Metamorphosis Of Narcissus Essay

Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937, oil on canvas, 51 x 78 cm, Tate Gallery, London.

We are brought to another theory of how to see the marvellous in representation called the paranoiac-critical method, first employed by Salvador Dali to explore the unconscious mind.

Dali states; “My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialise the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision in order that the world of the imagination of the concrete irrationality may be as objectively evident, of the same consistency, of the same durability…as that of the exterior world of phenomenal reality.”[1]

Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus is the first painting created using the paranoiac-critical method, which involved “borrowings from memories and the urgings of the unconscious, as well as the will to take whatever they might suggest in the way of a deformation and metamorphosis of the initial motif right to the end.”[2]

We see the figure of Narcissus kneeling and staring down into a pool, trapped by the reflected beauty of reality. By using his paranoiac-critical method, Dali is able dive into the unconscious waters that poor Narcissus is entranced by, “settling into the very place where the normal and pathological crossed paths.”[3] The painting as a whole is a condensed version of the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus who “was a youth of great beauty [that] loved only himself and broke the hearts of many lovers. The gods punished him by letting him see his own reflection in a pool. He fell in love with it, but discovered he could not embrace it and died of frustration. Relenting, the gods immortalised him as the Narcissus (Daffodil) flower.”[4]

The brush strokes on this piece are mimicking reality through Dali’s use of “a meticulous technique which he described as ‘hand-painted colour photography’ to depict with hallucinatory effect the transformation of Narcissus, kneeling in the pool, into the hand holding the egg and flower.”[5] Narcissus no longer enjoys the company of civilisation; he is too enchanted by his own reflection, his own version of the real. He has left the embrace of civilisation which can be seen as the town in the background, whose road leads to a crowd of figures posing on a mirror like surface.

The image in the background and to the right is a representation of Narcissus’ proud perfection as he was before he fell in love with his reflection but also of Dali’s unconscious paranoia emerging, showing us the inevitable fate of the painting as being just another piece of art trapped in a sepulchre like museum gallery with its familiar black and white floor tiles. The emancipated sinister looking dog, devouring something in the shadow of the stone hand connects this work of critical paranoia to Karl Jung’s theory of the shadow self as “expressions of the shadow [are] likely when a person is in the grips of anxiety…or otherwise subject to a diminution of consciousness”[6]

Shadows again come from a light source to the left of canvas similar to Matta’s The Vertigo Of Eros, representative of the left hemisphere of the logical brain trying to make sense of the unconscious in the real. The painting is “situated on a plain…in front of a clearly defined horizon, typical of Dali’s recurrent use of the coastal geography of Catalonia, familiar from his childhood.”[7] The weather with its sweeping changes between dark clouds and clear blue skies depicts the passage of time that goes by while Narcissus sits, kneeling and staring at his reflected image until he succumbs to death. Narcissus’s metamorphosis reaches its completion as he emerges from a primordial egg held between the forefinger and thumb of a stone hand as a Daffodil. “The Narcissus flower, which grows in the spring, and the egg, symbolise the start of new life.”[8] Which is synonymous with the marvellous in representation, as the emerging unconsciousness manifesting into reality.

Next week I will conclude my series on Surrealism – The Marvellous, the Occult and the Paranoid, with a review of Max Ernst’s Men Shall Know Nothing of This, to round-up this foray into the unconscious.


[1] Dali, “Conquest of the Irrational” in The Secret life of Salvador Dali, 1935 p. 435.
[2] Durozoi, translated by Alison Anderson. History of the Surrealist Movement, p. 214-217.
[3] Durozoi, translated by Alison Anderson. History of the surrealist movement, p. 214-217.
[4] Riggs, Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Tate,
[5] Riggs, Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Tate,
[6] Mattoon, Jung and the Human Psyche, p. 28.
[7] Edwards and Wood, Art of the Avant-Gardes, p. 436.
[8] Riggs, Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Tate,

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Tags: dali, marvellous, reality, surrealism, surrealist, surrealist artworks, unconscious

Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) is an oil-on-canvas painting by the SpanishsurrealistSalvador Dalí. This painting is from Dalí's Paranoiac-critical period. According to Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. Unable to embrace the watery image, he pined away, and the gods immortalized him as a flower. Dalí completed this painting in 1937 on his long awaited return to Paris after having had great success in the United States.

The painting shows Narcissus sitting in a pool, gazing down. Not far away there is a decaying stone figure which corresponds closely to him but is perceived quite differently; as a hand holding up a bulb or egg from which a Narcissus is growing. The egg has been used as a symbol for sexuality in other paintings by Dalí. In the background, a group of naked figures can be seen, while a third Narcissus like figure appears on the horizon.

Dalí wrote the following poem, which accompanied the painting when it was initially exhibited:

Under the split in the retreating black cloud

the invisible scale of spring is oscillating in the fresh April sky. On the highest mountain, the god of the snow, his dazzling head bent over the dizzy space of reflections, starts melting with desire in the vertical cataracts of the thaw annihilating himself loudly among the excremental cries of minerals, or between [sic] the silences of mosses towards the distant mirror of the lake in which, the veils of winter having disappeared, he has newly discovered the lightning flash of his faithful image. It seems that with the loss of his divinity the whole high plateau pours itself out, crashes and crumbles among the solitude and the incurable silence of iron oxides while its dead weight raises the entire swarming and apotheosic plateau from the plain from which already thrust towards the sky the artesian fountains of grass and from which rise, erect, tender, and hard, the innumerable floral spears of the deafening armies of the germination of the narcissi. Already the heterosexual group, in the renowned poses of preliminary expectation, conscientiously ponders over the threatening libidinous cataclysm, the carnivorous blooming of its latent morphological atavisms. In the heterosexual group, in that kind date of the year (but not excessively beloved or mild), there are the Hindou tart, oily, sugared like an August date, the Catalan with his grave back well planted in a sun-tide, a Whitsuntide of flesh inside his brain, the blond flesh-eating German, the brown mists of mathematics in the dimples of his cloudy knees, there is the English woman, the Russian, the Swedish women, the American and the tall darkling Andalusian, hardy with glands and olive with anguish. Far from the heterosexual group, the shadows of the avanced [sic] afternoon draw out across the countryside, and cold lays hold of the adolescent’s nakedness as he lingers at the water’s edge. When the clear and divine body of Narcissus leans down to the obscure mirror of the lake, when his white torso folded forward fixes itself, frozen, in the silvered and hypnotic curve of his desire, when the time passes on the clock of the flowers of the sand of his own flesh, Narcissus loses his being in the cosmic vertigo in the deepest depths of which is singing the cold and Dyonisiac siren of his own image. The body of Narcissus flows out and loses itself in the abyss of his reflection, like the sand glass that will not be turned again. Narcissus, you are losing your body, carried away and confounded by the millenary reflection of your disappearance your body stricken dead falls to the topaz precipice with yellow wreckage of love, your white body, swallowed up, follows the slope of the savagely mineral torrent of the black precious stones with pungent perfumes, your body ... down to the unglazed mouths of the night on the edge of which there sparkles already all the red silverware of dawns with veins broken in ‘the wharves of blood’. Narcissus, do you understand? Symmetry, divine hypnosis of the mind’s geometry, already fills up your head, with that incurable sleep, vegetable, atavistic, slow Which withers up the brain in the parchment substance of the kernel of your nearing metamorphosis. The seed of your head has just fallen into the water. Man returns to the vegetable state by fatigue-laden sleep and the gods by the transparent hypnosis of their passions. Narcissus, you are so immobile one would think you were asleep. If it were a question of Hercules rough and brown, one would say: he sleeps like a bole [sic] in the posture of an Herculean oak. But you, Narcissus, made of perfumed bloomings of transparent adolescence, you sleep like a water flower. Now the great mystery draws near, the great metamorphosis is about to occur. Narcissus, in his immobility, absorbed by his reflection with the digestive slowness of carnivorous plants, becomes invisible. There remains of him only the hallucinatingly white oval of his head, his head again more tender, his head, chrysalis of hidden biological designs, his head held up by the tips of the water’s fingers, at the tips of the fingers of the insensate hand, of the terrible hand, of the excrement-eating hand, of the mortal hand of his own reflection. When that head slits when that head splits when that head bursts, it will be the flower,

the new narcissus,

— Salvador Dalì, [1]

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