Arts and Entertainment

Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence Of Memory’: Great Art Explained

Good evening. Tonight we go after the story of 
an extraordinary personality. He’s Salvador Dali,  the great surrealist painter ,who sees the world 
through surrealist eyes. If you’re curious to hear   Salvador Dali talk about decadence, death, 
and immortality, about his surrealist art,   his politics, and his existence before he was born, 
we’ll go after those stories in just a moment. What’s the point of this picture?
Is there any point? Array Salvador Dali  was obsessed with Sigmund Freud. And you could
say his beginnings were more than a little “Freudian”.   Dali’s mother gave birth to her first son 
in 1901. A child that she named Salvador,   who died at 22 months old. Just nine months 
later, the Salvador we know was born,  and was given his dead brother’s 
name. Dali was told by his parents   that he was the literal reincarnation of his dead 
brother. A belief he carried into his adult life. Sigmund Freud published “Interpretation of Dreams” 
in 1899 ,in which he put forward the theory   that dreams are the key to unlocking the secrets 
of the unconscious mind. To access his subconscious   Dali would make himself hallucinate – not with 
drugs – but rather by using what he called… He would take micro naps during the day. 
He would lie in a chair holding a heavy   key in his right hand, underneath which he 
placed an upside down plate on the floor.   When he fell into a deep sleep he dropped the key 
and the clang woke him up. In that nano-second he   would enter a state scientist call “Hypnagogia”, an 
in-between state where you are just beginning to   dream but are still conscious. He would use 
this method with “The Persistence of Memory”,   a painting that although stylistically rooted in 
realism, transcends the world of reason. The strange,   confusing, and often disturbing world we visit 
in our dreams would make Dali a household name. And he would remain so for more than half a 
century – one of the best known and most bitterly   contested figures in the international 
art world – In 1938 after years of trying   Dali would finally meet Freud, which he 
likened to meeting God. Freud was 81 Dali 34.   By all accounts they were totally bewildered by 
each other and Dali would later disavow Freud. Great art comes from conflict, and Dadaism 
and Surrealism were two art movements that   developed as a direct result of the horrors
of the first world war. A war so brutal and incomprehensible that artists looked for
unconventional ways to make sense of the world.  And their rage drove their artistic creativity. 
Dadaism, which preceded Surrealism was more of an   anti-art movement. Surrealism was about finding 
a bridge between the subconscious and reality.   The founder of the Surrealist art movement, Andre 
Breton, worked at a military hospital in Paris,   and had been an eye-witness to the horrors of the 
war. He saw firsthand how mental trauma patients   rejected the rational world, and inspired 
by Sigmund Freud he would seek to liberate   the subconscious through art. There is no dominant 
painting style in surrealism, but the public face   of it would become Salvador Dali. The mustachioed 
self-promoter was instantly recognizable, as were   his landscapes of melting watches. As a painter 
Dali had experimented with lots of styles. Amongst   others, Fauvism, Naturalism and Cubism. Then in 1926 
for the first time he visited Paris, which was the   cultural center of the world, and began interacting 
with artists such as Picasso, Magritte and Miro.   Which led to Dali’s first Surrealistic works. 
However, this recently discovered work was   produced while he was still a teenager, showing us 
not only that he was an early surrealist, but that   he was also already referring to himself in the 
third person! Today the art world is unshockable   but Dali’s uncensored imagination, his images of 
sex, blood, and excrement, even under the guise of   the subconscious, were subversive and scandalous. 
Dali would be expelled from the Surrealist group   in 1934 for amongst other things, his fascination 
with Hitler who he once said: “Turned him on”.   But by this time he was already a well-known 
painter and on his way to becoming a “celebrity”.   The first thing to note is, that despite its huge 
cultural impact, it is quite small. About the size   of a sheet of paper. Dali plays with a perception 
of scale, and presents a huge desert landscape   with vast depths of field, reduced to a shrunken 
world. As if we are looking down the wrong end   of a telescope. In the same way, Dali uses scale 
to subvert our ideas of reality, he does so with   extreme photo-realism. He painted the unreal world 
with such realism that no matter how irrational   the vision, it is still believable.
This is what makes him unique.  In 1931, Dali was 27, broke, and living in a 
recently purchased fishing cottage in the   town of Port Lligat, with his future wife Gala.
Gala would be a divisive figure for the Surrealists,   and as Dali’s fame and fortune grew, 
she would be constantly at his side,   their life a never-ending round of 
carefully choreographed appearances. While the rocky landscape in the background may 
look like an ambiguous dreamscape, it is actually   inspired by the surroundings at Port Lligat, 
specifically the coastal cliffs of Cap de Creus,   a peninsula close to the artist’s home.
The triangular shadow that appears to crawl   across the canvas, is believed to be cast by 
mount Paní, a mountain near the artist’s home .  This early painting in the “Impressionistic 
style” is the view from that mountain summit.   To me, it’s almost certain that his use of 
space was inspired by the earlier images   of Giorgio de Chiraco who was, like Dali,
a follower of Freud. From the landscape   itself, only a few features emerge. One is a dead 
olive tree growing out of a large square platform.   The olive tree, a symbol of peace, is dead. This 
reflects the uneasy political climate at the time,   between the First World War and the unrest
leading to the impending Spanish Civil War. Francisco Goya  is considered by many scholars to be the basis 
for modern art – bridging Classicism and Romanticism.   He deeply influenced Salvador Dali in his early 
years. We can compare the dead olive tree here   to Goya’s use of the same metaphor in his “Disaster 
of War” series, about an earlier brutal conflict.  The limp corpses on Goya’s tree are mirrored in Dali’s 
watches. Dali would reference this image again   in a painting (he claimed) predicted the Spanish 
Civil War, which also references this Goya image. Dali’s technique of transforming objects, 
exemplifies the surrealist belief that   mundane things presented in unexpected ways have 
the power to challenge reason. Metamorphosis is a   key concept in the Surrealist movement, exemplified 
by the paradox of Dali’s rendering of the hardest   and most mechanical of objects, watches, into a 
soft flaccid form. Dali’s best work exploits the   ambiguity of our perceptual process and plays 
with our own fears, by distorting the human body,  space. matter and form. The body 
incapacitated, the object made worthless.   The painting was done at a time the revolutionary 
ideas of Einstein and Freud were changing the way   we thought about time, and the subconscious.
One idea ties the painting to Einstein’s “Theory of   Relativity”, in which the scientist references 
“Time Dilation”, with time not being absolute,   but relative. Watches are usually a concrete symbol 
of space and time. Their deterioration in the   painting reflects the collapse of human notions 
of a fixed universal order. When asked, Dali said   his true inspiration for the watches was a wheel 
of Camembert cheese he had seen melting in the sun.   Yet, in this interview he contradicts this – and in 
fact had a lifelong obsession with science.   He later gave another meaning: That the watches 
symbolise “Impotence” and the hands on the watches   are the medical scientific sign for male. Array We never know with Dali, but if we take the dream
interpretation, then the watches which all show different times,   reflect ideas about the passage of time and the 
relation between actual time and remembered time.   One thing is clear, Time, like the watches is 
fluid. He had already portrayed a melting clock   in this earlier painting, and it 
would become his signature motif.   Dali, who knew the importance of branding, would 
use the melting clocks for his entire career.   Perhaps the most confusing element of the 
scene is the face-like figure said to be   a self-portrait of the artist. A somewhat similar 
self-portrait appears in an earlier Dali work.   In “The Persistence of Memory”, the figure appears to be 
either dead or sleeping – or more obviously dreaming.   Dali studied Hieronymus Bosch, an artist often 
called “The First Surrealist” and was heavily   influenced by his painting and technique. It is 
rarely, if ever, pointed out that Dali’s portrait   is a direct appropriation of Bosch, something 
I discuss in my video on Hieronymus Bosch.   The positioning of the face could well 
have been influenced by a rock formation   near his home in Port Lligat. The swarming ants and insects in Dali’s pictures   are clear references to death and decay, a reminder 
of human mortality and impermanence. Insects not   only cause death but they do of course eat 
the dead. A year before he made this painting   Dali made “Un Chien Andalou”, with Luis Bunuel,
which featured his dreams about parasitic ants.   In his autobiography, Dali wrote about his 
childhood experience of being terrified seeing   ants eating the decomposing remains of a bat.
And when he met Gala, he fantasised about her body   covered in ants. The ants are crawling over the 
only intact pocket watch as if it were a piece of   rotting fruit, rather than a metallic object. We are 
being asked to question the substance of the watch…   and therefore time. The fly on the clock face 
is a clear symbolic reference to art history.   In some historic portraits, the presence of a 
fly symbolises the transience of human life.   Dali, whose life started with the death of his 
brother, had a preoccupation with his own death.   His family was plagued by loss, and when he was 16, Dali’s 
mother, an early supporter of his talents , died.  “The Persistence of Memory” IS about the fluidity 
of memory, dreams, and time – but the melting watches,   the dead tree, and the parasitic insects, all 
point to Dali’s obsession with death and decay.   Dali and Gala spent the  three years of the spanish civil war
in exile in Paris, but when the Germans invaded Paris,   they went straight to New York. He turned up on 
Broadway and in stores on Fifth avenue, he painted   portraits of wealthy socialites, he designed for 
opera and dance, and did magazine illustration. Hollywood came calling, and he worked first 
for Alfred Hitchcock and then Walt Disney.   He appeared in lucrative adverts and was 
a chat show and game show regular. Dali reached the height of his fame in America, but 
his critical reception during these years cooled.   He was increasingly viewed as a “commercial artist” 
and his work was greeted with tepid enthusiasm,   and often outright suspicion. Other artists 
were famous – Picasso was very famous –   but the work came first, celebrity second. Dali, the 
artist had become a prisoner of Dali the celebrity. Gala died in 1982 and Dali himself
died in 1989, while listening to his   favorite record “Tristan and Isolde”. To the day 
he died, he was, as he would have wished it to be,   a subject of controversy. But his endless 
self-promotion grew irritating, and his work suffered. He would later upset many people over 
his friendship with the dictator General Franco. But his exploration of the depths of the 
subconscious mind in his powerful images   tapped into the fantasies, dreams, fears 
and hallucinations of entire generations.   And he should be remembered 
as a consummate draftsman,   and as a pioneer of surrealism. An artist who made 
modern art popular and accessible.    “The Persistence of Memory” is for good reason,
the most celebrated Surrealist canvas ever painted. It really is the  work of a crazy genius.
Video source:

Related Articles

Back to top button