Dali sometimes referred to his paintings as “hand-painted dream photographs” and The Persistence of Memory can certainly be characterized as such. In order to touch upon the meaning of any Salvador Dali painting, it would help to become familiar with artist’s painting method.
Painting dream imagery stems from using a method invented by Dali, which he himself describes as Paranoiac Critical Method. Using this approach, the painter derives his artwork from interpretation of spontaneous thought patterns. This process requires the artist to be in a meditative state, which gains access to imagination.
Throughout his paintings we see deserted landscapes. As though taking place not on the globe of The Earth but inside human psyche. Vast subconscious horizons are inhabited by every-day objects in various states of existence. Melted clocks, ants eating clock’s hands, distant oceans that lift above the ground as if to communicate that this place exists somewhere in a state of suspended animation.
In tradition of early classical painters, Dali’s paintings are illuminated by a bright, golden light. But unlike Rembrandt’s light which illuminates the outside of a face, Dali’s light is cast into the unseen valleys of inner space, where lobsters are lukewarm telephones. Where ants munch on clock’s hands. Where Sardines and cheese can be visually eaten by the observer’s eye, and just like in a dream state, taken literally without second thought.
Using hyper-realistic depiction of common objects in uncommon circumstances and creating painted images that match technical precision that of a laser printer, it appears that Dali, instead of using a paintbrush, has been simply snapping pictures with a Polaroid while spontaneously strolling around inside dream worlds. Perhaps by using realism in a surrealistic environment, Dali is trying to tell us that metaphysical things, and perhaps things within the spiritual dominion, somehow simultaneously coexist with physical reality through the willful act of imagination.
The Persistence of Memory depicts a head-like object lying on the ground like a beached whale. It’s eyes are closed, suggesting that what’s being observed refers to dream state, or at least a process related to imagination and things that are unseen by natural eye.
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 the nature of their own dreams.
Art historians speculate 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. Public acclaim was something that Freud had wanted all his life , and although Freud had many opposers, he was a known public figure. Dali had often thought about meeting with Freud. So much of his imagery was borrowed from the ideas of Sigmund Freud.
Apart from psychology and psychoanalysis, Dali held an interest in various other sciences, physics and mathematics. However, 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. His work then made a shift toward his nuclear (or ‘atomic’) period, in which the painter focused on adding elements to his paintings that suggested atomic composition of what is known as matter in physics.
Dali’s interest in the so-called atomic era can be clearly observed by looking at 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 the original painting apart, The Persistence of Memory from 1931, which suggests the end of the importance of psychoanalysis. From now on, it is replaced by the knowledge of subatomic particles, a concept that supersedes psychology as higher form of existence in cosmic hierarchy.
‘In the surrealist period, I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world – the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. I succeeded in doing it. Today the exterior world – that of physics – has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is Dr Heisenberg.
Salvador Dalí, Anti-Matter Manifesto, Carstairs Gallery, New York, December 1958 – January 1959, quoted in Elliott H. King, ‘Nuclear mysticism’, Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009, p. 247.
With this background in mind, we are now well equipped to discover the elusive mystery and possibly a meaningful interpretation of The Persistence of Memory.
The original title of this painting in Spanish, the native language of the artist, 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 wall poster the format of which is larger in dimension.
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 behavior.
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).
Nonetheless, 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.
Another 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.
Physical Metaphysics or How Human Memory Works
You say “Hello” to someone you’ve just met. You were introduced to that person before by someone else. Perhaps this is why you don’t remember their name. Unfortunately that person is in a rush and you must part ways without much social interaction. The next day you decide to go for a walk down the street. Going through the usual wanderings of the mind on your way down a peaceful autumn park alleyway, without an effort, that person’s name pops into your head.
The phenomenon of human memory, its persistence and sometimes its absence, is part of the mechanics deeply interwoven into the organic fabric of living tissues in the brain. Does this setup somehow coincide with the immaterial concepts such as conscience itself? Having studied physics and metaphysics, certainly Dali has shown an interest in things of the spirit, as his later works have become increasingly ripe with religious imagery. For example the following painting depicting a symbolic cross made up of atoms held together by nuclear energy, titled Nuclear Cross:
This can be further observed in The Mike Wallace Interview with Salvador Dali  that aired on April 19, 1958, in which Dali discussed chastity as a spiritual fruit:
Wallace: Chastity is one of the most powerful symbols of modern times?
Dali: In my opinion it is the more… urgent and the more dramatic because the chastity represents the force of spirit…. chaste in any religion, you know because of promiscuity, the people make love, there is no more the spiritual strength, no more the spiritual thoughts.
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? Can we, at the same time ask: what is conscience?
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” not only because of the Paranoiac Critical method but also because of the visual quality of his work. He believed that a quality of a painting from technical standpoint depends on how well the colors blended into one another. Another element of a masterfully painted piece was the fact that you couldn’t see the trace of brush strokes on the surface of canvas after the paint dries.
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 York.
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.