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Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus

Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937, oil on canvas, 51.1 x 78.1 cm (Tate Modern, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker


The ancient source of this subject is Ovid's Metamorphosis (Book 3, lines 339-507) tells of Narcissus who upon seeing his own image reflected in a pool so falls in love that he could not look away, eventually he vanishes and in his place is a "sweet flower, gold and white, the white around the gold."

Dalí's poem, below, accompanied the painting when it was initially exhibited:


in his immobility,

absorbed by his reflection with the digestive slowness of carnivorous plants,

becomes invisible.

There remains of him only the hallucinatingly white oval of his head,

his head again more tender,

his head, chrysalis of hidden biological designs,

his head held up by the tips of the water's fingers,

at the tips of the fingers

of the insensate hand,

of the terrible hand,

of the mortal hand

of his own reflection.

When that head slits

when that head splits

when that head bursts,

it will be the flower,

the new Narcissus,

Gala - my Narcissus

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user b
    I am captivated by the multiple background details. Two in particular seem very significant but I don't think they are discussed in the video: Do the central group of figures and the pool both 'reflect' Narcissus? Does the dog that seems to be rooting up a grave also reflect Narcisissus, maybe his morbid obsession?
    (18 votes)
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  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Noodlebasher
    Why do you think he painted those ants there? What could he have been saying there?
    (6 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Ashley
    At there is a close up of the painting, in the top left hand corner there is a statue on a red box on black and white checkered tile. What does this statue represent?
    (3 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user AJTheFlyer
    Guys when i searched this it said why did Salvador Dali paint ants on his painting but this doesn't talk about ants so im confused!
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Alex
    Would there being any technical name for this mirroring effect? Also is the mirroring suppose to represent duality or progress? Although I know its called the metamorphosis which leads me to believe it represents progress I can't help but see it as a implication from left to right of how narcissism to slight degree can give one hope and a positive self-image but how it can also ruin and leave you be desolate and alone on another spectrum.
    (1 vote)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user Daryl Fell
      That's an interesting comment about a dual interpretation for Narcissism. I don't know what the technical name of the mirroring is, but mirroring is a major psychological/counselling technique, allowing the other to see themselves. In the video the commentators are at pains to explain that Dali was attempting to hold both his rational consciousness with his irrational unconscious; his classical technique being used to image irrational states of mind. He called this Paranoid Critical Activity.
      One could suggest in the myth of Narcissus that his demise was brought about by indulging an unhealthy psychological state. The progress you suggest is that by so doing one may be transformed. I am not sure whether this is progress but perhaps a necessity. The suggestion is that a neurotic/psychotic state of mind instead of being resisted or suppressed needs to be allowed to express itself and this will eventually lead to a signficant transformation.
      (3 votes)

Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're looking at a painting by Salvador Dali in the Tate Modern. It's The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, and it dates to 1937. It's a pretty wild painting. SPEAKER 2: So what I see that relates to that is this hand that seems to be emerging from the earth, that holds an egg from which seems to be hatching Narcissus. SPEAKER 1: Except that so many of Dali's paintings, and rendering in Dali's paintings, which are painted in that kind of classical manner in terms of it's sort of-- SPEAKER 2: It's very realistic. SPEAKER 1: --it's precision, It's careful rendering of space, even if that space is distorted, of shadow, of line. If you look at the egg from which the flower is emerging, it seems to be emerging from a crack that is also the shadow of the flower at the same moment. And so it's both those things sort of simultaneously. And, in fact, the whole painting seems to be about forms being one thing, and, at the same moment, another. SPEAKER 2: Because there is, behind that hand, another hand that seems to be emerging from a pool of water. This time not rock, but something-- because it's brown, maybe it seems more earth-like. And holding also an egg-like shape, but actually it looks a little bit more like a walnut. But it also has a crack. And from that seems to emerge a hair that looks like a flame. SPEAKER 1: Because the hand is, in that second iteration, not so much a hand, as actually a crouching body-- the body of Narcissus. SPEAKER 2: You can see knees and arms. SPEAKER 1: But what's wonderful is that whereas the figure that's yellow on the left, slightly further back, is a body where the head is a walnut. On the right, it's more clearly a close-up of a hand holding an egg. And yet, they're precisely the same forms. It's that doubling. It's that mirror that's so incredibly disconcerting. All of this needs to be contextualized. What in the world is Dali doing? Well, what he said he was doing, and what Andre Breton lauded him for-- he was a writer often seen as one of the leaders of the surrealist movement-- SPEAKER 2: And he wrote The Surrealist Manifesto. SPEAKER 1: Right. All of the surrealist manifestos, or at least a number of them, yes. They called the ability of Dali to do this, to see things simultaneously as more than one thing, as a result of a psychological state which they called paranoiac-critical activity. SPEAKER 2: Sounds scary and dangerous. SPEAKER 1: [LAUGHS] Well, I think they loved the fact that it was scary and dangerous. And it was based on the kind of willful misreading of Freud. You know, Freud talked about the filters that kept the unconscious and the conscious mind apart. But Dali claimed that in a state of paranoid critical activity, he could actually embrace both the conscious and unconscious simultaneously so that his conscious mind could actually do the painting. The brilliance of understanding that form as both a hand and a body, as flesh and stone, simultaneously, that, Dali, would have claimed was absolutely the result not of the rational mind-- impossible in the rational. But it was the result of the irrational, of a conversation between those two states in this state of paranoid critical activity. [LAUGHS] SPEAKER 2: OK. It was incredibly important to the surrealists to access that unconscious, to access something that was more authentic, that lacked the control of the conscious mind. SPEAKER 1: For them, that was the engine of creativity, absolutely, was this motherload of the creative. I mean, when we think back to the 19th century and we think back to artists like Gauguin, wanted to get back to nature, like Courbet wanted to get back to nature. The unconscious, for the surrealists, that was the great goal. That was it. SPEAKER 2: Right. SPEAKER 1: So what's so interesting is the surrealists go at this from a number of different points of view. SPEAKER 2: Right. SPEAKER 1: People like Miro will try to, in a sense, allow for the unconscious to emerge, and paint using an automatic method that is not allowing the conscious mind to interpret. Whereas Dali is sort of wanting both. He wants the perfection of the academic style to render the inspiration of the unconscious.