Salvador Dali uses elements of Surrealism in The Persistence of Memory to depict a dreamland in which time is the main subject, and the only nod to realism is the portrayal of the cliffs of Catalonia, Dali’s home.
The Persistence of Memory, painted in 1931, is one of the most canonical artistic works from the Surrealist movement. Its dream-like qualities present a more profound reality as revealed by the unconscious mind. Ultimately, Dali expresses an enigmatic representation of the effects of time in relation to memories.
The setting of the image is a rather bleak landscape, including a flat, sandy beach cast in shadow. The beach stretches towards the ocean, which is also flat and lifeless. While it is appears to be daytime, there are neither sun nor clouds in the sky, nor any sign of being for that matter. The only tree in the painting is barren, and in the backdrop of the dreamscape are the cliffs of Catalonia, which was where Dali lived. In the foreground of the painting there are watches that are inexplicably limp; Dali himself described them as “the camembert of time.” The watches—particularly a closed, golden watch—are attracting ants. There is one draped over a tree, possibly suggesting that time is malleable.
There is also a mysterious, fleshy creature draped across the painting’s center, which is an approximation of Dali’s face in profile. The creature is lifeless. This figure is also an example of metamorphosis, a device Dali used to merge human, vegetal, and animal forms.
Throughout the painting Dali uses what he called, “the usual paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling.” He systemizes confusion in order to “help discredit completely the world of reality.” Moreover, Dali’s tricks, such as the metal watches attracting ants like organic, rotting flesh, call into question the norms of actuality. The ants, a common theme in Dali’s works, are a sign of decay. Thus, Dali may be suggesting that with time comes decay. Or, in fact, that time decays and loses meaning in the face of memory. Further, in accordance with the title, memories persist despite the passing of time, carrying with them the scars of one’s past. Dali’s surrealist perspective is enigmatic and inherently incomprehensible, yet ultimately the idea of the ineffectiveness of time against memory is reiterated by the somber tones and lifelessness of the painting; these elements appear to convey that time has lost its meaning.
Finally, one cannot be certain as to how Salvador Dali is portraying the main subject of time in relation to memories. The world of the painting is ruled by an irrational order in which, like a dream, there is no ultimate solution. Yet, imagery and symbolism seem to suggest that time is powerless in its attempts to override memory.
Dali, Salvador. The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Photograph. MoMa, New York. The Collection. The Modern Museum of Art. Web. 16 Oct. 2013. <http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79018>.
Time as portrayed by Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory by Claire Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.