Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory is one of his most cherished works from a prolific lifetime. It was painted in 1931 long after he attended art school in Madrid and Barcelona. His early work throughout his education reflects an unusual aptitude for a wide variety of styles.
In the 1930’s Dali’s unparalleled ability as an artist was combined with his discovery of Sigmund Freud’s teachings about subconscious imagery, and his recognizable mature style was introduced to the world. Before painting The Persistence of Memory Dali had also become acquainted with the Paris Surrealists. He felt enabled to create groundbreaking art that would establish the reality within the subconscious.
The iconic imagery of the melting pocket watch has made The Persistence of Memory one of Dali’s most recognizable paintings. The painting is a splendid example of the contrast between sharp hard lines and melting softness. The watches themselves symbolize the concept of time past, and perhaps the irrelevance of time in the universe. Dali may have been commenting on the Surrealist interpretation of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Dali painted an abstract human figure in the middle of the composition that some interpret as a self-portrait. This bizarre figure is a recurring visitor in his work, and represents a soul that travels within both the realms of reality and the subconscious. Dali often drugged himself into hallucinatory states, and spent a great deal of time exploring his subconscious. The figure in the painting has only one closed eye which suggests a dream-state.
Ants crawl over a clock at the bottom left of the painting. Dali often painted ants to symbolize decay. This effectively ties in the mortal plane to work that is clearly a depiction of the subconscious.
It is likely that the clocks was used by Salvador Dali to symbolize mortality instead of literal time. And the cliffs that provide the backdrop are the impression of part of Catalonia, which was Dali’s childhood home.
This is rather a small painting, at least not as large as you would think. While this painting is one of Dali’s biggest triumphs, the actual size of this oil on canvas painting measures only 9 1/2″ x 13″.
This painting was first shown at the Julien Levy Gallery and has been part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City since 1932, thanks to an anonymous donor.