Podcast: Narcissus, Oedipus and the Persistence of Memory

James Cahill discusses the myth of Narcissus and its persistence in the contemporary artistic imagination.

Mat Collishaw, Narcissus, 1990

Why does the myth of Narcissus continue to fascinate and provoke the contemporary artistic imagination?

In what ways does classical mythology in general hold up a mirror to the anxieties and aspirations of the here-and-now?

In this lecture, writer and academic James Cahill addresses these and other questions relating to the enduring power of ancient myth – above all, the tales of metamorphosis contained in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Cahill explores how these stories have continued to infiltrate and inspire the art of the last hundred years, both overtly and in more oblique or unexpected ways, while also giving fundamental shape to modern literature and psychoanalysis. He argues that Salvador Dalí’s iconic reimagining of the Narcissus myth stands at the crux between different modes of ‘response’ to the classical, looking simultaneously backwards (to the mythologizing paintings of the Renaissance, for instance) and forwards to the experiments of conceptual art and postmodernism – at once an illustration of the ancient myth and an enactment of its subliminal themes.

James Cahill is a writer based in London. He is the lead author of Flying Too Close to the Sun, a major new survey of classical myth in western art published by Phaidon in 2018. His book Ways of Being, an anthology of artists’ statements, was published this summer by Laurence King. In 2017 he completed a PhD at Cambridge University examining the relationship between contemporary British art and the classical tradition. He previously studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art and Oxford University. His writing has appeared in publications including Apollo, The Burlington Magazine, Elephant, The Erotic Review, Frieze, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. He has authored or co-authored books on artists including Angus Fairhurst, Maggi Hambling and Richard Patterson, and has curated exhibitions at King’s College London and the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge. His PhD research led to a postdoctoral fellowship (2017-18) at King’s College London, where he helped to set up Modern Classicisms, a multidimensional research project exploring the connections between antiquity and modern art.

Flying Too Close to the Sun, by Phaidon Editors, with an introduction by James Cahill, is available from the Freud Museum Shop.

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