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 coun­ter­in­tu­itive image, “Dalí, who knew the impor­tance of brand­ing, would use the melt­ing clocks for his entire career.” So says no less an expert than James Payne, the gal­lerist and video essay­ist behind the Youtube chan­nel Great Art Explained. In its lat­est episode Payne takes on the unre­lent­ing­ly pro­lif­ic Dalí’s most famous can­vas of all, The Per­sis­tence of Mem­o­ry. Com­plet­ed in 1931, this work of art has by now spent about half a cen­tu­ry adorn­ing the walls of col­lege dorm rooms, among oth­er spaces inhab­it­ed by view­ers inter­est­ed in the alter­ation of their own per­cep­tive fac­ul­ties.

The Per­sis­tence of Mem­o­ry does­n’t mark Dalí’s first use of melt­ing clocks, though it’s with­out doubt his most impor­tant. Yet “despite its huge cul­tur­al impact,” says Payne, the paint­ing is “quite small, about the size of a sheet of paper.” Against the back­ground of “a huge desert land­scape with vast depths of field, reduced to a shrunk­en world” — one har­bor­ing ref­er­ences to Goya, De Chiri­co, and Bosch — it vivid­ly 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, into a soft and flac­cid form.” Like all of the artist’s best work, it thus “exploits the ambi­gu­i­ty of our per­cep­tu­al process and plays with our own fears.” But what do the melt­ing clocks mean?

That, to Dalí’s own mind, is the wrong ques­tion: “I am against any kind of mes­sage,” he declared in one of his many tele­vi­sion appear­ances. Indeed, his fre­quent appear­ances on tele­vi­sion (What’s My Line?, The Mike Wal­lace Inter­view, The Dick Cavett Show) and in oth­er media assured that, at a cer­tain point, “Dalí the artist had become a pris­on­er of Dalí the celebri­ty.” But his appear­ances in the spot­light also gave him the chance to dis­sem­i­nate the chaff of con­flict­ing expla­na­tions of his own work. Per­haps the melt­ing clocks refer to Ein­stein’s then-nov­el the­o­ry of rel­a­tiv­i­ty; per­haps they sym­bol­ize impo­tence. Or it may all come down to Dalí’s obses­sion with death, which even in 1931 had long since tak­en both his moth­er and the younger broth­er of whom he believed him­self a rein­car­na­tion. In the event, Dalí could­n’t escape mor­tal­i­ty. None of us can, of course, and that, as much as any­thing else, may illu­mi­nate why The Per­sis­tence of Mem­o­ry nev­er quite pass­es into the realm of kitsch.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Jour­ney Through 933 Paint­ings by Sal­vador Dalí & Watch His Sig­na­ture Sur­re­al­ism Emerge

Walk Inside a Sur­re­al­ist 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: Includes Nev­er-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: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include 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.

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