From the Self-Portrait to the Selfie: The Myth of Narcissus up to Today
The symbolic value of the myth of Narcissus is evident in the practice of self-portraits by artists
Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the main text responsible for the diffusion of mythology. It was widely translated and reinterpreted through time, until the 18th century, and it heavily influenced diverse cultural fields, especially figurative art. Painters usually based their works on the translated versions rather than on the original text and, consequently, they were influenced by the allegorical interpretations that enriched them.
One of the most intriguing and represented myths was that of Narcissus, found in the third book of the Metamorphoses. What is it, then, that attracted so many western artists to the myth of this young man who was in love with himself?
The two main themes examined in this story are that of the double and deceit. The double can be identified both with Narcissus’ reflection on the water and with the voice of Echo, the nymph who loved Narcissus and that could only repeat what she heard. Deceit, on the other hand, was experienced by both Narcissus and Echo. In the first instance, the man falls in love with himself. In the second, the nymph distorts the meaning of what she thinks by repeating what she hears. Therefore, the dominant sense in the narration is sight.
For this reason, in his De Pictura (1435), Alberti symbolically presented this myth as the origin of painting. The water surface that Narcissus contemplates is like a painting, where the correspondence of reality with its image is represented. This image corresponds to the space enclosed by Narcissus arms, just like the painting is delimited by the canvas, being a fragment of the world. From the 16th century onwards, artists not only considered themselves as the creators of their works but they also started to represent themselves as such. The artists’ will of self-representation led to the birth of self-portraits. The symbolic value of the myth of Narcissus is evident in this practice, especially because 16th century artists used a mirror for their self-figurations. A clear example where the mirror is not hidden but emphasized in its circular and convex shape is Parmigianino‘s self-portrait of 1524.
From that point on, art history has been littered with self-portraits and mirror representations have never disappeared, not even in the contemporary age. For example, in Norman Rockwell‘s self-portrait dated 1960, there is a triple self-representation: the artist on the actual canvas, the artist on the painted canvas, and the artist’s reflection in the mirror. Just as in Ovid’s myth, sight here is the real protagonist and its power is strengthened by the artist’s glasses. In the 20th century, self-portraits snuck into photography as well, as proved by Claude Cahun‘s work. In this case, the artist becomes a new Narcissus who, together with her double in the mirror, looks at the public with self-satisfaction and immortalizes herself with the camera’s self-timer. What is interesting here, beyond the psycho-analytical discoveries of narcissism, is how these attitudes seem to be leading to nowadays self-celebration.
The act of taking a selfie and sharing it on social media is, very often, just self-contemplation and a manifestation of what is here and now. In the past, self-portraits were used by the artists to immortalize themselves in history and to assert their role within society.
On the other hand, when we photograph ourselves and share our image today, this does not have any eternal or unique value. This is perfectly coherent with our age of mechanical reproduction, in which manual skills are not essential to make a latest-generation self-portrait; a smartphone and an updated app are all that’s needed. The aim of our “self-portraits” is very different from in the past because, instead of enhancing our uniqueness, they make us part of the restless flux of the vast, ephemeral web.
Narcissus, the most beautiful man that ever existed, the one everyone fell in love with but no one was ever loved by, never disappeared to be swallowed by the earth and become a little, yellow flower. Narcissus winks at us through our newest smartphones’ screens, with satisfaction and some melancholy, because, even though a screen is not as deep as a lake, if you cannot swim you risk getting lost in the evanescence of your reflection.