9 October 2013

The prominent myth of Echo and Narcissus provides the basis for a huge range of cultural interpretation across the Western world. Writers including Herman Melville, Seamus Heaney, John Keats and Oscar Wilde have been heavily influenced by the mythological source material.

John William Waterhouse’s painting Echo and Narcissus (1903), which is part of the permanent Victorian exhibition at The Walker Art Gallery, is an interesting visual interpretation of the myth. The narrative of Echo and Narcissus forms part of the third book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The myth focuses on the forest nymph Echo and the hunter Narcissus who is renowned for his beauty. Echo proceeds to fall in love with Narcissus, but it is unrequited; Echo’s unrelenting desire results in her withering away until only her voice remains. Concurrently, Narcissus sees his reflection in the river and falls obsessively in love with himself. Unable to possess his reflection, Narcissus decays and dies. In the place of his death, a flower grows near the river bank and is reflected onto the water. 

The myth evokes debate about the importance of image, distortion of reality and constructed desire. Jacques Lacan’s theory of desire, from The Signification of the Phallus, states that desire is the product of satisfied biological need and the unsatisfied demand for love. Desire is destined to remain unsatisfied and merely reproduces itself. For Lacan, desire is characterised by a lack, rather than acting in relation to an object. Narcissus’ desire can never be fulfilled: he is unable to attain his reflection. Narcissus’ discontent culminates in death. As such, the myth seeks to explore the inescapable dissatisfaction of the human condition- the struggle for existence.  

Echo by Mark Boulos is open until 21 November. For more details and information on the artist, please visit the exhibition project page.