It is quite revealing that the majority of submissions for the theme of ‘Image’ have been related to human body image, indicating the deeply rooted impulse for self-reflection that characterises human beings. The following essay by Oliver Baldwin analyses perhaps the best representation of human narcissism in modern art: Salvador Dalí’s ’Metamorphosis of Narcissus’.


by Oliver Baldwin.

On 19th of July 1938 Salvador Dalí visited Sigmund Freud at his London home. Psychoanalysis had been a pivotal intellectual drive for the surrealist movement and Freud their “patron saint” by Freud’s own admission. After he read The Interpretation of dreams in 1927, Dalí had become an avid Freudian follower “seized with a real vice of self interpretation” and to his meeting with Freud Dali took his 1937 painting ’Metamorphosis of Narcissus’.

Freud and self-analysis were fundamentally important to Dalí. Taking “The metamorphosis of Narcissus” to the meeting shows us the pivotal importance of both the painting and the myth to the Dalinian self: his self-analysis.

In this paper, through the examination of reasons exterior and interior to the painting, I intend to outline the main points illustrating how both the myth of Narcissus and Dali’s painting are mirrors and examples of Dali’s own self-reflexive identity and  how both Dalí and Narcissus are involved in a narcissistic game of mirroring and parallel identities.

Dali’s identity is almost narcissistic purism, not exclusively limited to self-desire but also fitting closely to the myth of Narcissus himself. The Dalinian self is apparently full of double identities, of “the double”, of self-reflexion and self-awe, of mirrors and distortions ,of a balance of Eros and Thanatos.

The pivotal importance of psychoanalysis and Dalí’s self-analytical response, shows the extent to which Dalí is concerned and fascinated by Dalí. Or, as Dalí explained: “Nothing is more important to Me than Me.” “Otherwise”, he continued, “ I cease to be”. Dali’s work is full of his own loves and fears, full of Dalinian iconography. The narcissistic action of analysing the self as if ‘other’ and at the same time examining an image based on one’s own psychology, together with the balance between objective and subjective self-examination is fundamental  to both the work and identity of Salvador Dalí as an artist.

The narcissistic theme of the other within oneself is present in the identity of Dalí the artist and intellectual and in Dalí the man, and the relationship between both – self and the artist within.

Dali was named Salvador after his deceased older brother, causing him real anxiety and provoking a need to prove his own existence as separate and different to his dead sibling’s. His dead brother became him and he became his brother, both identities, however fictitious or real, merged and conflicted in the identity of Salvador Dalí. Thus, understandably, when Dalí, just like Narcissus, looks at himself in the “mirror” of self-analysis he does not recognise himself fully. In taking flowers to the tomb of his brother, Dalí would also confront his dead other within, just as Narcissus’ interest in his own reflection brings his death.

But Dali has yet another other within; the obsessive, paranoid, insecure painter and the eccentric, fabulous and sometimes over-the-top showman artist. As Secrest points out, by 1936 Salvador Dalí had changed from a timid, insecure young artist to a commercial man surrounded by fans and admirers. Dalí was aware that he had become two distinctly different people and also of the fragmentation that this brought. One, the timid introvert full of obsessions and fears who was imbued in self-reflection, the other the eccentric showman of whom he spoke in the third person, as if Dalí were a Dalinian work of art in his own right.

Beyond this extra-pictorial parallelism of the myth of Narcissus to his life, Dalí makes use of the narcissistic theme of mirrors and reflections to depict self and other in the surrounding context of the painting itself. Following the surrealist sub-genre of peinture-poesie, Dali made both painting and poem work as mirrors of the same theme, not identical or overtly conscious of each other’s existence, thus reflecting Narcissus’ confusion. Just as the poem is a meta-pictorial narration of the painting and not an intra-pictorial one, the painting is a meta-textual illustration of the poem and not an intra-textual one.

Dalí recommends that the viewer looks at the figure of Narcissus at the centre-left of the painting with “distracted fixity” so Narcissus gradually disappears. Dalí puts the viewer in a narcissistic state of visual fixation towards the object of their gaze and makes the object’s visual identity unstable, just like Narcissus’ reflection in the water.

In the following analysis of the painting we will see that the relevance of the myth of Narcissus is not only implicit in Dali’s life but it is also explicit throughout the painting and the poem. In the poem he talks of a couple of fishermen from Port Lligat talking about a boy, one tells the other that that boy has an onion in his head. Dalí explains that the expression “to have an onion” (tenir una ceba) in Catalan is to have an obsession or a complex, a clear autobiographical reference.

The setting for the painting is, according to Lomas, also autobiographical. The mountains resemble the Alpine mountains in Zür, where Dalí painted it and where narcissi were in bloom. But it also resembles Cap Creus where Dalí used to go as a child. In both past and present scenery Dalí creates an autobiographical setting for his painting.

The Snow God in the background, who mimics the posture of Narcissus, makes Narcissus seasonal, cyclical and therefore eternal and universal, if we follow the indication in the poem. Behind Narcissus is what Lomas calls “the heterosexual group”, the presence of which highlights Narcissus’ isolation. Their highly sexual postures, also highlight Narcissus’ asexuality, they could be the suitors which he has rejected and ignored.

The figure of Narcissus in the centre-left is looking at his reflection in a frozen manner. He is in a state of pure solitude, of contemplation of his reflection. However, unlike other images of Narcissus, like Caravaggio’s, Dali’s seems not to look at his reflection in the water but instead, judging by his faceless head, he watches and contemplates it within himself, he is self-reflexive in the Dalinian style. The warmth of his surroundings, which he merges into, and his foetal position create a womb effect, an absence of being. His position includes himself and also excludes the outer world. This isolative state reflects Dalí’s description of his once intra-uterine state “the colour of hell, that is to say, red, orange, yellow and bluish, the colour of flames, of fire; above all it was soft, immobile, warm symmetrical, double, gluey”. Fitting Narcissus’ state and surroundings perfectly, Narcissus becomes the solitary, self-isolated, intra-uterine Dalí.

But this state of isolation and stillness is also a state of death and his surroundings also work as a tomb. Narcissus’ disappearance, when looked at with “distracted fixity”, shows the extent to which death plays a major role in the figure of Narcissus whose desire for himself will bring his suicidal death, death through the torture of desiring but not being able to posses what is desired. In psychoanalysis these are two main driving forces, sexual desire, Eros and the death drive, Thanatos.

If we believe the supposition that the painting was inspired by the death of Lorca or Crevel, whose deaths were purportedly linked to their homosexuality and therefore with the homosexual dimension of the figure of Narcissus, death is interesting. In my opinion, however, this painting is too self-centred, too self-reflexive to be involved with any outer inspiration, at least not as cause and effect. Although these deaths, and these men, were incredibly important for Salvador Dalí, and Lorca had enacted his own death in Madrid when they were students, these figures are influential but not inspirational to the painting.

One might see this homosexual aspect of Narcissus in Dalí himself if we follow the suggestions of homosexual love for these two men, and other stories of homosexual encounters hinted at by Edward James and others. Dalí must have been aware not only of the “homosexuality” of Narcissus, a man, in love with himself, but also of its importance in the artistic tradition of his representation. Some have seen in Caravaggio’s Narcissus’ knee a buttock, and Dalí takes this a step further by pairing Narcissus’ bent knee with its reflection.  Knees and buttocks were very present, according to Dalí, in his love for a schoolboy named Buchaques.

In the foreground we find a hand which is both stony and decaying. This is the hand of masturbation, the supreme narcissistic sexual activity. Dali’s father was sure that the death of his eldest son was attributable to venereal disease, meningitis according to Heyd, contracted through his avid patronage of prostitutes and so showed the young Salvador pictures of the lesions produced by syphilis. This induced a great fear of sex, exacerbated by the anxiety his dead brother already caused in Dalí’s identity, and masturbation became Dali’s logical alternative. Thus the hand represents masturbation, sexual disease and sexual shame illustrated by its decaying state and in the ants running up and down it, a symbol of sexual disease as in Le Grand Masturbateur.

Its state of decay and its terrifying aspect also make it the hand of death. Just as in Ovid, Narcissus stretches his arms towards his reflection, the reflection stretches his arms towards Narcissus and this hand come out of the water to grab Narcissus. The presence of both death and sex in the hand show the existence of both Eros and Thanatos in the figure of Narcissus, for the hand with the egg mirror the image of Narcissus. As the hand of death and illness, it is the hand of Dali’s brother, the hand of the half of his identity that wishes to annul the other half.

But the hand of death holds a cracked egg with a narcissus coming out. The egg has huge symbolism in Dalí’s work. It represents beginning, prenatal and intra-uterine being, birth, the philosopher’s stone of alchemy and the aspiration to perfection and creativity. As a reflection of Narcissus’ head this egg symbolises Narcissus’ reversal to a state of non-being through self-refection, the intra-uterine stage. From this egg of self-reflection, of Dalinian solitude, held by the hand of death, the pure white flower, the Dalinian other within, blossoms. Dalí said: “If a man has a bulb (onion) in his head, it might break into a flower at any moment, Narcissus”. From Salvador’s inner reflexion and reflection blossoms the “Divine Dalí”, as in the performance Salvador Dalí and Gala Born From an Egg.

The importance of Gala for the Dalinian self is immense. She became his keeper, his manager and his companion. She seemed all that he was not, she was his alter ego, calm, concise and focused and she was another other within, the opposite necessary to put forward his artistic project, half of the team, half of the Divine Dalí. Such is the importance of Gala that when talking of the flower at the end of the poem, he writes:

When this head shatters
It will be the flower,
The new Narcissus,
My narcissus.

One could easily believe that the flower is Gala and Dalí, and he is defending the redemptive power of love so cherished by the surrealists. Whilst true to a certain extent, if we think better, as Lomas recommends, we will notice that by calling her my narcissus, she is not only herself, but also his creation, she is him, the flower that blossoms purely out of his narcissistic self-reflection. We only know Gala via Dalí, she is strikingly silent, the muse who, as soon as she appears in a painting by Dalí, becomes a Dalí. This appropriation of Gala to suit Dalí becomes organic, it is not only an artistic appropriation of the muse, or a practical appropriation of a helper, but a merging of two beings within one. She is his Narcissus because she is he. In the video-art piece she is born out of the same egg as him, just like the flower, because she is him, they are the same entity. This is even more striking if we take into account, according to Lomas, the alternative myth in which Narcissus recognises his twin sister in his reflection.

Through a set of reflexions and reflections, mirrors and glances in all directions, external to the painting, internal to the painting, inwards, outwards, conscious and subconscious we have established the parallelism between the figure of Narcissus and the Dalinian self. Exploration and appropriation of the myth of Narcissus has enabled Dalí to make a case study of his own identity.  With all his others within self, all the watery mirrors of his loves and fears, all his creations and reflections of the other, Dalí has created a true enigma of Narcissus, in which it is difficult to distinguish whether Dalí is a Narcissus or Narcissus a Dalí.


Ades, D. (2004) Dali : The Centenary Retrospective. London

Ades, D. (1982) Dalí.  London

Caws, M. A. (2008) Salvador Dalí. London

Heyd, M. (1984) “ Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” Reconsidered”  Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 5, No. 10 pp. 121-131

Lomas, D. in-Ades, D. Bradley, F. (eds)(1998) Salvador Dalí : A Mythology. London.

Martínez-Herrera, M.J.,  Alcántara, A. and García-Fernández, L.(2003)Dalí (1904–1989): Psychoanalysis and Pictorial Surrealism” Am J Psychiatry vol. 160 pp.855-856

Secrest, M.(1988) Salvador Dalí : The Surrealist Jester. London

Oliver Baldwin lives and works in Madrid, where he is editor  of arts and culture magazine Pastiche.

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