The persistence of memory

Salvador Dali • Painting, 1931, 24×33 cm
About the artwork
This artwork was added since it is referred to in the materials below
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Landscape, Allegorical scene
Style of art: Surrealism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1931
Size: 24×33 cm
Artwork in selections: 139 selections

Description of the artwork «The persistence of memory»

Surrealism began in the twenties of the last century: the brightest representatives of this direction can be found in literature, cinematography and, of course, in painting. Dalí can be called the most prominent surrealist, whose paintings cannot be confused with the works of other artists. His paintings correspond exactly to the main characteristic of the direction: the reality and images from the dreams are closely interweaved in one plot.

Works by Dalí can be either admired or rejected, but they can't be taken with indifference, as they allow to take a fascinating journey to the corners of the artist's inner world. He encoded his unconsciousness, Freud's psychoanalysis, childhood trauma and adult complexes in his works.

One of the most famous paintings by Salvador Dalí, and probably the most personal, judging by its size and images imprinted on the canvas, is The Persistence of Memory. The art critics of all times has always been discussed about what is depicted on it. Since the artist did not often explain the meaning of his works, there is enough space for thoughts while analysing The Persistence of Memory, but some of the imageries are quite common for Dalí. Here he portrayed himself and the olive tree, and ants, and egg, and many other symbolic things that wander from work to work.

Creation history of The persistence of memory by Salvador Dalí

Before talking about the meaning of a particular work, it would be interesting to find out under what circumstances it was painted and what contributed to the emergence of certain images. The process of creating an artwork is always interesting for both researchers of the artist and the public, since this information gives the opportunity to learn more about the artist, his personal life and environment.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, the main images of which are clocks, was painted in 1931. The picture itself is surprisingly small, this shows the personal nature of the artwork. The artist loved this painting, and his wife, Gala, said that “once a person sees it, they will never forget it.

The Soft Watches (an alternative title of the work) was painted in a couple of hours, while the artist's wife was in the cinema with her friends. Referring to a terrible headache, he remained at home. It is considered, and the artist admitted himself, that the image of the soft clocks was inspired by the thoughts about a Camembert cheese with which spouses finished their dinner. Changeable shape and flexibility of cheese contributed to the emergence of strange associations in the artist’s mind, that he immediately reproduced on a canvas. 

The other started work, The view of Cap de Creus, served as a basis for The Persistence of Memory, every detail is important to analyse it. This cape is depicted on many of the artist’s works. He considered the Catalonia coast, located near his native town Figueres, a place which is an embodiment of the creation theory of all his strange paranoid symbols and metamorphosis. Evidently, the firmness of the principles of this theory the painter associated with granite rocks. Despite the view of the cape, there was a withered olive in the picture – the dead truncated branch. According to the artist, after dinner, he decided to look at the canvas before going to bed.

A depicted landscape seemed to him just a basis for a deeper plot; the picture obviously needed some idea. Tormented by a headache, he was going to sleep, but suddenly an image of the watch melting down from the branch of olive, inspired by the thoughts about the nature of melting cheese, occurred to him.

Despite the poor state of health, the brilliant painter took his brush and finished one of his most famous works that same evening.

Analysis of the painting The Persistence of Time

Many researchers associate the idea of creating this work of art with the popularity of Einstein's relativity theory. However, Dalí himself claimed that, regarding the creation of The Soft Watches, he relied more on the statement of Heraclitus – "Everything flows, everything changes". The artist questioned the very nature of time: its linearity seemed unobvious to the painter, and the complex nature of this phenomenon was emphasized by the variety of images on the canvas.

I’d like to start describing the The Persistence of Memory by exploring the characters that are present here in large numbers. First of all, they are, of course, clocks. Soft, shapeless, hanging from a tree and flowing down a hard surface, it symbolizes the relativity of the concept of time, its ability to flow in different directions, returning to the past and transferring to the future.

The head, located in the center of the picture, is also in the power of these processes. It is a self-portrait of the artist and is present in many of his works. Given that he created this painting during a migraine attack, it can be assumed that the image of the sleeper himself is conceived as a desire to avoid suffering and escape from the strange images that arise during heavy sleep.

Time in its usual sense is depicted in the painting in the form of a solid clock which is being devoured by ants – for Dalí these insects served as a symbol of dust, decay and decomposition. Objective time, like a certain entity working against all living things, is denied by the artist: that is why it is subjected to destruction, and the clock is depicted dial-down.

Dalí placed the egg, which is the symbol of life, on the seashore. According to the mystical ancient Greek teachings, the sky and the earth were formed from the two halves of the egg from which hatched the deity Phanes, so the location of the object in the picture was chosen not accidentally. The sea symbolizes eternal life, immortality. Thus, from the set of symbols emerges the meaning of the picture The Persistence of Memory – the relationship of what is happening in the past, present and future, the ambiguity of time, its value and meaningless at the same time. It is noteworthy that all the clocks on the canvas show different times. Perhaps they mark some important events, permanently imprinted in memory.

Despite the rejection of linear time, Dalí does not repudiate it completely. A symbol, balancing the concepts of the objective and the subjective, the real world and the fictional one, inspired by dreams, is a mirror. In the painting it is depicted in the form of a solid tangible surface lying horizontally.