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The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory is an oil-on-canvas work, 24 x 33 cm in size, and is presently in the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, in New York. It was painted in 1931 and donated to MoMA in 1934. It is arguably Dali’s most famous piece of art. It is this surrealist work which introduced the soft melting pocket watch. There is a human-like face in the center, which is likely a self-portrait. The realism of the background cliffs brings to the painting a sense of sanity, which the foreground dispels.

They suggests Dali’s homeland of Catalonia, Spain (MoMA. org). Dali was in the vanguard of the Surrealist movement and this painting is a classic example of that genre. It has become a cultural icon and is seen on such diverse objects as post cards and dinner plates. It is considered Dali’s trademark (Pinchot, et al. 48). Dali’s surrealism attempts to strip those objects, thought of as real, and through manipulation of the objects and their placement or distortions, allows the viewer of the piece to develop an empathy not normally attached to art-work.

The painting seems to be a dreamscape, and not grounded in any realty whatsoever. The painting, at approximately 9. 4 inches by 13 inches, is small by conventional standards. It is almost photographic in its realism and smoothed of brushwork. The painting can be described as a self-portrait, still life and landscape. It is reminiscent of Vermeer’s best in its ‘jewel-like’ intensity. The landscape is most likely Port Lligat in Catalonia, where the rocky cliffs and dramatic shores are famous. It is important to note what is not in the painting as well as what is there.

The upper right of the painting shows the rocky cliffs but nowhere else in the work is there an identifying landscape characteristic. There is an expanse of land that seems incongruous in its austerity. The lack of signs showing the viewer a perspective make it near impossible to gauge the distance in the piece. The former curator of MoMA, James Thrall Sobey, has said that Dali’s ‘space’ is manipulated to suggest an infinity against which the drama of his objects and figures is projected (Salvadordalimuseum. org 1). Dali called his soft watches nothing else but the Camembert cheese of space and time.

It is within this setting that Dali’s self-portrait resides and under these conditions that the perception of time and space, and the behavior of the memories acquire soft forms that adjust themselves to the circumstances (MoMa. org 1). Obviously the watches signify the passage of time and the ants and the lone fly are symbols of decay that permeates all things. These insects are a not-so-subtle reminder of the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death. The Persistence of Memory may be understood as a modern example of the old Memento Mori or Vanitas (Jeffett 899-900 cited by Salvadordalimuseum.org 4).

The painting is, however, about time, and the watches are the key elements in the painting. The fact that they are soft and melting serves a dual purpose to the viewer. The passage of time is a given by the watches being recorders of time, while their softness gives the illusion of time and machine coming apart. It is a challenge to the viewer’s perceptions of realty, which is a purpose of the surreal art. A fetus in the painting is said to be a reminder that Dali claimed to have intrauterine memories (Mallard 49).

A. Reynolds Morse, co-founder of the Salvador Dali museum in St.Petersburg, Florida is quoted as saying, “Dali said the famous soft watches of MoMA was one of his quickest works, completed in less than five hours, in fact it was almost all done in the time Gala went to a movie! Simply brush in the sky, add a few details and it was done, he said, making a brushing motion with his hands. ” Dali used the words, “hand painted dream photographs’ to describe his surreal work. The Persistence of Memory qualifies for that assessment. Dali had a fascination with Jan Vermeer, being familiar with the Dutch master’s gleaming photo-like images of Dutch domesticity.

As a student of Vermeer, John Canaday has said, Dali went to great lengths to make the unreal as photographically real as the old master’s works, utilizing a jeweler’s glass and small round sable brushes to imitate a photograph. Dali’s brushwork and meticulous attention to detail has made the small work of art a masterpiece of surrealism as he faithfully stripped those objects in his work, which are of the real world, and considered commonplace and made the viewers’ minds accept a different reality.

Through manipulation of the objects and their placement or distortions, Dali allows the viewer of the piece to develop an empathy that is seldom found in a realistic work of art. The painting becomes the hand painted photograph of the dreamscape that Dali intended it to be. It is real to the viewer but is not grounded in any realty whatsoever.

References MoMA. org 2007 The Museum of Modern Art Retrieved 4-12-07 from: http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=79018

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