Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) is a painting based on Greek mythology according to which, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the water and was turned into a flower by gods. Dali finished working on this painting after his success in United States.
Meaning and Interpretation (updated 2016)
Notice that this is not the official interpretation nor does it claim to be accurate or represent the actual feelings, thoughts of the artist. If you have your own observations, please feel free to contact me and I can include your interpretations as well.
The painting can be thought of depicting the transformation of a narcissistic personality (NPD) from dark into light. But there is much more to it if we continue to analyze this painting. When it comes to Dali, anything obvious is probably not the accurate interpretation. Just like what he does with images, concepts can be veiled by other concepts as well.
I mean, the egg here is the actual head of the person. So there are multiple counterpoints going on in this piece of surrealistic visual poetry. If we stop thinking for a second and analyze this work entirely from intuitive point of view, we will discover some interesting revelations.
The object on the right is a hand that symbolizes narcissism, which is nothing more than love of self. The narcissus hand, holds itself in admiration of itself. It elevates self above all things, to look at itself. Yet it is interesting that its reflection is never seen. Notice that the water intentionally cuts off at an angle, so we never see the actual reflection of the darker hand, which is holding up a narcissus egg by its fingers!
The egg is symbolic of birth. Dali used this symbol in more than one of his other paintings to symbolize birth. So here transformation of a person is synonymous with a new birth. Much like in the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey when we see a fetus in a spiritual sphere rising up in a moment of second birth.
The egg is also positioned in place of the head. You can also gain a few insights about the hand from Dali's own poem about this painting. Dali here in his poem describes the head as one that "slits, splits and bursts." So this birth takes place in the head. In the mind, in the thought and the very soul of a man.
Notice, this is one of the two objects that does not have a reflection. The narcissistic personality is in the dark, it does not recognize that anything is wrong. A greater theme beyond medical condition or personality can be observed in this painting. This is a life changing event of transformation.
Narcissistic personality cannot be cured. But it can vanish completely in a moment of transition into something else. That something else is depicted in the image to the left in this composition.
The object on the left is a kneeling man and it is symbolic of the transformed personality. It is lit by the illuminating golden light. The person depicted here has faced his own reflection. He has come to acknowledgement of himself (or herself, the person appears to be genderless).The hand is now changed to a kneeling person who, having faced his own reflection (representing reality of his own identity and nature,) has transformed into a new creature. This new man's attitude is not that of self-elevation but of kneeling down and repentance.
The contrast between elevation (exaltation) and kneeling (repentance)
Notice that the symbolic image on the right hand side is all about elevating. It is about the ego and pride of a human being. The hand is a symbol of human will. And in this instance, that will is directed toward the exalted self. The repentant image on the other hand is looking down, yet illuminated.
This is visual poetry where images provide a counterpoint. The kneeling man is illuminated. The exalted man is in the darkness.
Visual Description of the Painting (original article written around 2012)
On the painting two contrasting images emerge. On the left side, one of Narcissus and his reflection in a pool of water. On the right side, mimicking Narcissus' body a hand (which represents the hand of the water, as to lift its own reflection, perhaps a symbol of human ego) holding an egg held by its thumb, middle and the index fingers.
A flower is breaking through the egg shell. The hand is cleverly juxtaposed to imitate Narcissus' body. The knee becomes the thumb, the left arm becomes the index finger, the right shoulder becomes the middle finger, and so forth as seen on the picture.
In the back, standing on the curve of the dirt road there are eight visible posed human figures. To the right of the painting a sculpture on a red stand on a checkered floor can be noticed. There is also a dog seemingly eating something off the ground. A closer observation of the hand and the ground underneath reveals ants, a common subject of Dali's paintings.
The left side of the painting is significantly brighter, using yellow, red and bluish colors. The right side, depicting the transformation of Narcissus is almost in the shade, painted using dark blue and gray colors. The group of 8 people seem to be attracted by the bright Narcissus image before the transformation, almost all of the figures are wither facing each other or the viewer of the painting, the atmosphere is bright and expresses social interaction. Yet on the right side we see a single statue turned away from the viewer of the painting, intuitively suggesting loneliness and individuality.
Dali wrote the following poem as a textual counterpart of this painting from which some of the hints as to the meaning and state of the objects on this painting can be derived.
in his immobility,
absorbed by his reflection with the digestive slowness of carnivorous plants,
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 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,
Gala - my Narcissus