Narcissus Reflected, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

From the moment Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, artists had a perfect subject. The surprise is, they resisted it

That artists are narcissists will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time with them, self-regard going with the job as, say, brawniness goes with blacksmithing.

Where does art begin if not at home? This may explain why the figure of Narcissus is relatively rare in Western painting. Thinking back to slide tests of long ago, I can only recall a handful of pictures of the subject, by Caravaggio, Poussin and ... well, Salvador Dalí. By comparison, Dianas and Actæons are two-a-penny.

There are good reasons for this very paintable story having been so unpainted. Separating self-regard from pride has always been hard, and pride is a deadly sin. Then there's the same-sex problem. In Ovid, the story of Narcissus begins with his rejection of the lippy nymph, Echo. As a punishment, Nemesis condemns him to fall in love with his own reflection; the rest is daffodils. But boys, even Greek ones, weren't meant to fall in love with other boys, two-dimensional or not. The story of Narcissus is vexing in several ways.

Not surprisingly, Freud was transfixed by it, deriving the word Narzissmus – narcissism – from Ovid's tale and seeing it as a parable of awakening sexuality, the discovery of the erotic ego. All of which leads us, as you'd expect, to Edinburgh.

Given that all art is about the self, an exhibition called Narcissus Reflected at the Fruitmarket Gallery has the potential to be huge. This one isn't. The works in it all date from the last 100 years, and have come out of the narcissistic closet – that is to say, they are explicitly about the act of self-regard rather than merely implicitly so. They are, if you like, a narcissist's narcissism.

The starting point is Dalí's famous Metamorphosis of Narcissus, up from Tate Modern for the occasion. Freud's On Narcissism had been published in 1914, and the Curly-Moustached One had clearly been reading it. In his hands, Ovid's tale is shifted sideways, so that the flesh-coloured male figure to the left of Dalí's image is echoed (as it were) by a stone-coloured figure to the right. In the transformation, Narcissus's head becomes a seed, his body a hand. As Freud had done, Dalí decodes Ovid's myth as masturbatory. But the metamorphosis is also artistic, the flesh-and-blood Narcissus having been turned, by Dalí, into sculpture via paint. Mimesis, the act of changing or representing, of art-making, becomes self-gratification. If you had suggested to Dalí that artists were wankers, he wouldn't have disagreed.

That thought runs through the various media in the Fruitmarket's show. The uni-named Jess – actually Jess Collins, a gay San Franciscan artist born in the 1920s – was known for works in which he drew images of the photographs he had previously cut out and collaged on a pin-up board. The drawn images were then themselves cut out in line with the originals and collaged in their turn. Jess's Narkissos – a transliteration of the Narcissus in Greek – is about all kinds of art-making, although these boil down to one: appropriation.

Jess takes found images – shots of old ladies, hunky men, skyscrapers – and, visibly and with a great deal of time and trouble, makes them his own. (Narkissos is dated 1976-91, which is no surprise at all.) At the centre of his finished image is a figure who represents the beautiful youth to whom we owe this endless self-reflection and re-re-re-reflection, snipped, presumably, from the pages of a 1950s porn mag. Narkissos is, figuratively as literally, about masturbation and creativity, the onanistic cycle and useful re-using of art.

Modern morality obviously played its part in allowing this frankness, but you can't help wondering if it wasn't also made easier by the invention of film. The French phrase, mise-en-abyme, a term from heraldry, describes the endlessly repeated effect of looking into a mirror with a mirror behind you. Photography is built on reflection, on images being reflected on to a surface. All by itself, it embodies the myth of Narcissus.

At any rate, photographers and lens-based artists as unalike as Cecil Beaton and the gender-bending Claude Cahun, both of them represented in Narcissus Reflected, seemed to see their medium as a cypher for Narcissus, and vice versa. Beaton's 1974 portrait of Gilbert and George is perfection of a kind, the doubling-up of a doubling-up of a doubling-up. Cahun's 1928 self-portrait as a man seems like the opposite, a kind of self-extinction; although it is really a portrait of the artist as omnipotent. This is a fascinating show, making manifest a tendency in modern art that you'd always known was there without ever quite getting around to seeing. So see it.

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (0131 225) to 26 June

Next Week:

Ossian Ward assesses the work of the late philosopher-sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay

Art Choice

Indulge your inner aesthete at The Cult of Beauty at London's V&A (till 17 Jul), which combines Pre-Raphaelite paintings, lavish interiors and beautiful books. Head to Pallant House, Chichester, for an exhibition of Robin and Lucienne Day's furniture and fabric. The pair were hugely influential on post-war, British interiors (till 26 Jun).

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