A Surreal Greek Myth

Following on from my last post on Picasso, I thought I’d share another favourite painting from my recent visit to Tate Modern.narcissus

This time the artist is Dalí, an icon of the 1930s Surrealist art movement, and his captivating painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus painted in 1937. This well-known Greek myth of the boy who fell in love with his own image is brought to life through Dalí’s vision and technique that he described as “hand-painted colour photography.” 

The depiction of the tale isn’t in a conventional form and appears to be split in two as though there may be a dividing line down the centre, almost like mirror images. Dalí frequently used double images in his work which stemmed from his own interest in hallucination. At first glance, the story isn’t instantly obvious to the viewer but the tale is told in its entirety throughout the painting.

Narcissus is seen in the background standing upon a pedestal, which alludes to the high pedestal he placed himself on, posing in a vain manner. His proud and arrogant nature caused him to reject romantic advances by many individuals and led to one dejected admirer wishing for him to “fall in love and never obtain his desire.”

The wish born out of anger and hate is fulfilled by the goddess Némesis, who then transforms Narcissus from proud and hard-hearted to rejected lover when sees his reflection in a pool. He instantly falls in love with the face that many others had before him and, now in love with an unobtainable figure, experiences the effects of unrequited love and thus becomes privy to the pain that he inflicted upon those he spurned.

His transformation into the rejected lover is shown by Dalí as the figure that is kneeling in the pool that will ultimately claim his life. Depicting Narcissus in this way, which is figuratively different to how he is shown on the pedestal, highlights the transformation that his character has taken. In Dalí’s portrayal, Narcissus is metamorphosing into the hand which is holding the egg that the narcissus flower springs from.

The shapes of the kneeling figure and of the hand holding the egg are very similar to each other. The knee has become the thumb, the arm is now a finger and the head has turned into the egg. They are so similar in fact that the crack in the egg is nearly identical to the shape on the head of the kneeling Narcissus.

The colour of these two shapes is also very interesting; the kneeling Narcissus has a more flesh and yellow tone to it, whilst the Narcissus holding the egg is a subdued tone of grey. The difference in the colours may symbolise the life and death of Narcissus; when staring at his own reflection he was alive yet his transformation in the flower is a posthumous one and the grey tone may reflect the now dead Narcissus.

One of the things that I love the most about this painting is that it is a combination of my two greatest interests and subjects that I studied; modern art and classics. The painting is a brilliant twist on a classic story and is a prime example of how the two can be brought together and a traditional subject or story can be represented in a way that still has contemporary relevance.

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