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).

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there