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.
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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.