The Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dali

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, we'll discuss ''The Metamorphosis of Narcissus'', a surrealistic painting by the Spanish artist Salvador Dali. Learn about its main characteristics and discover the elements that were represented on this interesting artwork.

Salvador Dali

The work of the Spanish artist Salvador Dali became famous for its surrealistic style, featuring ambiguous, odd, or extravagant images as if they were representations of a dream - a weird dream. However, by using those uncommon figures, he transmitted powerful messages and criticisms to different aspects and events of society.

Salvador Dali was born in 1904 in the Catalonian town of Figueres, in Spain. He went to art school in Madrid but was expelled before graduating, allegedly for inciting unrest. His early work was influenced by Picasso and Miro, and he met them both. He eventually developed his own style of surrealism.

Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali

In the 1930s, he explored a surrealistic method that he defined as paranoiac-critical. It consisted of trying to connect with the subconscious in a sort of paranoia state in order to visualize irrational images and optical illusions and also to perceive a connection between elements that apparently don't have any. During his time exploring this technique, he painted many of his famous works, like The Persistence of Memory and The Metamorphosis of Narcissus.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is a work by Salvador Dali, painted in 1937. He used the technique of oil paints on canvas, and the painting is about 20 inches high by 30 inches wide. It is displayed at the Tate Modern in London, United Kingdom, an art gallery dedicated to international modern art. Dali's painting is part of the collection on surrealism and has been exhibited there since 1958.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is an important example of Dali's surrealistic art. It is, as the name implies, the artist's interpretation of the Greek myth of Narcissus.

Narcissus was a young hunter of Ancient Greece, who was really beautiful and always discarded his lovers. To give him a lesson, the goddess of retribution Nemesis attracted him to a pond where he saw his own reflection. Stunned by his own beauty, Narcissus fell in love with the image and kept staring at it. Eventually, he realized it was his own reflection and was so frustrated that he committed suicide. When he died, the gods immortalized him as a flower.

Let's take a general look at the painting:

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937
The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937

At first sight, the eyes usually go directly towards two large similar figures, one on each side of the painting. Both have similar proportions and a comparable outline. However, each one is different, and so are the backgrounds depicting secondary elements. These two figures represent Narcissus before and after his transformation.

In this painting, the duality is represented as two separated elements rather than different images hidden in one figure, which was seen more often in Dali's work.

Narcissus Before the Metamorphosis

The left side of the painting depicts an almost abstract humanoid figure, sitting on the ground as looking to a reflective pond. This is Dali's representation of Narcissus contemplating his own image on the water. The colors of this side are warm. The Greek young man was painted in a yellowish cream color, and the background has plenty of brown and reddish tones. A little corner of blue sky is visible. These warm tones evoke dawn, life, and probably even lust.

Behind Narcissus, there are several naked human figures that look as if they were lamenting. Supposedly, they represent the lovers that he rejected.

Left Side of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus
Left Side of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus

Narcissus After the Metamorphosis

On the right side of the painting, we see Narcissus after his transformation. The human figure became a hand holding an egg. A daffodil flower (known as a Narcissus flower) is growing from the egg. The hand looks fossilized, and the water from the pond has become muddy ground. The petals of the flower have black stains as if the beauty of the daffodil was no longer pure. The colors on this side are much colder, with plenty of gray and blueish tones, suggesting night, death, and sadness. The sky features dark gray clouds.

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