Narcissus Reflected

May 2011

Publication: The Times

In Greek mythology Narcissus was the beautiful youth who, after falling irretrievably in love with his own reflection, was transformed into a flower by the gods. The myth has acted a fecund, endlessly fascinating and enduring source of inspiration and has been explored by artists as diverse as Caravaggio, André Masson and Mat Collishaw



Here the show’s curators, Dawn Ades and David Lomas, in a deeply thoughtful and provocative selection, explore the myth as it reveals itself in contemporary and surrealist art.  Following the theme of reflection, both literally and metaphorically, are (predominantly photographic) images by Bill Brandt, Claude Cahun, Cecil Beaton, Jean Cocteau, George Minne, Paul Nash and Yayoi Kasuma.


The dual centrepiece is Salvador Dalí’s painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus which the Catalan artist from 1937, and a remarkable study in pencil and collage by the San Franciscan artist Jess (Collins) completed in 1991. Accompanying Dalí’s image is his poem of the same title and year in an original edition. Both painting and poem are examples of the surrealist’s ‘paranoiac-critical’ method where he drew associations between thoughts and objects that normally were not rationally connected.


In the poem Dalí wrote: “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….”


The poem is thus partial description of and counterpart to the painting which in typical Dalí complexity is divided into two parts: one in which a figure kneels by the water and the second, a mirror image of the first, where a stone hand echoes the shape and form of the body as it holds aloft an egg or bulb from which a flower sprouts. 


In a curious echo of this process, the poet Thom Gunn wrote an ekphrastic accompaniment to Jess’s (and Caravaggio’s) imagery: “Narcissus cannot see himself as we can;/ as he leans over the surface, absorbed…”


Gunn’s welcome inclusion here signals another important aspect of the Narcissus myth and hence of this show in that it has lent itself over the years to homo-erotic interpretation. The closer these works are examined the closer the connection with this particular aspect. Certainly Charles Henri Ford’s and George Platt Lynes’s respective photographs (both taken in 1937) make this aspect explicit.


But Narcissus in his youthful body has a certainly androgyny and the subject’s attraction to others is equally strong, thus the inclusion of Kusama’s Narcissus Gardens. The work, which consists of numerous reflective spheres, occupies almost the entire upper gallery floor and as the viewer weaves in and out of the work it’s obvious that we have become implicated in it and almost duped into its inclusion – suddenly around us is a kaleidoscopic multiplication of our own reflections, each one staring back echoing our every gesture and expression, noting our presence and exposing our vanity.