You’ve probably seen this painting before. It’s one of the most famous and recognizable paintings in history, painted by the famous Salvador Dali. It’s influence on culture spreads much further than the art world, it’s been the inspiration for many things including some rock album’s cover art. The Persistence of Memory was painted in 1931 when Dali was only 27 years old, and he finished it in a mere 2 hours.
The painting itself is actually smaller than you might expect, around the size of an A4 sheet of paper. I always thought it’s the size of a regular canvas painting. Anyway, Dali was a student of Freud, and for this painting he was also possibly inspired by Albert Einstein’s relatively new (no pun intended) theory of relativity, of the dilation and uncertainty of time. It is the breaking down of something that is a fundamental basis of our existence.
Dali described his paintings as “hand painted dream photographs” ; it's the peak of surrealism, reaching for something beyond reality, delving into the subconscious. The Persistence of Memory conveys a dreamlike scene that defies logic, like dreams often do.
The landscape is a desert, devoid of life and radiating heat. Looking in the background we can find a rock formation and an ocean, but it is perfectly still, as if time itself has broken down.
There is a clash between the organic and natural scenery in the scene, and the seemingly man-made angular and geometric shapes. Resting upon them is the centrepiece of the painting, the melted clocks and pocket watches that immediately draws our eyes in.
Inspired by watching cheese melt in the sun, the melted clocks stand in contrast with what we normally expect, seeing something that’s supposed to be solid and reliable behave this way makes us feel strange and uneasy. Because it’s not just a melted clock, it deals with the concept of impermanence, nothing lasts forever, maybe not even time itself.
We can also see a strange creature lying down in the middle of the painting, it has eyelashes, a nose and a tongue. This would be a self portrait of Dali himself, sleeping and dreaming, the imagination of his subconscious running free.
Art is about evoking emotion, everyone can infer different meanings and messages from the same piece of art. Trying to meticulously pick everything apart and explaining it rationally is simply not the way it’s meant to be interpreted. This painting definitely is one of the greats because it invokes curious feelings within us, with imagery and symbolism that really makes us think. Another dream, perhaps.