A universal symbol of modern art and surrealism, The Persistence of Memory has become one of the biggest visual icons of our time with the melting clocks created by Dalí’s extraordinary imagination. What attracts the viewer’s attention first in the painting are the melting clocks and the weirdly shaped form resembling a human face. These objects evoke visions of an unreal world. On the contrary, the background view of sea cliffs in the horizon provides a real world image. Dalí has taken this landscape from his homeland in Port Lligat in Catalonia, Spain. Combining the realistic view and extraordinary symbols within itself, the painting presents transitions between reality and dream to the viewer.

The art pieces from classical periods with certain common symbols can be interpreted relatively easier than modern art pieces, which are open for different readings. Dalí’s work is no exception to that. Many intrepretations considered it to be based on the Relativity Theory of Einstein, which was quite popular during that period. In alignment with the theory, time and space do not seem to be integrated in a linear fashion within the painting. The objects appear as if they will easily lose their shapes and gain new forms. That’s why, especially the melting clocks are thought to be the representation of the relativity of time.

The melting clocks in the foreground contrast with the utterly realistic sea cliffs in the background and accentuate how artificial the controlled time remains in front of the stark reality and vastness of the universe.

Dalí has never explained his painting in detail, but when asked if it is based on the Theory of Relativity, he answered that the clocks were inspired by melting Camembert cheese. In 1931, as an artist still striving for his breakthrough, Dalí, had finished the Port Lligat landscape part but could not figure out how to complete this painting. As his struggle continues, he concentrates on a piece of Camembert cheese he has been eating. The view of this gooey cheese melting in summer heat combines with Dalí’s headache and his heavy mood and puts him in hallucination. Dalí decides to design the melting clocks upon his hallucination experience.

This hallucination experience of Dalí is in fact not a coincidence. On the contrary, it is known that he was consciously creating these dreams/halluciantions with a method he called the “paranoiac-critical”. The aim of Dalí in this state of conscious dreaming is to reach his own subconscious and convey what he experienced in that state to his canvas as soon as he wakes up. Utilising this method, he could transfer the images seen in subconscious directly into his artwork creating surrealistic views. The reason why Dalí was involved in subconscious and dreams is his deep interest in the studies of the famous psychoanalyst Freud.

The symbols in the painting gain parallel meanings when the concepts of dreams and subconscious are taken into account. The face form in the middle of the painting is portrayed with a closed eye seems to be sleeping. This face, indicating a state of dream/hallucination, is thought to be the face of Dalí himself. In the same way the objects lose forms in a dream, this figure looks deformed and out of this world. Keeping the same perspective of analysis, the clocks may refer to the time that passes during dreaming.

At the lower left corner of the painting are the ants on the pocket watch and the fly on the melting clock, which refer to decay. The only plant in the painting, the olive tree, is generally used as a symbol of peace, hope and healing in Dalí’s works. However, it symbolizes another concept in this painting: ‘Death’. The sense of death created in the painting is supported by the fly, the ants, the empty beach, the simple and vast eternal background, time flowing by the melting clocks and the sleep/dream references.

Regardless of how differently it is interpreted, the Persistence of Memory inarguably takes its viewer on journeys from life to death and reality to dream, and it pushes the viewers’ senses overboard.

Location: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York
Date: 1931
Period: Modern
Movement: Surrealism

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