The Persistence of Memory (Meaning) by Salvador Dali
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Dali sometimes referred to his paintings as "hand-painted dream photographs" and The Persistence of Memory can certainly be characterized as such.
The drooping pocketwatches possibly suggest the irrelevance of time during sleep. In other words, when we are asleep, or not conscious, the time does not persist, only memories do. This distortion of time can be easily observed by just about anyone who ever attempted to think about their own dreams.
Some art historians theorize that the painting may be a visual depiction of the idea behind the Einstein's theory of relativity: that time itself is relative and not fixed. But that's quite possibly a shot in the dark. The painting's meaning strongly suggests psychoanalytical values, those to do with the research of Sigmund Freud. Dali himself hasn't shown much interest in painting from science until after World War II, when the Hiroshima atomic bomb made an impression on him and began nuclear (or 'atomic') period of his work, in which the painter focused on adding elements to his paintings that suggested atomic composition of what is known as matter. This can be further acknolwdged by another painting Dali painted later in his life called The Disintegration of The Persistence of Memory (oil on canvas, c. 1952 to 1954), where he literally takes the contents of this painting apart suggesting the end of the importance of psychoanalysis, which is replaced by the knowledge of subatomic particles, a concept that supersedes psychology as a higher form of existence.
The Persistence of Memory is a painting by the famous Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The original title of this painting is "La persistencia de la memoria" and it depicts a fetus-like head lying on the ground, like a fish that was washed ashore and now decaying after a lost struggle gasping for air. There are four watches in this
painting, three of which appear to be molten, as if made out of cheese. The only watch whose structure doesn't appear to be malformed -
unlike other watches it is orange in color - is sitting on a desk-like object. The ants seem to have found a point of interest in the center
of the orange watch.
Without having seen this painting in person it is not difficult to think that the dimensions of this painting are bigger than what they really are.
This minimalist painting is only 9 1/2 by 13" inch (24.1 x 33cm). Perhaps the reason for this illusion is that art enthusiasts often
become familiar with this painting in the form of a The persistence of memory: wall poster.
Rendered in Dali's hallmark faint brown, yellow and blue colors this painting has earned him world-wide recognition at age 27. The meaning
of this painting is open to interpretation and is discussed in the text that follows.
Dali's artistic genius lies in his ability to create ideas that lie on the edge between being disturbing and arousing curiosity. To further
investigate this statement, Marilyn Manson - who had admittedly been influenced by the works of Salvador Dali - is known for creating art
based on the shock factor. In comparison, Dali, however, doesn't go over the border to create visions based on disgust and shock value
alone. Dali isn't trying to shock the viewer of his paintings, but to bewilder, to make the images speak for themselves. And in the case of
Salvador Dali, it is difficult to tell what the questions are that the viewer should be asking looking at his paradoxical visual statements.
The Persistence of Memory Meaning
One of the questions those who had shown interest in Dali's work ask
is "What is the meaning of these paintings?". Whether there is certain
meaning in Dali's work is not questionable. Any serious artist
understands the meaning of his own work. Dali himself almost never
explained his works to the public with seriousness, although one can be
curious about Dali's influences.
What is the meaning of The Persistence of Memory? The painting
itself is named adequately, as it is hard to forget the feelings
provoked by observing the contents of the painting. The landscapes in
many of Dali's paintings, including The Persistence of Memory, resemble
Port Lligat, the home of Salvador Dali. More than often Dali uses sandy
beaches, corrupted by age sail boats, and other imagery he had been
exposed to as a child in his home town.
While the contents of this painting are enigmatic and open to
interpretation, let's not forget that Dali was also a philosopher,
beside being an artist, as most people know him. We also know that Dali
had significant interests in science and psychology (He studied the
works of Freud and Nietzsche, for example). The painting is nothing
more than a collection of ideas, that are to do with the interpretation
of dreams, perception of reality, time, birth, death and sexual desire.
The ants, seemingly attacking the orange clock positioned on the
rectangular table-like object perhaps indicate the anxiety associated
with time. And what are the origins of our anxieties associated with
time? Is it being too late for work? or is it not having completed or
accomplished something before we die? Whether we are aware of it or
not, it is reasonable to believe that we all understand, even if only
on subconscious level that some day we are going to die. This
psychology and understanding of the reality of death may configure our
The Persistence of Memory may have many interpretations. Some
are more meaningful, others remain elusive. Perhaps the images of the
melting clocks are nothing more than ideas influenced by the Camembert
cheese left for too long of a period of time on the table on a warm
sunny day (as Dali had previously described his inspiration for this
painting, this is noted by Dali himself in his book, conveniently
titled Diary of a Genius.
According to Dali, he was a self-proclaimed genius). But remember that
Dali would often make up ridiculous explanations for his paintings to
purposely mislead people. The Camembert is an example of just that. By
doing this Dali not only opened the doors for discussion of multiple
interpretations of his art, but also made criticizing his work nearly
impossible for people he thought who possessed lesser intellect than
that of himself. In a similar way, for example, and with the same
intentions, Leonardo DaVinci wrote backwards and upside down in his
journals, so that the meaning of his work could only be interpreted
when looked at in a mirror's reflection by those who were clever enough
to understand it.
peculiar detail that perhaps is not easy to spot at first glance is the
way Dali uses light to communicate ideas of this painting. There are
two tiny rocks sitting in the sand on the beach in the background. The
rock to the left is in the shadow, and the one to the right is lit.
Note that the ants, the three melted clocks and a fetus-like object all
reside in the shade as well. Whereas, the mountains and the water are
lit by sunlight. Here we can see the difference between soft
(uncertain) and hard (certain) objects. You can draw a diagonal line
between the shadowed place and the lit areas of this painting. Perhaps
the distorted (soft) images that are in the shade are representing
subconscious images, and the sun-lit mountain (hard) and water
represent consciousness. The painting almost makes the viewer look at
consciousness as "the light at the end of the tunnel" from this angle.
How Human Memory Works
You meet someone you had met before, but you don't remember her name. You
say hello. Unfortunatelly she is in a rush and you must part ways
without much exchange. The next day you decide to go for a walk down
the street. Going through the usual thinking on your way down an
alleyway, without any effort, her name pops into your head. About time.
Certainly human memory is integrated into the organic fabric of your
brain. After all you are not a computer and obviously you don't store
memory on a magnetic disk organized such as that you could pull
specific memories out precisely at the time you need to and on command.
What is memory then?
According to most recent discoveries by scientists, forming memory
is a four-step process. It is known that the four main human memory
types are sensory memory, working memory, short-term memory and
long-term memory. According to one theory, the sensory memory is the
persistence of sensations. Dali's paintings are psychologically deep,
and perhaps the sensory memory is what influenced the famous "melted
clock" painting since it is precisely this type of memory that makes it
possible to attach our experiences to something we end up remembering
at its deepest level.
Dali often called his paintings "hand-painted dream photographs"
because of the technical and visual quality of his work. Certainly, it
is one thing to look at this paintings in a magazine, a book or even
the Internet. But nothing can match the stunning precision and detail
of his work when it is seen in person. The colors are vibrant and the
brush stroke artifacts are barely visible.
At the time of this writing (2008) the painting belongs to the
Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS) museum, New
The Persistence of Memory: Facts & Interpretation
- It was completed in 1931 and is considered one of Dali's most famous works.
- The painting is only 9 1/2 by 13" inch (24.1 x 33cm).
- It possibly derives its meaning from Sigmund Freud's work on psychoanalysis because Dali painted it during his psychoanalytical era of painting.
- Interpretation 1: The persistence of memory meaning theme: the drooping pocketwatches possibly suggest the irrelevance of time during sleep. In other words, when we are asleep, or not conscious, the time does not persist, but memories do.
- Interpretation 2: Yet another interpretation of this painting may, through the use of symbolism, suggest Einstein's theory that time is relative and is not fixed.
- Dali called his paintings hand-painted dream photographs.
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