Salvador Dalí made over 1,600 paintings, but just one has come to stand for both his body of work and a major artistic current that shaped it: 1931’s The Persistence of Memory, widely known as the one with the melting clocks. By that year Dalí had reached his late twenties, still early days in what would be a fairly long life and career. But he had already produced many works of art, as evidenced by the video survey of his oeuvre above. Proceeding chronologically through 933 of his paintings in the course of an hour and a half, it doesn’t reach The Persistence of Memory until more than seventeen minutes in, and that after showing numerous works a casual appreciator wouldn’t think to associate with Dalí at all.
It seems the young Dalí didn’t set out to paint melting clocks — or flying tigers, or walking villas, or any of his other visions that have long occupied the common conception of Surrealism. And however often he was labeled an “original” after attaining worldwide fame in the 1930s and 40s, he began as nearly every artist does: with imitation.
Far from premonitions of the Surrealist sensibility with which he would be forever linked in the public consciousness, dozens and dozens of his early paintings unabashedly reflect the influence of Renaissance masters, Impressionists, Futurists, and Cubists. Of particular importance in that last group was Dalí’s countryman and idol Pablo Picasso: it was after they first met in 1926 that the changes in Dalí’s work became truly dramatic.
Viewers may be less surprised that Dalí did so much before The Persistence of Memory than that he did even more after it. Though he would never return to the relatively straightforward depictions of reality found among his work of the 1920s, the dreamscapes he realized throughout the last half-century of his life are hardly all of a piece. (This in addition to plenty of work on the side, including a tarot deck, a cookbook, and even television commercials.) To appreciate the variations he attempted in his art even after becoming popular culture’s idea of an “almost-crazy” Surrealist requires not just seeing his work in context, but spending a proper amount of time with it. Not to say that fans of The Persistence of Memory — especially fans in a suitable state of mind — haven’t spent hours at a stretch in fruitful contemplation of those melting clocks alone.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.