Dali’s ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ is Magical!
By Paul Chimera
If I were to list what I believe are the 10 best oil paintings by Salvador Dali, “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” would be near the top. This picture, which Dali took with him when he had his one and only – and legendary – meeting with Surrealism’s patron saint, Sigmund Freud, features the absolute best of Dali’s fertile imagination, unique vision, and striking technique.
Critics like to state that the 1930s was Dali’s most innovative decade; if true, this 1937 canvas certainly validates their claim.
You can take any aspect of painting in general and Surrealism in particular and see that “Metamorphosis” is a textbook example of how to perform magic with a paint brush.
That Dali was a superb colorist is exemplified in this relatively small canvas, which hangs in the Tate Modern in London, and which I finally saw in person when it was on loan for a time at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. What a gem of a work! It has that exquisite, jewel-like quality, owing to its spectacular colors, its luminescence, and the stunning detail Dali was so famous for.
The creative Catalan master had a lifelong fascination with mythology, so the story of Narcissus was a natural subject for the 33-year-old. Narcissus, of course, had so fallen in love with his own reflection that he fell into the water and drown – ultimately appearing as a flower that bears his name.
Ingeniously, Dali employed a startlingly clever example of double-imagery in depicting Narcissus’s transformation. At left we see him in a kneeling position (his head looking a bit like a walnut), his long hair flowing behind. Then, at right, the same contours of Narcissus magically morph into a hand holding an egg, from which the flower is born. The ants crawling on the hand symbolize death and decay, but new life ultimately emerges from the cracked shell. A hint of the hand holding the egg is repeated over the mountain range in the far right distance.
What makes Dali so intriguing, whether it be Dali paintings, Dali prints, Dali sculpture or other mediums, is how he always put a distinctive twist on whatever it was he was creating. And he brought an incredible capacity to see the way “mere mortals” could not! How did he manage to envision the figure of a kneeling Narcissus as simultaneously a human hand holding an egg? This was the magic and the genius of the man.
Dali created a literary echo of “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” in a poem of the same name, published in a paperback book that today is considered a scarce volume.
Salvador surely must have felt a special affinity for this dazzling work, since he toted it with him when he had his famous meeting with Sigmund Freud in London. If ever there were a Dali work to show off his talent, “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” was the one. Like most any painting, it can only truly be appreciated when seen in the flesh; that’s when it truly becomes magical.