10 Facts You Don't Know About Salvador Dali's "Persistence of Memory"

10 Facts You Don't Know About Salvador Dali's "Persistence of Memory"
10 Facts You Don't Know About Salvador Dali's "Persistence of Memory"

Before joining the Surrealist group formally in 1929, Salvador Dali imbued his work with a sense of the fantastic and the extraordinary, personified in the work of the Old Masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and in his own time by Giorgio de Chirico. In The Persistence of Memory, one of his earlier Surrealist works, Dali was influenced by Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, which he combined with a Catalan background, a feature of much of his early work. This painting was one of the first Dali executed using his 'paranoid-critical' approach in which he depicts his own psychological conflicts and phobias.

Dali had studied psychoanalysis and the works of Sigmund Freud before joining the Surrealists. The faithful transcription of dreams has always played a major role in Dali's paintings. To dream is easy for him because of his Mediterranean heritage. A siesta, to him, has always opened the doors of a pre-sleep period, the instant when one forgets the presence of one's body. Dali's demonology owes a great deal to his reveries. They have given birth to heterogeneous elements which he then brings together in his paintings without always knowing why. In the works of the Surrealist period, Dali treated those elements of disparate appearance with absolute realism which emphasized the proper character of each one of them, making an exact copy from a document, a photograph, or the actual object, as well as using collage.

The Persistence of Memory contains a self-portrait over which is draped a 'soft watch'. For Dali, these 'soft watches' represent what he called the 'camembert of time', suggesting that the concept of time had lost all meaning in the unconscious world. The ants crawling over the pocket watch suggest decoy, an absurd notion given that the watch is metallic. These 'paranoid-critical' images reflect Dali's reading and absorption of Freud's theories of the unconscious and its access to the latent desires and paranoia of the human mind, such as the unconscious fear of death alluded to in this painting,

Dali increased the effect produced even more through the use of techniques stemming from the precision of Johannes Vermeer to the blurred shapes of Carriere. Once he had given an emotional autonomy to his protagonists he established communication between them by depicting them in space - most often in a landscape - thus creating unity in the canvas by the juxtaposition of objects bearing no relation in an environment where they did not belong. This spatial obsession derives from the atmosphere of Cadaques, where the light, due to the color of the sky and of the sea, seems to suspend the course of time and allows the mind through the eye to glide more easily from one point to another. The Persistence of Memory is an excellent example of the foregoing and contains the following elements:

1) Perhaps the most confusing element of the scene is an anthropomorphic object laid on the ground. This face-like figure is interpreted to be a self-portrait of the artist: Dali is known for both his unconventional self-portrayals, like Soft Self-Portrait With Grilled Bacon, and his one-of-a-kind depictions of not-quite-human faces, like the figure in his painting, Le Sommeil.

2) The watches, which he says are:"nothing more than the soft, extravagant, solitary, paranoiac-critical Camembert cheese of space and time... Hard or soft, what difference does it make! As long as they tell time accurately."

3) The precise image of ants in the sunshine. A leafless olive tree with its branches cut.

4) The landscape. For the person who does not know the region where Dali lives, the violence of the color might seem excessive. It is nothing of the sort. On the contrary, this vivid color renders exactly the effect of the light in the sky, on the sea, the seashore, and the rocks. The later cannot be specifically located; they are the generalization of all the landscapes Dali had seen and painted before. His great merit is to have succeeded in synthesizing the ideal coast by use of familiar rocks and coves, thus giving the spectator the illusion of having seen them before.

Photo of Persistence of Memory
Photo of Persistence of Memory

10 Facts that You Don't Know About "Persistence of Memory"

1. Despite its memorable subject matter and significant impact on the art world, the painting The Persistence of Memory is only slightly larger than a sheet of notebook paper, or approximately 9.5 x 13 inches.

2. Many art historians emphasize that the central figure in the painting is a self-portrait of Dali. However, the figure, which has human characteristics such as eyelashes as well as a free-form shape signifies metamorphosis, as do the clocks that are morphing from solid to liquid. Metamorphosis is a key concept in the Surrealist movement, reflecting the transformative power of dreams.

3. The Persistence of Memory alludes to the influence of scientific advances during Dali's lifetime. The stark yet dreamlike scenery reflects a Freudian emphasis on the dream landscape while the melted watches may refer to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, in which the scientist references the distortion of space and time.

4. The pocket watches are not the only references to time in the painting. The sand refers the sands of time and sand in the hourglass. The ants have hourglass-shaped bodies. The shadow that looms over the scene suggests the passing of the sun overhead, and the distant ocean may suggest timelessness or eternity.

5. The painting, which Dali completed in 1931, has made its home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for more than 80 years, having been donated in 1934 by an anonymous patron.

6. Three of the clocks in the painting may symbolize the past, present and future, which are all subjective and open to interpretation, while the fourth clock, which lies face-down and undistorted, may symbolize objective time.

7. The egg that lays on the distant shore is symbolic of life, which, like memory, has the potential to persist despite the breakdown or distortion of time. The egg also epitomizes the artist's obsession with the juxtaposition of hard and soft during his Surrealist period.

8. The insects in "The Persistence of Memory," a fly on one clock face and the ants on the face-down clock, variously signify death, disintegration and/or a parasitic relationship with time.

9. Dali's painting combines three art genres: the still life, the landscape and the self-portrait. A somewhat similar self-portrait appears in an earlier Dali work entitled The Great Masturbator. However, in The Persistence of Memory, the figure appears to be either dead or sleeping.

10. The denuded, broken branch in the painting, which art experts identify as an olive tree in the context of other Dali artworks, represents the demise of ancient wisdom as well as the death of peace, reflecting the political climate between the two World Wars as well as the unrest leading to the Spanish Civil War in Dali's native country.