Salvador Dali: An Analysis of the
Meaning Behind the Symbols
Published on October 14, 2008 by Alice Atkinson Bonasio in Art History
“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
Salvador Dali‟s work is particularly useful for the application of psychoanalytical
theories because „It was only after the writings of Freud revealed to him the symbolic
world of the unconscious as a buried reality did he give full rein to his bent for dark
inexplicable fantasy… He came to regard the dark wonder world of dreams and
hallucinations as the only subject matter worthy of artistic treatment‟ (Powel, 1992; 273).
This idealisation of the unreal is reflected in his painting “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”.
Freud used free association to trace the symbolic meaning of dream imagery to the
unconscious. Dali applied the same psychoanalytic device to his pictorial imagery. In the
painting there are two sets of representations of idealised desire as opposed to reality. In
the foreground to the left we see Narcissus representing the ephemeral androgynous
beauty, seeming neither male nor female and yet both. To the right we see the hand
representing harsh reality. On the background to the left we have a crowd of animated
naked individuals. These individuals are either male of female and represent reality,
while on the right hand side we have the image of perfection in a pedestal, again
androgynous and signifying the perfection of idealised unity. This repetition of themes
reflects the way Freud writes, constantly coming back to the same fundamental points.
Just as Freud manifests the compulsion to repeat (which is necessarily unconscious) in
the conscious writing of his work, Dali expresses the same in his painting.
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The giant stone hand in the foreground immediately draws the eye and is much more
prominent than the ethereal figure of Narcissus. Holding an egg (a favourite Dalinian
symbol representing duality of hard exterior and soft interior, and links with pre-natal
imagery) that here could represent reproduction, the sexual drive, or life instinct. Yet at
the same time we see ants inexorably crawling towards that egg. Ants in Dali‟s paintings
represent death. This hand (hand of creation?) therefore, holds life yet cannot help but be
affected by death. The flower sprouting from the cracked egg represents a merging of
those two concepts. It is a new life, but a new life that has sprouted from death, as the
flower grows upon the place where Narcissus dies. The duality and complementary
nature of Eros and Tanatos as explained by Freud in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” are
therefore brought together in this painting.
The other theme of this painting is the idealisation of unattainable desires. The hand
represents the harsh and unchangeable reality of life and death – as represented by the
sexual and death drives – in duality and opposition to the ephemeral and idealised figure
Narcissus, in turn, represents desire, as the reflected image symbolises what Lacan
describes as the moment of initial recognition, when the mirror image represents a more
perfect idealised image of the self. But it also essentially represents miss-recognition, for
the image is perceived as “other” that is necessary to complete us, but that we may never
be united with. This is what the myth of Narcissus illustrates so well, the longing to be
reunited with our “other half” that we experience from that first Lacanian moment – the
first moment in which we realise that we are not complete – and that we project on others
as love. “I love in you something more than you, something that completes me” it is the
eternal search return to that perfect state of unity with the mother which in itself was
always an impossibility.
According to Freud we will always desire to be reunited with our mother and return to
that ideal dyadic relationship that precedes the intrusion of a third party (represented by
the father or anyone else that effectively comes between the child and mother).
Narcissus‟ desire is the desire to regress to that stage.
This could also be linked to Freud‟s initial description of the death drive. Freud
hypothesizes that “all instincts tend towards the restoration of an earlier state of
things…and inanimate things existed before living ones”. Therefore we could interpret
this image of Narcissus not only as longing to be united with his image, but perhaps also
longing for death, which would lead to this inorganic state of being.
Towards the background we see the already mentioned naked figure on a pedestal. This
for me could represent love sublimation, the act of putting someone on a pedestal and
raising that person to the status of “Thing”. Yet it is not the person per se that we are
raising to that level, but the idea of completeness that we aspire to. The figure on the
pedestal, like Narcissus, is androgynous, neither obviously male nor female, representing
the unity of the two halves that is impossible and that we all idealise. This duality is also
symbolised by the fact that the pedestal stands on a chequered floor, and it is placed
precisely with half of it sanding on a black square and half on white, uniting male and
female in the perfect unison idealised in the Oedipus complex, where the yearning to be
reunited with the mother, to be complete and return to that perfect relationship is
expressed in this ever unfulfilled desire.
I believe this phase of Dali‟s work is extremely useful as a case study for
psychoanalytical theory, as he not only knew of and actively used Freud‟s ideas in his
work, but also used these to analyse and depict his dreams, mirroring Freud‟s own
techniques of observing and dissecting one‟s own dreams. The fact that these works
appeal to us in ways that we cannot immediately explain is testament to their
effectiveness as art constructed to effect us on a subconscious level and they serve to
prove the practicality of many of Freud‟s theories.