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Art History: Salvador Dalí’s Strange and Surreal ‘Persistence of Memory’

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali Surrealism Dali Melting Clocks

‘The Persistence of Memory' (1931). Photo: MoMA

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With its strange subject matter and dream-like atmosphere, Salvador Dalí's painting, The Persistence of Memory, has become a well-known symbol of Surrealism. Painted during the Dada-inspired movement, the melting-clocks-masterpiece embodies the sensibilities that define the experimental and eccentric genre.

To contextualize the iconic piece's place in art history, one must understand its unique influences, examine its symbolic content, and appreciate the artist's avant-garde approach to its creation.

Art Historical Context

The Persistence of Memory was painted in 1931, at the height of the Surrealist Movement. During this time, innovative artists explored ideas of automatism and the self-conscious in their work. This experimental approach to art culminated in a tendency toward peculiar subject matter that evokes dreams and challenges perceptions.

As a key figure of the movement, Salvador Dalí delved deep into this artistic mindset, which he viewed as revolutionary and liberating. “Surrealism is destructive,” he explained, “but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali Surrealism Dali Melting Clocks

Surrealist artists in 1930. Top row from left: Paul Eluard, Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, Rene Clevel
Bottom row from Left: Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray

When Dalí painted The Persistence of Memory, his artistic practice was guided by the peculiar “paranoiac-critical method.” Developed by the artist in 1930, the technique relies on self-induced paranoia and hallucinations to facilitate a work of art. This method was particularly instrumental in the creation of Dalí's “hand-painted dream photographs,” a collection of works that are stylistically rooted in realism yet unrealistic in subject matter.

Surrealist Symbolism

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali Surrealism Dali Melting Clocks

Though set in a realistically-rendered landscape, The Persistence of Memory features bizarre subject matter evocative of a dream.

Melting Clocks

A set of melting clocks—or “soft watches,” as many Surrealists have called them—are scattered across the composition. These fascinating timepieces appear to have lost their integrity, as they're limply draped over a tree branch or sliding off of an ambiguous platform. A single pocket watch, which remains closed, retains its structure, though an army of ants ominously cover its case.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali Surrealism Dali Melting Clocks The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali Surrealism Dali Melting Clocks

Anthropomorphic Form

Perhaps the most perplexing part of the scene is an anthropomorphic mass sprawled on the ground. This face-like figure is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist. This interpretation is fitting, as Dalí 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, Sleep.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali Surrealism Dali Melting Clocks
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali Surrealism Dali Melting Clocks

Left: ‘Soft Self-Portrait With Grilled Bacon' (1941)
Right: ‘Sleep' (1937)

Familiar Landscape

While the rocky landscape in the painting's background may look like any ambiguous natural formation, it is actually inspired by Dalí's native Catalonia. Specifically, the coastal cliffs represent Cap de Creus, a peninsula close to the artist's home.

Additionally, the triangular shadow that appears to crawl across the canvas is believed to be cast by Mount Pani, a mountain near the Dalí family's beloved summer home. A reference to this peak has also popped up in View of Cadaqués from Mount Pani, an early Dalí painting that depicts an idyllic Mediterranean town from Mount Pani's summit.

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