Dali, is by far one of my favourite artists. While I appreciate he’s not palatable for everyone as the content of the work is often uncomfortable in its presentation, or it’s so surreal that literal thinkers bypass it totally, there is a pure genius in his art work, and just a little understanding of the symbols he uses opens a whole new world to what his artistic flare shows.
To understand this painting which he produced in 1937, you really need to understand the Greek mythology of Narcissus.
When Narcissus was born, the blind “seer” Tiresias told his mother “he will have a long life provided that he never recognises himself”. As Narcissus grew in to a young man, he was beautiful. Many of those who met him wanted his attention, but he spurned them all. The nymph Echo fell madly in love with Narcissus, but he cruelly rejected her making her retreat to the caves and become nothing but a voice. This angered the Greek gods and Narcissus was led to a silver fountain which neither beast or man had touched. As Narcissus went to drink from the pool he was captivated by his own reflection and fell in love. Unable to draw himself away from his reflection he died by the pool. When the nymphs came to morn his death they found no body, but a flower in its place, the Narcsissus.
This story came from the belief that it was unlucky to see ones own reflection…
So with this in mind, Dali created the above painting. The background showing the past of Narcissus, a group of vibrant people can be seen in the left of the background, they are joyful and trying to capture his attention. In the right background we can see Narcissus stood on a pedastool with no one near, representing his dismissal of those seeking his attention.
In the foreground we see two similar images, the first on the left hand side, Narcissus with his head on his knee, bathed in the waters of the untouched pool. The figure is lifeless and painted in autumnal colours and the reflection of the figure shown in the waters, depicting his death. The face is not shown as it faces downwards to the pool, on his knee in desperation that he is unable to touch the one he loves. To the right we see a hand replicating the figures form holding and egg which echos the head of Narcissus with a flower breaking through the crack that simulates the lifeless figures hair line. The hand represents the Greek gods and their rememberance of Narcissus.
The hand sits outside of the pool of water, almost symbolising the lack of vanity in the final action, there is no reflection to the hand, and the flower is positively drab in comparison to the brighter background.
On the hand a swarm of ants, which is a recurring theme within Dali’s work, a symbol he uses to indicate decay and death, which threatens the fragile flower.
To the far right of the foreground is a Pavlovian dog tearing at some meat. Another image of death and decay, as well as a creature which is not touching the pure waters which Narcissus has met his fate in.
The scenery in the background is thought to be a homage to Da Vinci, who used rocky back grounds to fill space, but could also be seen as the rocks and caves which Echo retreated to after her heart was broken.
Finally there is a snowy mount in the fair right, where the snow is melting, another symbol of the tainted purity of Narcissus, as he “recognises himself” the life is drawn out of him, much as the snow melts away.
Dali produced a poem which was displayed with this painting which, in Dali’s own way, describes this artwork. If you’re interested (as the poem is long and rambling and I don’t wish to overload you lovely readers) a quick google search on Dali and Narcissus will find it for you, in it he quotes Gala (his wife) to be his own Narcissus, his love for her was such that he would forgo food and forget the world when he gazed upon her.
I really hope I have, if nothing else inspired you to take another look at surrealist art with a revived view, as while I know it can appear to be a jumble of dispersate images, there is method in the madness and can really be a viewing joy when seen in this way.