What Makes Salvador Dalí’s Iconic Surrealist Painting “The Persistence of Memory” a Great Work of Art

Salvador Dalí painted melting clocks. This is not as drastic an oversimplification as it sounds: After first painting such a counter-intuitive picture, “Dalí, who knew the importance of branding, would use the melting clocks throughout his career.” So says no less expert than James Payne, the gallery owner and video essayist behind the Youtube channel Great Art Explained. In his latest episode, Payne takes care of the relentlessly productive Dalí’s most famous canvas of all, Memory persistence. Completed in 1931, this work of art has gradually spent about half a century decorating the walls of dorm rooms, among other rooms inhabited by viewers interested in changing their own perceptual abilities.

Memory persistence does not mark Dalí’s first use of melting watches, though it is without a doubt his most important. But “despite its enormous cultural impact,” Payne says, the painting is “quite small, about the size of a sheet of paper.” Against the background of “a vast desert landscape with great depth of field, reduced to a diminished world” – one that contains references to Goya, De Chirico and Bosch – the living realizes a moment in the process of metamorphosis.

“A key concept in the surrealist movement, ‘metamorphosis is here’ exemplified by the paradox of Dalí’s rendering of the hardest and most mechanical objects, watches, in a soft and limp form.” Like all the artist’s best works, “it thus exploits the ambiguity of our perceptual process and plays with our own fears.” But what do the melting clocks mean?

That, in Dalí’s own opinion, is the wrong question: “I am against any kind of message,” he declared in one of his many TV appearances. In fact, his frequent appearances on television (What is mine Line?, Mike Wallace interview, The Dick Cavett show) and in other media assured that “the artist Dalí had at some point become a prisoner of the celebrity Dalí.” But his appearance in the spotlight also gave him the chance to disperse the chaff of conflicting explanations of his own work. Perhaps the melting clocks refer to Einstein’s then new theory of relativity; perhaps they symbolize impotence. Or it may all come down to Dalí’s occupation of death, as even in 1931 had long ago taken both his mother and the younger brother, whom he thought of himself as a reincarnation. In that case, Dalí could not escape the mortality. None of us can, of course, and that can as much as anything else illuminate why Memory persistence never quite enters the realm of kitsch.

Related content:

Embark on a journey through 933 paintings by Salvador Dalí and watch his distinctive surrealism emerge

Enter a surreal Salvador Dalí painting with this 360º Virtual Reality video

The most complete collection of Salvador Dalí’s paintings published in a beautiful new book by Taschen: Never Includes Seen-Before-Works

Salvador Dalí explains why he was a “bad painter” and contributed “nothing” to art (1986)

Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks painted on a latte

Great art explained: See 15 minute introduction to great works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picasso and more

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: A 21st Century Walk through Los Angeles and the video series The city in the cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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