PAINTED: OLD ART, NEW SKIN – JOHN WILLIAM WATERHOUSE’S "ECHO AND NARCISSUS"
With school back in session, John William Waterhouse’s “Echo and Narcissus” seemed to be the perfect selection for this week’s post — not because college students are narcissistic, but because the painting seems a great metaphor to illustrate a “teaching point.” Recently, in discussion, the question of why some paintings are more appealing than others came up. And, a follow up question as related to how one goes about analyzing art.
“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse is the perfect metaphor for both these points. Not only because of the myth, but the painting. In the myth, Narcissus whom possesses an almost unnatural beauty sees his reflection in a pond, and having never seen his androgynous self prior, he thinks his reflection is a beautiful woman and falls in love with himself. His delusion is also compounded because Echo’s beautiful voice can only repeat his words to himself. His obsession with his reflection ultimately leads to his destruction.
As an aside commentary for famous artists — it’s interesting how much faster (and seemingly how easily) an artist can tumble from the apex of their career after struggling for years to get there. An artist’s destruction often results from the fact that being at the top puts them above criticism, and also that “those at the top” are often surrounded by people whom are no more than reflections and echoes.
In terms of a metaphor for art, it seems that “Art” serves as a reflection for one’s inner self. On one level, we appreciate art on a purely aesthetic level — but, on a deeper and perhaps subconscious level, great art — the kind of art that people are willing to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on is the type of art that “speaks” to someone’s inner nature.
A person may think it’s pretentious to go around telling people what a fan of Paris he is, or that he’s a world traveler. However, he might decorate his home or place of business with worldly images of Paris and exotic locations to convey the same point.
Taking a look at the same point from a slightly different perspective… that art that we most enjoy is that art that satisfies (or perhaps completes) our internal view of the self. With that in mind, the casual observer of art can come up with an “expert” analysis so long as they use the painting as a mirror to address their own qualities.
Bringing it back to “Narcissus and Echo” (this painting in particular with a little mythological context) — Echo was in love with Narcissus, but due to a curse could only repeat that which was said by others. Her love for Narcissus was doomed from the start — not only because Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, but also because Echo was doomed only to repeat Narcissus’s words to himself.
In terms of art appreciation, perhaps if we look and listen carefully, we can get back more than a simple reflection or echo… but, a reveal as to our true selves.
Of course, sometimes a painting is just a painting. But, in considering for a moment the works that one most enjoys, despises, or is indifferent to… one might ask “what of this art is me?” and discover that they’re looking into a mirror after all.