NARCISSISM IN CONTEMPORARY MALE PHOTOGRAPHY AND ART

Painting by Jody Kelly
Painting by Jody Kelly
Painting by Jody Kelly

The ancient and traditional Narcissus myth sees the main character as a hunter from Thespiae, the son of a river god and a nymph, a man of exceptional beauty yet tainted by a reprehensible pride in himself. It is not clear though how this pride developed and as with many Greek myths it can be assumed that this ‘emotion’ is in fact an archetype or teaching tool. Narcissus is an arrogant young man who disdainfully rejected, the love of others, including most famously, the nymph Echo. For this he was tricked by Nemesis, the god of ‘divine retribution’ into staring at his reflection in a pool and thus he became entranced with his mirror image, although imagining this person to be another person. This was revenge indeed, for someone who was full of self-love, and in a sense indicative of the power of the human psyche to delude itself and to break its own determination to be in love with only oneself. Perhaps though, in his wounded psyche, like a modern day Narcissist, was the knowledge that the person he saw in the water was for him, in fact, himself, the ultimate visual acknowledgment and confirmation of his supreme beauty. This reflection finally enabled him to find expression outside of himself: he was a young adult doing only what young adults generally find themselves doing as they mature. However, therein lies the cruel blow for Narcissus: his reflection despite appearing real, was the ultimate chimerical delusion. In his attempts to manifest and make physical his love of another, the normal sublimating of a teenager’s Narcissism, he instead moved closer each time, to kiss this other man.  At the point of coupling, however, the other disappeared each time in ripples of water, and even seeking the other within the water was fruitless if he wished to preserve himself from drowning both metaphorically and in reality.

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Drawing by Wim Beullens / Painting by Ivor Sexton / Photography by Vladimir Okrina

Narcissism or self-love is something which Sigmund Freud, in his essay, ‘On Narcissism’ (1914) describes as a necessary part of the human make-up, alongside an outward inspired eroticism or love of others. Both, he said, are needed to enable self-preservation and the preservation of the species. He argued that they both form part of a general developmental egoism in all humans. Initially the narcissistic imperative enables babies and infants to get what they need to survive, and this often carries on well into adulthood, with some people remaining crucially dependent on their parents. This self-love an essential part of our developmental make-up can be seen to continue with many of us in some shape or form into adult life, whilst in many cases and at the same time being sublimated to the love of others, which begins to take greater precedence as the sex instinct pushes us to fall in love with another. To a greater or lesser degree a person’s residual Narcissism is dependent on individual psychological make-up and powerful external forces, such as the psychologically based advertising campaigns presented by large corporations and the cult of celebrity. The problem with Narcissism, if it can be seen to be one, is when a person does not know when to stop their pursuit of perfection or balance their love of others and their love of self. This inability to move to a more socially-based personality is the moment when a healthy pursuit becomes an unhealthy obsession. The old adage ‘You have to love yourself in order to love others’ simply doesn’t work if it goes too far, because when it does become all-encompassing, then the Narcissist pushes others away and loses out on social interactions and relationships, in favour of isolation and in the extreme, megalomania.

Photography by Cecil Beaton
Photography by Cecil Beaton

The Narcissist can only see himself both being touched and reaching out to another by touching himself in front of the reflective material, be it water, a mirror or a window pane. This probably suits his ego whilst at once causing emotional frustration, by not being able to engage properly with his own image of beauty, himself. In the case of masturbation or auto-eroticism, so often wrongly equated with Narcissism,( as plenty of non-narcissists engage in this form of sexual expression), touching is possible but the person is aware only of engaging with himself and not the other. This other remains elusive and he remains trapped in his own self-love. In seeing himself reflected, he reaches out yet he finds only the exterior of the material which reveals his image. Even his finger tips and those of his reflection are unable to truly touch as they reach the looking glass, but instead he feels the soft or hard surface of the reflector destroying the object for him. Narcissism, this once heralded great developmental Ego tool can become if not worked through, a cage from which the Narcissist finds it impossible to break free, and as I will discuss later, the photographic/art model and the photographer/artist can find themselves similarly trapped by it.

Self-love may drive the Narcissist to look at his own image with an overzealous yet loving eye, but if he engages in this practice of noticing himself so much then it is guaranteed that he will be disappointed. Eventually, the coarse nature of the human body seen in detail and the aging processes we all go through, will debunk the myth of eternal beauty. The myth of Narcissus, which Freud drew on to illustrate his psychological theories shows two components, that of the inner landscape of Narcissus’ psyche, his self-love and that of the external topography of his desires, carrying his disappointment. This dismay at the limitations of his love of self and his love of an impossibly unobtainable other, finds expression in his beautiful yet reflected twin. These twin emotions of love and distress are still to be found combined in Modern male nude photographic and artistic images; witness the contemporary disciples of those such as Mapplethorpe et al. These often present a model in a detached, self-besotted pose with a dismayed, arrogant and stern response to his own and the photographer/artists distress in attempting to reflect their ideal of beauty in print or on canvas. The camera, and by default the photographer, asks the model to let the camera make love to him, but he doesn’t need to get down and dirty or sully his beauty, only lay back and remain aloof. No emotion is needed, just one’s own beauty, in fact sentiment and humour are a positive hindrance. In this style, the photographer’s model can be just with himself, wallowing in his sense of self-appreciation and love, without the intrusion of the audience. It is the camera and the photographer who do the work. These artists and photographers along with their model present a stereotypical Narcissistic response to the world.

Painting by Gerard van Kuijl
Painting by Gerard van Kuijl

In the modern world Narcissism can be seen not only in individuals and society as a whole but also as a major tool in the predominant worldwide Capitalist culture, through psychologically-based advertising. In our surgically, chemically enhanced and gym toned beauty age, led as it is by the whims of surgeons and the ‘Beauty’ and ‘Fitness’ markets. Individual perceptions of beauty are at best based on a spectrum starting at one end with the subjective view of attractiveness, which most of us can recognise as a truth, on to an insidiously imposed, distorted and clone-like allure, (the love of the Pectoral muscle and the Botox needle are but two of the symptoms) and at worst being turned into a kind of grand ‘grotesquery’. Do the teased Mickey Rourke or Billy Crystal really think they look better than before or in fact even human now? Apart from consumerist edicts, those twin idols of Sex and Narcissism leading the NEW beauty age, technology also has its part to play. Since the advent of the digital camera and the Smart phone, we all can become photographer and model,the lover and the loved, even taking images of ourselves in mirrors, recording the subject (ourselves), the object (our reflection), and using the reflector (the camera lens), all so much artifice to feed our Narcissistic egos and fill the Capitalists coffers. Of course many would say that such imagery has its place in the art world of the 20th and 21st century and it undoubtedly does, but it is a terrible mix of personally prescribed perfection and frugal fixed frigidity, at once removed from both its audience and reality, rather like the ultimate Narcissist.

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Photography by Max Zerrahn / Painting by Claude Martin / Photography by Terry J. Cyr

In the context of our current day often distorted and biased view of beauty and its depiction in art and photography, it is relevant to ask: Was Narcissus ‘truly’ beautiful? Can we define true beauty and does it matter anyway? This is an often asked question in the world of the Arts. Who can say definitively that anyone is beautiful without having that assertion challenged. This is only a subjective view like in the story Narcissus who is the subject who has fallen in love with the object. So beauty, his view of his own and that of his reflection can only ever be a ‘personal’ exercise, especially compounded by the fact that his reflection is not an object at all but an illusory construct rather like his own self-love and self-worth. It is Narcissus’ inner psyche which is in charge of these events as they unfold, or so he thinks, and rather like the main protagonist in Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, he is in fact only the master of a delicious hoax. This is not say though that Narcissus did not have relevance and importance in the same way that photographs and drawings/paintings of and by men, the subject of this article, have now. However, we have to acknowledge that all opinion is subjective despite how scientists, academics and critics may try to convince us otherwise.

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Painting by Nicole Roumelioti / Photography by David Vance

For artist/photographer and model alike, Narcissism plays an important part in the process of creating the finished image. As seen above Narcissism’s locus is to be found on a spectrum in life, at times obvious and sometimes subtle. This excessive sense of personal importance has many levels particularly in the area of creativity and it criss-crosses the roles of artist, model and even the viewer, especially the one who commissions works or buys existing art, both noble and exciting practices, especially perhaps to the Narcissist. Every portrait piece carries with it elements of Narcissism, the arrogance of a God-like assumption of beauty and personal importance, for all of some of those involved.

The artistic and photographic depictions of the male nude most often carry with them an autoerotic and homoerotic component. The latest trend sees a more democratic range of male nude, both physically and by the ways that these men are portrayed. The humanity and accessibility of a model now shines through, especially in self-portraits. Some can be seen here, created by Vladimir Okřina, and developed especially for this article. They display archetypes of a Narcissistic pose and yet are interspersed with naturalism. This is achieved by both the great technical expertise it takes to produce a self-image and the tension born of having to be in the moment, in its realisation. These two factors impact positively on the end result and give humour and sensitivity to Narcissism which at its worst is regarded as a mental and emotional disorder.

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Painting by André Durand / Painting by Gyula Benczùr / Painting by Gregory Little

The viewer of an Illusory Narcissistic image such as the ones Robert Mapplethorpe produced, in fact becomes much more connected to the photographer as the producer of the image, the one with the human face. Alternatively, his images can indeed be viewed as ‘still life’, inhuman even, although stereotypically beautiful. This connection between artist and viewer, brings to the creator of the image the dangers and muddiness of interaction with others, a Narcissists nightmare, unless as Vivien Maier did, you do not show your own work. This fact does nothing to free the photographer or model from their watery and/or reflecting trap, unless they allow him to be human rather than archetypal, to engage in action and discussion with his intended audience. The detachment principle spoken of before is what can make some models appear Narcissistic, an arrogant and disdainful portrait style which has developed over time particularly in the late 20th century. It is a cold, calculating image of beauty, chiseled and sculptural almost without humanity. Thus male nude ‘still-life’ portraiture, creating human edifices, but excluding self-portraiture, can then be viewed as a metaphor for Narcissism. As a result for the viewer, these images, can display and represent a kind of entrapment, an inability to attract and engage with the audience at a human level but merely at the aesthetic, illusory and Utopian one.

In contrast and in the vanguard of new developments in the male portrait can be seen the naturalistic and activity based works of those like Wim Beullens, Jody Kelly, Gregory Little and Ivor Sexton. Their work invites the audience or viewer to engage with the model, to laugh and empathise with him, recognise a raw sexuality in him, because he is often seen to be taking part in everyday activities or in telling a story. These men and those who display them are extroverted and outwardly focused and yet by their very nature still speak of a kind of unashamed and natural Narcissism in the artist/photographer and the model and by default the viewer.

by Simon O’Cora 

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