Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Persistence of Memory and Salvador Dalí’s Contribution to Surrealism

Salvador Dalí is one of the undisputed masters of surrealism, demonstrated not only through works like The Persistence of Memory but also through his flamboyant, colorful personality. The Persistence of Memory is one of his most beloved paintings, with surrealist imagery that would become part of Dalí’s legacy as an artist. Singulart will be examining the life of Dalí, including his first forays into surrealism, as well as examining the symbolism conveyed in The Persistence of Memory and Dalí’s lasting legacy in popular culture. 

The Persistence of Memory and the Surreal Life of Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí was born in Spain on May 11, 1904. From a young age he was told that he was the reincarnation of his brother, also named Salvador, who had died from gastroenteritis nine months before Dalí’s birth. Dalí accepted this theory, later stating that his brother was “probably a first version of myself but conceived too much in the absolute”. Dalí’s mother passed away from cancer when Dalí was 16; he described her death as “the greatest blow I had experienced in my life. I worshiped her… I could not resign myself to the loss of a being on whom I counted to make invisible the unavoidable blemishes of my soul.” Dalí’s father would go on to marry his late wife’s sister. 

Dalí photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1939

Dalí’s love of art was supported by his parents, and he began drawing lessons when he was 10 years old, going on to study at the Madrid School of Fine Arts and then at the Special Painting, Sculpture and Engraving School of San Fernando in Madrid. After moving into the Residencia de Estudiantes, Dalí began to cultivate his eccentric personality, growing his hair long and consistently dressing up in early 19th century fashions that caused him to be labelled “a dandy”. His infamous mustache was grown as a tribute to 17th century artist Diego Velázquez. Dalí was expelled from the school after insulting one of his professors, and soon after travelled to Paris. 

While Dalí had impressed his fellow students with his cubist artworks, it was after meeting Pablo Picasso in Paris that Dalí began to experiment with surrealism. His first work produced in this style was Apparatus and Hand in 1927, which he painted as a way to convey Freud’s ideas about dream analysis. In 1929, he collaborated with filmmaker Luis Buñeul to create Un Chien Andalou, a surrealist silent film featuring nonsensical, absurd imagery. The film’s subject matter was so shocking for the time that it shot Dalí to notoriety. He gained the attention of the Parisian surrealists, and was invited to join their collective. 

Portrait of Picasso, 1947 by Salvador Dali

It was around this time that Dalí met his future wife Gala, a Russian immigrant ten years Dalí’s senior. The two embarked on a passionate affair, much to the distaste of Dalí’s father, who was further angered at an art show of Dalí’s that featured the inscription “Sometimes, I spit for fun on my mother’s portrait”. Dali’s father threw him out of the family home, and Dalí and Gala were married in 1934. 

Dalí became an overnight sensation in the United States after an exhibition of his work that included The Persistence of Memory was shown by curator Julien Levy. Dalí and Gala would remain in the United States for the duration of World War II, and during this time Dalí experimented with other forms of art, designing jewelry and clothing and creating store window displays (although he was so angered at the execution of one of his window designs that he shoved a bathtub through the display case). 

Salvador Dali with his wife Gala, 1945

He and Gala returned to Port Lligat in 1948, and Dalí continued to experiment with different artistic mediums, including photography. He embarked on his Masterworks period, creating one immense, monumental painting per year. The paintings would be at least five feet long and take him up to a year to complete. Although he was reclusive when creating these artworks, he still indulged in extravagant public stunts, such as driving around in a car filled to the roof with cauliflower and publicly urinating on one of Warhol’s silkscreen artworks that had been presented to him as a gift by the artist. 

Dalí and Gala’s tumultuous love affair came to a head when Gala would abandon Dalí for weeks at a time to stay in their newly purchased castle in Púbol. It was later revealed that Gala’s senility had caused her to dose Dalí with non-prescription medication, severely impeding his artistic capabilities. Gala’s death in 1982 caused Dalí to spiral deeper into depression, and he intentionally dehydrated himself as a suicide attempt. He moved into the castle in Púbol, where he would eventually pass away from a heart attack in 1989, while listening to his favorite record, Tristan and Isolde

The Persistence of Memory: What does it mean?

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931

The Persistence of Memory is rich with symbolism, and portrays Dalí’s signature dream-like atmosphere. It was created using Dalí’s paranoiac-critical method, where Dalí would enter a state of self-induced hallucination in order to create “hand-painted dream photographs”. The piece shows three melting clocks, as well as a smaller orange pocket watch covered in ants. A figure can be seen in the center of the piece, thought to represent Dalí as a form of self-portrait. The landscape portrayed in The Persistence of Memory is stark and barren, thought to have been inspired by Dalí’s hometown of Port Lligat. Here, Singulart will explore the various interpretations of individual components of The Persistence of Memory. 

The Recurring Clocks 

Dalí claims he was inspired to paint the melting clocks after observing Camembert cheese melting on a hot day, but their meaning has been debated and interpreted in many different ways. The melting clocks are an example of Dalí’s use of juxtaposition between hard and soft; in The Persistence of Memory the clocks are fluid and flowing, set off by the harshness of the rocks in the landscape. Some critics suggest that the watches were a visual interpretation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, conveying the relationship between space and time.Critic Dawn Asher said, “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order.”  It is also suggested that the clocks represent the omnipresence of time, and its control over our lives. Another theory put forward is that the clocks represent the passing of time during dreaming – in dreams, time is irrelevant. 

The Ants

Ants had been a subject of fascination for Dalí ever since an incident he witnessed as a child. In his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, he writes: “When I reached the back of the wash-house, I found the glass over-turned, the ladybugs gone and the bat, though still half-alive, bristling with frenzied ants, its tortured little face exposing tiny teeth like an old woman’s… With a lightning movement I picked up the bat, crawling with ants, and lifted it to my mouth, moved by an insurmountable feeling of pity.” Ants would become a regularly used motif in Dalí’s work, symbolising death and decay. In The Persistence of Memory, the fact that the ants are depicted swarming over the non-melting clock could symbolise the anxiety incurred by the passing of time. 

The Hidden Self-Portrait

In the center of The Persistence of Memory lies a strange, almost-but-not-quite-humanoid figure. It is believed that this is a representation of Dalí himself, with an eye closed to signify his dreaming state. The artwork’s label at the Museum of Modern Art states, “The monstrous creature draped across the painting’s center resembles the artist’s own face in profile; its long eyelashes seem insectlike or even sexual, as does what may or may not be a tongue oozing from its nose like a fat snail.” As with the melting clocks, the hardness of the rocks under this fluid creature mixes hardness with softness. It has been suggested that the shape represents a fetus, with critic Paul Moorhouse stating the figure “refers to Dalí’s professed memories of intra-uterine life and suggests the trauma of birth. A watch sagging across [it] and another hanging from a plinth evoke the feelings of timelessness associated with the experience of pre-birth. The title of the painting thus refers to prenatal memories and its subject is ‘the horrible traumatism of birth by which we are also expunged from paradise’. By placing himself in the center of the painting, in this dry, barren landscape, it has been theorised Dalí is also exploring his own immortality and how he would be remembered, which could also be seen to be reflected in the painting’s title.

See similar artists and artworks in Singulart’s Inspired by Salvator Dalí collection.

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