bathtub went crashing through the window onto the pavement with Dalí following it”.[6] The installation consisted of a mannequin stepping into a bathtub while gazing into a mirror lifted out of the basin by two hands. The scene was surrounded by narcissi. Metamorphosis of Narcissus was accompanied by a lengthy poem about both Narcissus and modern people. In particular, Narcissus is equated with Dalí’s wife, Gala, as well as with Lorca in the moment of his death. Here is an excerpt:

Narcissus loses his being in the cosmic vertigo

            in the deepest depths of which

            is singing

            the cold and Dionysiac siren of his own image.

            The body of Narcissus flows out and loses itself

            in the abyss of his reflection,

            like the sand glass that will not be turned again.

           

            Narcissus, you are losing your body,

            carried away and confounded by the millenary

                        reflection of your disappearance

            your body stricken dead

            falls to the topaz precipice with yellow wreckage of

                        love,

            your white body, swallowed up,

            follows the slope of the savagely mineral torrent

            of the black precious stones with pungent perfumes,

            your body…

            down to the unglazed mouths of the night

            on the edge of which

            there sparkles already

            all the red silverware

            of dawns with veins broken in “the wharves of

            blood.”[7]

 

Reference:

Caws, Mary Ann. Salvador Dalí. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.

Dalí, Salvador. The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí. Edited and Translated by Haim Finkelstein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Lomas, David. Narcissus Reflected: The Myth of Narcissus in Surrealist and Contemporary Art.Edinburgh: Fruitmarket Gallery, 2011.

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[1] Caws, Salvador Dalí, 99.

[2] Caws, Salvador Dalí, 102.

[3] Lomas, Narcissus Reflected 23.

[4] Lomas, Narcissus Reflected 27.

[5] Dalí, The Collected Writings, 324.

[6] Lomas, Narcissus Reflected, 18.

[7] Dalí, The Collected Writings, 327-8.

Source: https://iris.haverford.edu/echo/dalis-dream-of-narcissus/