The meanings of Salvador Dalí’s Persistence of Memory

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It is said that in adulthood, Salvador Dalí will define the day of his birth as the reminiscence of the paradise lost. In his life, however, something like a true expulsion from Paradise took place some time later, precisely on December 28th, 1929: that was the day when his father forced him to leave home, threatening to disinherit him. His father always disapproved his relationship with Gala and his connections with the Surrealists group, but the last drop in the tensions between father and son was a surrealist exhibition of few days before, where Dalí presented a painting titled: “Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother (The Sacred Heart)”.

Salvador Dalí, Sometimes I Spit with Pleasure on the Portrait of my Mother (The Sacred Heart), 1929

Surrealism was a huge bomb exploded in Europe within the avant-garde years in the beginning of the twentieth century, and it will represent the most enduring expression. In some respects, together with Dadaism it was an alternative response to World War I and the horror in realizing what mankind was able to do. Dadaism was destructive towards any form of art and advocated the refusal of reason, while Surrealism carried out an escape from reality, in favour of the new human dimension recently discovered by Sigmund Freud’s studies: the unconscious. Surrealism’s secret mission was to let the unconscious contents be expressed without filters or barriers, freeing the contents which are usually filtered by consciousness and giving them a formal dignity. To facilitate the process of this liberation, artists used special practices such as painting in altered psycho-physical conditions, or stratagems like the Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse), according to which a group of artists were able to compose a work in a blind collaboration, without knowing what the other was drawing.

After Dalí left home, he rented for him and Gala a small fishing cabin in Port Lligat, on the Mediterranean coast near the border between Spain and France. The landscapes of that area will often be protagonists in his artistic production. It was 1930, and Dalì was only 26 years old. As a surrealist, he was part of one of the most lively artistic groups of those years, but he was still young, if compared with more experienced artists such as Max Ernst and Joan Miró. The year after, in 1931, Dalí painted the work that will give him global popularity, the one that will become one of the iconic paintings of the twentieth century: The Persistence of Memory.

Salvador Dalí, persistence of Memory, 1931

It was the first appearance of the famous soft watches that will become one of Dalí ‘s most beloved symbols. Time melts, abandoning any claim to be an absolute reference, with some references to Albert Einstein’s new Relativity Theory, according to which time became a flexible, questionable coordinate. If time is no longer reliable in the real life, how meaningful can it be in the dreamlike dimension? The persistence of time is therefore relative: time is unstable and volatile, and our memory is probably the only way to provide durability and stability. At the same time, the concept of persistence becomes a hoax: the sensations given by the painting are everything but a sign of persistence and solidity.

Salvador Dalí described the birth of his masterpiece in his autobiography published in 1942, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí:

“It was on an evening when I felt tired, and had a slight headache, which is extremely rare with me. We were to go to a moving picture with some friends, and at the last moment I decided not to go. Gala would go with them, and I would stay home and go to bed early. We had topped off our meal with a strong Camembert, and after everybody had gone I remained a long time at the table meditating on the philosophic problems of the ‘super-soft’ which the cheese presented to my mind. I got up and went into my studio, where I lit the light in order to cast a final glance, as is my habit, at the picture I was in the midst of painting. This picture represented a landscape near Port Lligat, whose rocks were lighted by a transparent and melancholy twilight; in the foreground an olive tree with its branches cut, and without leaves. I knew that the atmosphere which I had succeeded in creating with this landscape was to serve as a setting for some idea, for some surprising image, but I did not in the least know what it was going to be. I was about to turn out the light, when instantaneously I ‘saw’ the solution. I saw two soft watches, one of them hanging lamentably on the branches of the olive tree. In spite of the fact that my headache had increased to the point of becoming very painful, I avidly prepared my palette and set to work. When Gala returned from the theater two hours later the picture, which was to become one of my most famous, was completed.”

This explains the presence of the natural elements in the painting, the landscape, the mountains and the olive tree, which become the last relics of a transition from the realistic dimension to the dream one, a passage that occurred in Dalí’s mind in that precise moment. The white figure lying on the ground looks like a closed eyelid (sleeping), but many have interpreted it as a self-portrait of Dalí himself, in the center of his painting. The leftmost clock, the only one with solid appearance, is invaded by ants, one of Dalí ‘s personal phobias, considered the symbol of decay. The fly on the clock on the table, on the other hand, suggests that time is not only melting, but it gets rotten. Time, the last of the coordinates falling under the shock of modernity, is under attack, and without that we no longer have footholds. The painting is the fresco of the loss of all certainties.

Salvador Dalí, Melting Clocks, 1931

In the first half of the twentieth century there is not only World War I to destroy stability: we have the revolutionary theories of Freud and Einstein, which scientifically legitimated the relativity of each perception. Art reflects the coincidence of these uncertainties through the avant-garde, and all together they question every form of classicism.

The Persistence of Memory will soon become the manifest of Surrealism and the universal symbol of relativity: the relativity of time and human condition. It was also the painting that gave popularity to Salvador Dalí, thanks mainly Julien Levy, who bought the opera the following year and exhibited it in his gallery in New York. When in 1934 Levy proposed an exhibition dedicated to Dalí, a “Dalí Ball” was specially organized in honor of the artist. Dalí showed up wearing a glass box on his chest, which contained a brassiere. The uproar he provoked was so big than he later had to apologize, but that was the moment when the global success of Salvador Dalí began. And with it, his fame of insane genius.

About his insanity, however, Dalí made a point some time later, in 1956:

“The only difference between me and a madman is that I’m not mad”

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