Probably the best way to talk about Salvador Dali’s work is to start by looking closely at a tiny painting he made in 1931 call the “Persistence of Memory.”
Today we are pretty used to seeing airbrush and Photoshop works that have a high degree of polish and illusionist qualities. You can go to interest and type in photographic surrealism and you would find literally hundreds of images that are dreamlike, clever, but also very convincing in their realism. Dali was the first painter to make a very realistic painting of surrealistic ideas.
If you look at this painting, you’ll see that it has the illusion of deep space. The background and it’s colors clearly reference the Renaissance tradition of atmospheric perspective also called “sfumato.” There is a clear horizon line and there are vanishing points in several areas that are consistent throughout the picture which unifies the space and makes it look real. The light and the shadow or shading, also called in Italian “chiaroscuro”, are also consistent throughout the picture and finish off the picture with a sense of light and shadow that convinces us that what we see could be real.
The mountains in the background are a type of cliché of mountains on the edge of a sea. Dali describes the mountains almost as if he were a Baroque a Renaissance painter, however, he does use some warm and cool tones, which are little closer to more contemporary color theory influenced by the Impressionists.
Dali uses an abrupt tonal or shading shift between the foreground and the background which highlights or spotlights almost a form of tenebrism the weird melted clocks and semi-biological creature laying in the center of the picture plane. The clocks, the tree, and even the ants are realistically depicted even though they are not real things. For example, the small old clock in the lower left foreground in which the ants crawl on, has a very realistic shading scheme on it which includes a core shadow and reflected light. The metal edging around the other clocks are rendered or shaded in a very traditional consistent manner with what artists who paint realistically learn how to do. Even on the fleshy pink thing in the center of the picture you can see that there’s a little bit of reflected light along what you might think of as the head of it that looks like a nose and eyelashes.
So one of the things that distinguishes Salvador Dali at the beginning of his career, later on he gives up this kind of technique, is the realism in which he renders unrealistic things such as the clocks, the landscape, and the weird creature in the center. People tend to look at paintings, especially untrained people who aren’t necessarily art historians were art critics, and use the level of realism that the artist is able to accomplish as a type of value system in which to decide whether or not they think the painting is good or not.
Other Surrealists from this time, didn’t or weren’t as accomplished in terms of illusionistic painting as Salvador Dali. When you look at René Magritte’s paintings, yes they are pretty realistic but the realism really isn’t as clear and as well executed as Salvador Dali’s early paintings especially his painting of his wife.
In order to understand what the painting means, or what the symbols in the painting might me, it’s probably important to talk about Salvador Dali’s relationship to the art world and a little bit about who he was as a person and his biography.Early in Dali’s career he allied himself with the Dada movement as well as the surrealist movement. These early painters got their ideas partially from some of the events surrounding World War I and also the birth of psychological theory advocated and developed by Sigmund Freud. Most notably one of the ideas is that there is an unconscious mind that thinks in terms of symbols and is often expressed either by catatonic people or in a dream state. Many of the artists who call themselves “Surrealists,” were very well-versed in Sigmund Freud’s ideas and also believed that there was the possibility of reaching something more universal by working with, “archetypes.” Carl Jung a colleague of Freud’s came up with several theories, such as the term gestalt, archetypes, and collective unconscious, to describe a type of database of symbols or imagery that were universal symbols for the dreaming mind. Dali and the other artists subscribe to this belief and started attempting to tap into that unconscious mind.
Although René Magritte has a reputation that is close behind Salvador Dali’s, and many of his ideas in his paintings are types of visual puns and plays on intellectual concepts, Dali is still significantly more famous and in the 1930s and 40s I suspect that there was some professional jealousy towards him. Probably the most important fact to know is that the Surrealists shunned Salvador Dali after she started endorsing commercial products and using his reputation as a surrealistic artist to make money. Dali designed clothing, staged photographic sessions, and even endorsed pantyhose. He’s also known for making a surrealist film and even for working a little bit with Alfred Hitchcock later on. Often artists look at other artists who are successful, especially the merchandise their work, as being too commercial or even prostituting their art. In my opinion I think that’s unkind and probably just professional jealousy. You are art history teacher will probably have a knee-jerk reaction against that idea. Needless to say, Dali is often written about as being a failure after the 1940s and there are even attacks against his wife Gala, as being a shrew or a negative influence on him and his art.A couple of important contextual things, that may or may not be completely accurate, so you may need to feel a bit more research to verify this, is that there’s a story about Dali’s father showing him a picture of or medical journal that contained images of body parts and the effects of venereal disease on the human body. Several scholars have suggested that Salvador Dali’s father was attempting to make him turned off to sex and instill fear venereal diseases in him however, some scholars have suggested that this was turned into a sort of reverse interpretation by Dali and that the images for him were somehow erotic or turned him on. I like this notion because it applies directly to looking at the iconography or the symbols used specifically in, “The Persistence of Memory.”
If you were to ask Salvador Dali, when he was alive, to explain his work, he wouldn’t do it in a way that would satisfy you. He actually used his persona as a sort of outrageous person and an artist to say outlandish things and also almost incomprehensible crazy sounding things about himself and about his work. So we’re kind of left with common sense and a little bit of factual information to figure out what his paintings might mean and specifically this one, “The Persistence of Memory.”
Here’s how I think and interpretation of this painting might work. You have a barren almost endless landscape complete with atmospheric perspective and a kind of endless backdrop behind some very clear or clearly rendered impossible things.
If you look at the history of art history, and you remember the painter Masaccio, in his painting from the early 15th century, “The Tribute Money,” you can see that there is a type of endless landscape in the left-hand side picture plane. For Masaccio it probably meant the realm of the eternal or endless world. It’s possible that he actually meant it to be representation of a religious concept called, “the city of God.” The right-hand side of Masaccio’s picture is often interpreted to be the temporary or temporal world of the secular person. Sometimes referred to as, “The City of Man.” Using Masaccio’s work as the sort of precedent, and also the fact that this is often used in cinema and photography, even in our national and from in the United States there is a reference to the landscape as being endless and a sort of eternal spiritual realm, that’s probably why Dali painted the environment he did. If you think about it relates directly to the title which is a sort of clue that this is about memory and persistence, often terms that are used to describe something eternal.
If you are a couple those themes of time, eternity, spirituality, you may start looking at the clocks in a slightly different way. Melting clocks would not be able to keep time. In fact the clocks are soft and not very hard edged the way the cubes are and some other things. Is this a representation of how we think about time? Time and memory often become less distinct and melt as one moves forward in time. Police know this because they often need to question a witness immediately after the event and sometimes months after event happens the witness’s memory changes of the event. Their memory goes “soft.”There are also images of decay in this, for example the ants that are crawling on the pocket watch and the foreground are almost feeding on it and sometimes when filmmakers and photographers describe the passage of time they’ll actually show worms or ants crawling on something that is decaying to give a sense of time passing. In detective shows, the same thing is true and often to show the passage of time or the age of even a corpse they’ll analyze the insects crawling on it.
The theme of decay and softness might be combined with the anecdote concerning Dali seeing the book on venereal diseases that his father showed him to scare him off of illicit sex. In fact there are some really hard to understand quotes by Dali about how the fleshiness of the images he saw in that book became something that was eroticized for him or sexualized in some way. We cannot know if this is absolutely fact but I think it’s not much of a jump to think that somehow this weird biological thing in the center of the picture could represent or be linked to sexuality, decay, and even more contemporary theories about how biology works and how the brain works.It’s possible, especially given the title and what we know about Salvador Dali’s biography and the kinds of things he talked about that this is just a dreamlike interpretation of the decay of someone’s memory or how inconstant and transitive human thought and memory are.