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Salvador Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” Essay

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The focal point of this paper is to evaluate and analyze the iconic painting by Salvador Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”. This painting is regarded as one of Dali’s most mesmerizing work that is intense in production of classical work under the parameters of surrealism. Narcissus is a hero in Greek mythology who falls in love with his own image or shadow. He was a beautiful boy but never got over the beauty of his own reflection and in the process he pined away to die. After his death the Greek gods turned him into a flower and was named the Narcissus. This element of superficial imagery that included metamorphosis, death and profound love was enough to influence a surrealist of Dali’s stature and painted this theme in 1937. He was so impressed by the theme that later he published a book by the same name. Presently, this painting is situated at the Tate Gallery, London.[1]

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is a work of oil on canvas and it is a painting with dimensions of 20” x 30.25” (511 x 781 mm). This is a painting when Dali was going through his Paranoiac-critical period. The basic element of the painting shows the central character of Narcissus is sitting beside pond and gazing at his own reflection. Nearby, we can find a stone that is decaying or decomposing. This stone figure is closely corresponding to Narcissus but we can assume this stone represent the alter image of Narcissus as we find there is a hand holding an egg or bulb from which a flower, presumably narcissus (nargis in Arabic), is growing. In the middle part of these two images there are eight naked figures, both male and female, who seem appear in different moods but the common emotion among them appears as whimper in agony. Far away, a figure is appearing on the horizon and this too represents Narcissus.[2] (King, 56-58)

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From a neutral point of view this painting appears to generate an assimilation of different figures that includes eight people, cliff, a canyon, a chess board, one starving dog busy eating flesh, a decomposing stone, dark water, an ant infested hand and a person. It could be easily assumed that all these imageries are placed on the same horizontal plane just to fill in the canvass. It can also be suggested that the main aspect of all these alleged unimportant objects is to distract the viewer from the actual point of suggestion or meaning. But at a closer look and sensitive feel a viewer would be able to navigate the initial paradox of Dali’s surrealistic approach. It would be clarified that the artist wanted to enumerate the feeling of hope and despondency at the same time and at the same canvas. These two apparently opposite emotions are reflected on one another and it can also be stated that no matter how much different these emotions are, according to the artist, they are but each other’s reflection in reality. As it is said in general terms these are just the opposite faces of a coin. Thus the entire creation with all its life and lifelessness, hope and hopelessness, is turning and twisting in thin air and the entire formation is moving towards an uncertain destiny where the end may be a completely new creation or utter destruction. Everything depicted in this painting thus represents a long wait of the inevitable, with all its beauty and hunger, towards unknown. [3] It can be also represented as a cycle of life and death and rebirth where hope remains after numerous deaths in life. This goes on and on for ever and it is a certainty that these two are inseparable from any perspective. It can be mentioned that from a distant it would appear that the artist painted the same thing two times, one in brown and another in blue. However, once inspected at a closer range it would be obvious that there are no similarities between the two sides. But the fact remains that initial interpretation would hardly find any obvious dissimilarity and feel that this positioning of images are all accumulation of two main colors that signifies eternity and death. So apparently, one can feel that Dali has no preference over life and death.  But Dali supports life by painting the flower in vibrant white which becomes more prominent within the usage of blue and brown thus clearly indicating his preference. He prefers hope over despair. [4]

It can be mentioned in this phase that Dali was influenced by Andre Breton, a French poet, who started the Surrealist movement, and became an official member of the movement in 1929 after reading the surrealist manifesto “La Revolution Surrealist”. However it is interesting to learn that, being a pragmatic personality, Dali once famously remarked that “The difference between the surrealists and me is that I am a Surrealist”. Another important influence on Dali’s work was the interpretation of dream and the process of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud. Dali became interested in the liberation of imagination. But the most important influence of his Paranoiac-critical period in painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is his visit to Italy. He visited a couple of times in the early 1937 to study the paintings by his idols Leonardo and Vermeer. In return he also became influenced by other classical artists like Velazquez, Uccello, Raphael and Botticelli. All these influence summed up into a whole new mode of artistic experimentation for Dali. The end result was a philosophy that incorporated the classical vibes and latest scientific innovations along with newest philosophical tough process and thus the famous The Metamorphosis of Narcissus was created. It can be stated that this painting is a result of pure automatism or automatic painting where the basic theme was borrowed from the ancient Greek mythology. [5](Dollard, 339-41)

This capacity of combining the latest scientific philosophy with ancient narration became evident in many of Dali’s work at this period where The Temptation of St. Anthony painted in 1946; Ballerina in a Death’s Head in 1939 and Swans Reflecting Elephants painted in1937 are some of the prime examples. However, construction of the thought process had started earlier with Premonition of Civil War or Soft Construction with Boiled Beans and Face of Mae West Which May Be Used as an Apartment painted in 1935 indicates this trend. However his 1954 painting Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity recalls this same influence at some degree. [6]

It can be stated that that the artwork of Dali was quite different form his fellow surrealists or contemporaries like Giorgio de Chirico, Dan Piraro, Victor Bregeda, Jacques-André Boiffard, Eduardo Paolozzi, René Magritte or Eileen Agar. His works distinctively showed the analytical details presented in an anatomical form. In this respect Dali can well be enumerated as a classical painter who followed a distinct philosophy of surrealism. His painting Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) in 1954 or Christ of St. John of the Cross painted in 1951 shows his ability to paint anatomy was parallel to that of the renaissance masters. The fact is Dali knew well about his strength and implied them with extreme mastery on the canvass while changing the philosophical aspect of the subject. [7]

In this respect he remains very different from another contemporary famous artist Pablo Picasso. Picasso, being a master of anatomical paintings, as seen in Boy balancing on a ball painted in his early stages, never implied it on his work and chose to deconstruct the human figure with multiple dimensions. Dali on the other hand implemented symbolism in painting but remained narrative unlike Picasso and never gave up anatomical resemblance, no matter how deconstructed it is, of human anatomy. However, one interesting observation can be made in this respect. Both the famous paintings, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Dali and Guernica by Pablo Picasso appeared in the same year i.e. 1937. Both these painting was a protest against the Spanish genocide but in a different manner. While Picasso was more vibrant with his expressions of protest Dali chose to be more intense and consumed with his anger. The ants in the hand holding the egg of narcissus represents mass murder of Spanish movement therefore slowing down the process of rebirth or creation.[8] This is where Salvador Dali Stands apart from his contemporaries with all his mastery and pragmatisms.

In conclusion it could be stated that Dali, as a painter, was a very unique figure. His painting on Narcissus remains one of the most amazing paintings of the modern era. In the era when abstract forms became the order of the philosophy Dali remained classical in a sense but never forgot to leave his mark on each of his paintings by sheer use of philosophical interpretations that is mesmerizing, astounding, remarkable and at times disturbing to critics.

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