The Metamorphosis of Narcissus

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 Salvador Dalí

Eighty years ago on 19th July 1938, two of the most significant and influential figures of the 20th century met for the first and only time. These were Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalysis and Salvador Dalí (1904-89), a prominent Spanish surrealist painter. In order to mark the anniversary of this event, the Freud Museum in London held an exhibition to explore the connection between the two personalities, particularly Freud’s influence on Dalí and the Surrealist movement in general. The central focus of the exhibition was Dalí’s painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), which he brought with him to discuss with his idol.

On 27th September 1938, Freud moved into “20 Maresfield Gardens … our last address on this planet” with his wife Martha (1861-1951), sister-in-law Minna Bernays (1865-1941), youngest daughter Anna (1895-1982) and his housekeeper Paula Fichtl (1902-89). Whilst the home was predominantly Anna’s, who lived there for the rest of her life, it has become the Freud Museum as per the wishes of his daughter. Although this is not the house where the meeting between Freud and Dalí took place, it is an appropriate location for the exhibition since it is the place the neurologist moved into shortly after.

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Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on 6th May 1856 to Galician Jewish parents in the town of Freiberg, which at the time was a part of the Austrian Empire (now the Czech Republic). He studied for a doctorate at the University of Vienna and went on to develop a set of theories and therapeutic techniques known as psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, the rise of Nazism in Germany was to put Freud’s life and his work at severe risk.

In Germany, the works of Freud and other psychoanalysts were publically burned along with any book that contained radical thinking or was written by a Jew. As a result, members of the psychoanalytical community, the majority of whom were Jewish, fled to other countries in an attempt to escape the wrath of Hitler. Freud, on the other hand, was determined to stay in his home country, however, when the country was annexed by Germany in 1938, the harassment he received from the Nazis prompted him to flee to London via Paris.

On arrival in London, Freud moved into rented accommodation in Hampstead Village, which is where he was living when Dalí visited him. Later, on 27th September, Freud and his family moved into the house in Maresfield Gardens, in which, with the help of his son Ernst (1892-1970), he recreated an identical working environment using the same furniture he had brought with him from Austria.

Sadly, the final 16 years of Freud’s life was affected by mouth cancer. Although he continued to work, write and see a number of patients, the pain eventually became too much for him. A year after moving in, on 23rd September 1939, Freud’s doctor at his patient’s insistence, increased the doses of morphine until, finally, Freud breathed his last.

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Dalí photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marquis of Dalí de Púbol, known professionally as Salvador Dalí, was born on 11th May 1904 in Catalonia, Spain. Dalí attended drawing school as a child and later discovered modern painting, for instance, Cubism. It was not until 1929 that Dalí began to experiment with surrealist art forms.

Dalí became a fan of Freud after he read the latter’s book The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) while an art student in Madrid in the early 1920s. The book, which introduced the idea of unconscious desire and self-interpretation, inspired Dalí to try to interpret “not only of my dreams but of everything that happened to me.” These new ideas began to have a strong impact on Dalí’s artwork and way of thinking.

Not only were Dalí’s paintings affected by the revelation, but he also began to write. In 1933, he wrote a “psycho-analytical essay” called The Tragic Myth of Millet’s ‘Angelus’ in which he explored his obsession with the painting The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1814-75). This essay, along with The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Dalí took to his eventual meeting with Freud.

Dalí was determined to meet and talk with his hero, however, three attempts to meet in Vienna were unsuccessful. Shortly after he finished painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus in 1937, Dalí tried once more to arrange a meeting with Freud. Rather than contacting the psychoanalyst directly, Dalí wrote a letter to the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a close friend of Freud’s, asking him for an introduction. Zweig acquiesced, although warned Dalí that Freud was in poor health.

Zweig persuaded Freud to meet Dalí by convincing him of the importance of this meeting. According to Zweig, Dalí was the only genius among contemporary painters, “the only one who will last … the most faithful, the most grateful of the disciples you have among the artists.” So, finally, a meeting took place on 19th July 1938 in which Dalí’s wife and Edward James (1907-84), the owner of the painting, were also present.

Dalí’s painting of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is based upon a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses called Echo and Narcissus. Echo is a mountain nymph who falls in love with the beautiful Narcissus, a hunter from Greece. Narcissus, however, spurns her advances causing her to pine away until she is little more than an echo.

In order to teach Narcissus a lesson for the way he treated Echo, the goddess Aphrodite causes him to become obsessively enamoured by beautiful things. After luring Narcissus to a pool of water, Aphrodite leaves him peering at his reflection. Unaware that the image is of himself, Narcissus falls in love with the handsome youth he sees in the water. Unable to leave the alluring image, Narcissus stays there burning with desire until he too, like Echo, fades away. All that remained was a white flower.

Dalí’s oil painting shows Narcissus sitting in a pool looking down at his reflection. A striking landscape resembles the Cap de Creus, a headland located northeast of Catalonia where Dalí was born. The mountains in the far distance, however, also alludes to the Austrian Alps that Dalí saw in Zürs where he painted the canvas.

As well as painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Dalí wrote a poem of the same name. The verse begins with the melting of the snow god, “his dazzling head bent over the dizzy space of reflections starts melting with desire.” This imagery could also be another reason Dalí included the melting snow caps in the distance. The phrase itself, of course, foretells the fate of Narcissus.

Two forms dominate the foreground of the painting. The easiest to see is the stone-like bony hand on the right-hand side of the canvas. On the top of the thin fingers balances a fragile egg or bulb from which an individual white narcissus flower blooms. This is another indication of the fate of Narcissus.

The form on the left, not as easy to make out the first time, is the crouching figure of the golden youth Narcissus. His head is bowed and hidden from the audience by the placement of his knee, however, it is clear from his stature that he is solely focused on what he can see in the reflection of the pool.

The more the two figures are compared, the more obvious it becomes that they share identical contours and structures despite depicting entirely different objects. The index finger on the hand is the same shape and dimension as Narcissus’ left arm. The thumb replaces Narcissus’ left leg on the opposite figure and the egg clearly represents his head.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is a show of Dalí’s dexterous skill in being able to employ the use of trompe l’oeil, which literally translates into English as “eye-fooling.” The hand, which appears almost three-dimensional as though it could be physically felt, is more predominant than the figure of Narcissus. The image of the Greek youth is set slightly further back than the hand, resulting in the eye noticing the egg and flower before seeing the main character of the story.

In a clever yet subtle way, Dalí has managed to make the myth of Narcissus play out before the viewers’ very eyes. Being slightly less strong in colour than the hand, the brain begins to dismiss the figure of Narcissus, focusing on the more precise object. Thus, Narcissus appears to fade away.

“If one looks for some time, from a slight distance and with a certain ‘distant fixedness’ at the hypnotically immobile figure of Narcissus, it gradually disappears until at last it is completely invisible. The metamorphosis of the myth takes place at that precise moment, for the image of Narcissus is suddenly transformed into the image of a hand which rises out of his own reflection …”
– Dalí, in the preface to his poem

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

Although the figure of Narcissus may appear to fade away, the more the painting is looked at, the more the eye sees. Relating back to the Greek myth, Dalí has included a group of naked bodies – both male and female – in the background who, like Echo, have also fallen in love with Narcissus. By parading their bodies around, they are attempting in vain to draw Narcissus’ attention away from his reflection in the pool.

The reason Dalí was eager to show this particular painting to Freud was that he had found inspiration from Freud’s own work. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus echoes Freud’s theory of narcissism, which he wrote about in his Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Freud defines narcissism as “the displacement of an individual’s libido towards that individual’s own body, towards the ‘ego’ of the subject.” This, in turn, sums up what has happened to Narcissus through his obsession with his own reflection.

The much-anticipated meeting with Freud was a bit of a let down for Dalí. Prepared to show himself as an example of “universal intellectualism”, Dalí was unnerved by Freud’s passive silence throughout the encounter. Rather than having a two-way conversation, Dalí attempted to talk to Freud whilst Freud, in turn, stared mutely at the artist. Dalí had hoped the psychoanalyst’s interest in narcissim would spark a discussion about his painting, yet nothing of the sort occurred. Similarly, Dalí brought with him a copy of the surrealist journal Minotaure, featuring the essay he had written about The Angelus for Freud to read, however, Freud, “continued to stare at me without paying the slightest attention to my magazine.”

From Dalí’s account of the meeting, Freud appears to be rather rude, causing Dalí to involuntarily raise his voice and become more insistent, practically begging Freud to read his work or even respond to his questions. Reportedly, the first thing Freud said during the encounter after staring at Dalí for some time, was directed at Stefan Zweig, who was also present: “I have never seen a more complete example of a Spaniard. What a fanatic!

Eventually, Freud did engage Dalí in some form of communication, although whether Dalí was satisfied with this, it cannot be certain. Freud told Dalí: “It is not the unconscious I seek in your pictures but the conscious.” Comparing Dalí’s work to the famous masters, i.e. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-19), who Freud wasted no time announcing he preferred, Freud explained that usually an unconscious idea is hidden in a painting, however, Dalí’s work is a mechanism to discover unconscious ideas.

Despite Freud’s behaviour at the time, it appears from written correspondence to Zweig after the event that he was pleased to have made Dalí’s acquaintance and was particularly interested in some of the ideas the painter had attempted to discuss.

“I really have reason to thank you for the introduction … I was inclined to look upon surrealists – who have apparently chosen me for their patron saint – as absolute (let us say 95 per cent, like alcohol) cranks. The young Spaniard, however … has made me reconsider my opinion.”
– Freud in a letter to Zweig

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Sigmund Freud by Dalí

Since nothing overly significant happened as a result of the meeting, there were very little directly related resources the Freud Museum could use for their exhibition – other than the painting of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, of course, which was lent by the Tate Collection for the occasion. Dalí did, however, sketch a portrait of Freud during the meeting, which permanently hangs in the first-floor landing at 20 Maresfield Gardens.

In display cases around the exhibition room were items related to both Dalí, Freud, narcissism and the myth of Narcissus. This included books and essays written by both men, handwritten letters and a couple of intriguing objects. Unbeknownst to Dalí at the time of painting, Freud owned a small bronze figure of a hand holding an egg, not dissimilar to the hand in Dalí’s painting. Since it is a Roman figurine from the 1st or 2nd century AD, it is thought that Dalí may have discovered another version elsewhere from which he took inspiration.

The exhibition Freud, Dalí and the Metamorphosis has now finished, however, the Freud Museum continues to welcome visitors to see the house. Although Freud only lived in the house for a year, the open rooms pay homage to his life, his work and his legacies. Anna Freud is also remembered through some of the furniture, photographs and paraphernalia that belonged to her. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus will return to the Tate Collection where it may be viewable by the public.

The Freud Museum is open on Wednesday – Saturday from 12pm until 5pm. Admission fees are £9 per adult, £5 per 12-16 year old and free for under 12s. Other concessions apply. Tickets are valid for a year and everyone is encouraged to come back more than once.