Self Portrait by Christian Schad (1927)
Having a narcissus flower staring you in the face can only really mean one thing – you’re a vain so and so. Not that the flower symbolism in Christian Schad’s Self-Portrait is really needed, as the artist’s obsession with showing off his chest in a see-through top, rather than bothering to put a plaster on his lady friend’s scarred-up face, or pay her any real attention when she is so readily available to him, kind of gives the game away.
The plant narcissus, commonly known as a daffodil, has become inextricably linked to the Greek legend of Narcissus. So much so that no-one really knows which came first. The story goes, Narcissus, the man, spotted himself reflected in some water, fell in love at first sight, and lost it big time. Unable to move or tear himself away from his own vision of loveliness, he didn’t eat for three whole weeks, leading to weight loss and eventually death. On the spot where he died a flower grew, that flower looked like the one we now know as narcissus. The first record of narcissus the plant was also in Greek times, mentioned by the botanist and all round science geek Theophrastus (c 371 – c 287 BC) in his book Historia Plantarum. In it he referred to the species Narcissus poeticus. When Linnaeus first formally described the genus Narcissus in his publication Species Plantarum in 1753, he made this same species, Narcissus poeticus, his type specimen; the plant from which all other species of daffodil (currently around 50) would be compared from that point on. These two events, plus the many representations in art over the centuries, has meant it is this particular Narcissus plant – with its ring of white petals and short yellow corona with reddish edge – that is most closely associated with the myth.
If you only look at a digital image of Christian Schad’s Self-Portrait, like the one shown above, you can find yourself in a rather botanically troubled state. The flower looks like narcissus, is reported by the art historians to be narcissus, it even closely resembles the species Naricssus poeticus. BUT, it looks like it only has 4 petals. Narcissus has 6 petals, which botanically speaking are actually tepals – a term used when you don’t know if the flower parts in question are petals or sepals. This is why a trip to the Tate Modern, where it is currently on view, is most definitely needed. In the flesh, if you look very closely, you will see two petals hiding behind two others, making a total of six. While Schad may have been a self-confessed self-obsessive, he was at least botanically correct.