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Meaning and interpretative analysis of a surrealist oil-painted artwork "The Persistence of Memory" by Salvador Dali from around 1931

Dali sometimes referred to his paintings as "hand-painted dream photographs" and The Persistence of Memory can certainly be characterized as such. Like most of his artwork, and any surrealistic work of art, this painting uses abstract objects and metaphors, as though it were a visual poem.

Why Is This Painting Called The Persistence of Memory?

It's called this way for many reason. To bring attention to the fact that memory does persist as an organic, biological, psychological and spiritual reality. To make an artistic statement about it. Because let's face it, memory is such a mysterious subject. To make images that play on psychological reasoning popular in that day and time, in particular progressed by ideas of Sigmund Freud, which Dali had at least basic interest in.

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But probably because in this time of Dali's life he read a book about how memory works and was fascinated by the concept so much that he decided to use it as one of the subjects when this idea suddenly occurred in his imagination.

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Keep on reading if you want to find out whether Persistence of Memory is abstract or not (hint: it's not a painting in the abstract style, although it does use abstract, metaphorical objects as part of its composition.)

In this article you will find a conglomerate of ideas I, as someone who has long been interested in Dali's work, collected over the past few years, just thinking about the painting and gathering up all kinds of facts.

In this article we will try to cover the following subjects (click on one, or simply continue reading entire article)

The drooping pocket watches (or clocks, although the upper knobs do make them appear more like standard pocket watches) 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 and analyze their own dreams. In some dreams, time feels non-existent.

In dreams you can appear in one place, and then suddenly jump into another. Not limited by any kind of geography, space or time. It's like traveling across your memories, rather than physical space. Certainly memories do persist even in our dreams. This phenomenon can also be loosely observed when we daydream.

The persistence of memory, a painting by surrealist painter Salvador Dali 1931

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 acknowledged 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 print or a wall poster.

Rendered in Dali's hallmark faint brown, yellow and blue colors this photorealistic 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.

In Dali's work even sunshine is shining to illuminate barren landscapes from his childhood memories. His work can certainly be illuminating. Placing objects one against another in a way that wouldn't normally appear in reality, Dali makes the audience think about nothing in particular, other than the nature of creativity, dreams and reality.

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 probably tell what Dali's influences are.

His influences are nothing more than the world of dreams, historic events happening in his time, psychological, philosophical, scientific, religious and spiritual subjects. As well as technology (he uses dial telephones often as a metaphor for communication, for example) and using objects to create poetic counterpoint using visual imagery. It's hard to forget vivid pictures the artist has created. When we witness them, it's almost like looking into a window from which we observe what the world appears as to Dali. In Persistence of Memory, he is touching upon the subject of memory. Probably, from the point of view of psychology.

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 held interests in multiple areas. Although he probably wasn't himself a philosopher beside being an artist, as most people know him... he did explore those subjects in his work. 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? Is it not having completed or accomplished something before we die? Personally, that's not my interpretation. To me, the ants simply represent the association between "work" and time. As if time, in its very short and long hands "working" throughout history of our generation and life experience just like ants who are building an ant house?

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. In this way the clock is running on forward. Nobody can stop time. But does it matter? Maybe time is just an illusion that melts the very moment you try to get a grip on its meaning. Memories will persist even when time is irrelevant.

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. We can laugh or cry about this statement. Depending on who you are.

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.

On the TV show "What's My Line?" (you can find a black and white video of it on YouTube) he presents himself as a man of many talents: writer, painter, having his written work published, paintings painted, mountains moved. To the point where one of the participants in the game, when asked whether Dali could be considered a "leading man" in comparison to what he does for a living... mentions that Dali is a "misleading" man. The audience laughs.

The point here is that perhaps Salvador's Personality and character themselves play a role in interpretation of his work. He once said "I am surrealism." In one other TV show Dali mentions that if the viewer of his painting doesn't understand its meaning, then he (Dali) has succeeded in what he was trying to accomplish. I suppose that is a fair interpretation of any artwork created in the genre of surrealism.

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. Dali on the other hand, sees his purpose in puzzling the audience with his imagery. Especially those who think they are clever enough to figure it out.

Painting Analysis

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.

How Human Memory Works

You meet someone you had met before, but you don't remember her name. You say hello. Unfortunately 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.

Poem about Persistence of Memory

I was doing research on what people look for when they search for Persistence of Memory. And one of them was "poem about persistence of memory." I don't know if there exists a poem written by Salvador Dali, or someone else that people are referring to. But, to aid the situation I decided to write my own. Here it is, my poetry about the Persistence of Memory painting:

The Persistence of You

I look across the deep horizons.
I'm looking for the trails of your heart.
I usually will daydream by myself.
Today... it's in a work of art.
I see your face, time melts.
But memory of you persists.
I keep my images of you away.
In darkest corners of my soul's prose.
There, you illuminate my way.
Regardless whether we are far or close.

It's a poem I wrote for a girl named Nicole. Someone with whom my soul has crossed paths at a crossroads. I was just writing this article and I needed substance for writing it apart from the gloriously long hours spent researching this painting!

Is Persistence of Memory as radical today as it was when it was then?

According to one of the quotes of the artist himself, Dali believed that perfection can never be reached. He advised other artists to not be afraid of not being perfect. He has also been known to say that no matter what, an artist cannot escape from being "modern" no matter what he does or how he expresses himself. This gives us a hint that the painting such as Persistence of Memory itself represents a period of time in history. It was certainly more radical in the day when it was painted, around 1931.

It is certainly less radical today than when it was painted. If for any reason, the advancements in digital art render oil-paint almost irrelevant. Yes, there are many great artists who still paint in oil on canvas. But the large majority of talented and gifted artists now draw using digital tablets and stylus pens. If Dali lived today, his work would most likely be done in digital format in Photoshop, Corel Draw, Painter or some other painting software.

However, the radical notion of memory persisting as a function of our brain is just as significant now as it was then. The title of the painting can be considered timeless. The principle of persistence of memory as a concept, an idea, reality, physical and even immaterial fact is still very relevant today. The painting itself did not lose its value because of touching upon a significant and important subject matter.

Why was Persistence of Memory created / painted?

Why does any artist paint? The meaning of art is subjective. The reasons for art are even more so. It was Dali's gift to paint, write and sculpt. This is just one of his works he felt passionate about. It came from imagination and using experience, abilities and insight he was given, he put forth this work of art. Do we need any more reasons? (This is the way I start to write when I am running out of ideas to say about The Persistence of Memory.)

Dali has graced his fans with many favorite paintings. He is the kind of an artist whose almost every single work is defined by meticulous photo-realism and fascinating dream imagery. But The Persistence of Memory was a painting that stands out, in that it defined what surrealism is.

The painting has become so famous that a movie about Salvador Dali was made titled The Persistence of Memory (It's a painting that almost defines Dali himself, as well as his famous saying "I am surrealism.")

Matt Groening, the creator of popular TV show The Simpsons, has done the following caricature version of the painting made by humorously using famous characters he created from his cartoon:

persistence of memory the simpsons drawing by matt groening

Why is Persistence of Memory so famous, important and significant?

I think we just covered that in the article above. It was famous because in a round-about way it represents Surrealism, or the whole surrealistic art movement. All in one artist's identity and his most famous, important and significant work. Dali has taken on an identity of the surrealist painter, and surrealism itself. Everyone else is just an imitator.

At the time of this writing (2008) the painting belongs to the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS) museum, New York.

But I updated this article in 2016 and I don't know whether the painting is still there.

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 pocket watches 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.

Note from author: Writing articles like this is hard and takes time:/ If you found it useful, will use this article in your research or as a reference in your paper... and you have a website please link back to it by using the following HTML code.
Please copy and paste this link into your website or blog to support creation of independent articles.
You can also submit a donation to support my work. You can contact me on Twitter or Facebook.

Awesome articles on your favorite subjects. No Spam.