The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali

Memory is a funny old thing isn’t it. By definition it is the faculty of the brain by which data is encoded, stored and retrieved when needed. It is the retention of information over time for the purpose of influencing future action. We, in general terms, also hold on to memories of things that have happened, to use in interpreting situations and actions that we feel we need to take in accordance to what we have learned in past experience. Memories become hazy though, over time, and we may adamantly believe that we remember a situation really well, yet someone else who shared that experience could remember it completely differently. This is a key theme to this painting.

I hear so many times that people don’t like Dali’s work, because they find it difficult to understand, or that it is nonsensical. In fact I hear this a lot about surrealism as a whole. To a point, I agree that it can be daunting to look at a painting that makes very little sense on first impression, but to reject a genre of art, because it is a bit difficult, is to potentially miss out of some true works of genius.

Dali, is such an eccentric and exciting artist, that I would need a whole article just dedicated to his life to fully explain his biography, therefore I will just concentrate on the bit that is relevant to this painting.

Born on the 11th May 1904 in Figueres, Catalonia; Dali showed a flare for painting at an early age. He received formal training in Madrid and was initially heavily influenced by Impressionism and Renaissance work. Dali started to be more inspired by Cubism and avante garde movements and in the late 1920s he joined the surrealist movement. He became one of the leading members of this movement.

Dali’s parents had previously had a son they had called Salvador, who had died nine months prior to Dali’s birth from gastroenteritis. Dali believed that his brother had been simply a previous version of himself, two droplets of water with different reflections, and he often theorised about his brother, later creating a piece of art called “My Dead Brother”. Dali also had a younger sister, who would later write the book “Dali as seen by his sister”.

At the age of 16, Dali’s mother died of uterine cancer, and he described this as the biggest blow he would ever suffer. From here, his relationship with his father would go from bad to worse. On the 28th December 1929 Dali’s father threw him out of their family home, excommunicating him from not only returning to the house, but ensured that the people of the village would also snub him. This was down to a few factors, firstly his relationship with Gala, as she was already married. Secondly his father felt that the surrealist movement had a bad influence on Dali’s morals and standards and finally his father ead in a Barcelona newspaper that his son had recently exhibited in Paris a drawing of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ”, with a provocative inscription: “Sometimes, I spit for fun on my mother’s portrait”. His father demanded that he publically retract the statement, Dali refused, potentially out of fear of being thrown out of the surrealist movement, so found himself homeless.

He rented a small fishermans cabin near Port Lligat, which he very soon purchased, and then brought neighbouring cabins, which would eventually make his villa by the sea.

Over time Dali’s father did relent and accept his life style and wife, but I guess that is what fame does for you.

The Surrealist movement came about between the two world wars, and was born from Dadaism. Initially there were two groups who lay claim to the term surrealism, one lead by Yvan Goll and the other by Andre Breton. Ultimately Breton would win this fight, and he published a manifesto with clear details of what surrealism art would be determined by:-

Dictionary: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

Encyclopedia: Surrealism. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

This all sounds very starchy, and boils down to surrealism being a dream like state where anything is logically possible. Theme and images which shouldn’t belong together can happily be on the same canvas or in the same text. Creatures can be created from living or inanimate things.

This may have felt like a very long lead up to an explanation of “The Persistence of Memory”, but I feel it is really necessary to understand this, as then you can fully appreciate the technique and influences within this painting.

This painting was completed in 1931, and was done under a technique called “paranoiac critical method”. Dali would put himself into a meditative/psychotic hallucinatory state, and create “hand painted dream photographs”. By definition this is truly what surrealism is all about – the belief of a higher plane of consciousness where anything is possible, and Dali felt that he achieved that. This is by far one of the most well known surrealist paintings and really set Dali’s name into history, with not only his grasp of the surrealist technique, but also those of masters past, juxtaposing styles to create the impressionist background to the melting clocks in the foreground.

The Clocks

Let’s talk about the clocks first, as this is the thing that confuses most people. It would be quite easy to assume that due to the surroundings the clocks are physically melting, due to the heat of the landscape. This is a theory I have heard batted about, but we need to remember that this was painted in 1931, and plastics were not a viable material until the 1950s. Therefore these clocks would have been metal and the heat needed to melt them would be insane.

This leads to one of the more mainstream schools of thought, which is this is Dali’s interpretation of Einstein’s theory of relativity. This was developed between 1905 and 1920 and would have captured Dali’s attention. This theory can be fairly heavy to understand as it is comprised of two other theories (special relativity and general relativity), but for the most part it concentrates on what happens to object with the presence and absences of gravity and the other objects around it. As this painting is set in a dream like state, who are we to argue about the gravitational pull that may be in force here impacting the objects we see.

Personally I prefer Dali’s explanation, saying that the clocks are like melting camembert in the sun. This gives a less clinical feel to the scenario (the theory of relativity really is too dry for this), rather giving that feeling of being in a dream. I am sure we have all had that dream where we are walking down a corridor, yet not moving, time is passing, yet you are going nowhere, This is how I think Dali intended these clocks to be perceived. Because of the title, I am further going to attribute this memories, such as those you would have of your childhood. When honey tasted sweeter, and days seemed longer and much more fun. I feel that he is attributing the “melting clock” to how our memories alter and become distorted over time. The timeline of memories become less linear, and they start to melt into one another.

The Ants and the Fly

If you look at the clock which is in the front left hand side of the painting you will notice that it is orange and covered in ants. This clock doesn’t bend like the others, rather it looks like it has transformed into amber. Ants are a trope to Dali’s work, and have long been considered symbolism for decay. For me, I feel that this is a memory which has been distorted to a point of fantasy, the decay has set in and nothing can change it, but yet it remains in its distorted form.

The fly has similar meaning on the next clock along, although the memory is still distorting. Flies being one of the first things to come to a decomposing body, shows that this memory is new to the distortion of time.

The Face

Commonly thought to be a self portrait of Dali, although personally I more see this as the distorted image of his dead brother of the same name. The face appears to be melting into the landscape, as though it is also is a changing memory, affected by time as a clock melts over it.

The Tree

Experts have agreed that this is an olive tree. It’s branches are bare and a clock drips over the stark frame. Olive trees are synonymous with peace, if we stick the the biblical sense of symbolism and the dove delivering the bushy, green branch to Noah; so by contrast this sorry specimen could be seen to mean that there is no peace here. A bad memory or traumatic experience, rooted in the scenery of the mind, never changing despite the oozing time passing over it.

Background Scenery

This is another common theme in Dali’s work, this is the scenery from his families summer house in the shade of Mount Pani (also known as Mount Panelo) inspired him to integrate its likeness into his paintings again and again. It does seem poignant in a painting called “The Persistence of Memory” which was created just a year and a half after being thrown out by his father than this scenery would penetrate his subconscious thoughts.


Now it may feel that painting is very much leaning towards the negative side of memory, and how things distort over time. If you look along the shore line of the painting there are two very small white eggs. These represent the future. New memories which are forming and will flourish before being resigned to the memory banks where time becomes confused.

This painting shot Dali to fame, and it can now be found in the MOMA, where it was donated anonymously in 1934.

The painting is only 9.5 inches by 13 inches, which can be shocking to some as I believe that they expect this piece to be much larger. The compact size of the picture perhaps adds to the feeling of compartmentalised memories which are not visited very often.

There is a sequel to this painting which was created in 1954 called “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” which is less influenced by dream states (Dali’s Freudian phase) and more influenced by the science of the atomic age.

No matter how you see Dali, it is undeniable that his work is intense and intuitive on a level which is highly intelligent and fed from influences of his past, understanding of science and psychology which feed his higher platform of surrealist imagery.

As an aside, shortly after this painting made Dali famous, the surrealism movement ousted him from the group over some alleged claimed that he was a fascism supporter. Dali left and notably said “I myself am Surrealism” to the board of surrealist researchers.

What do you see in “The Persistence of Memory”? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?


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