A surrealist painter, the Spanish Salvador Dali is one of the most enigmatic artists of the twentieth century. Known for his weird and outlandish subject matter, Dali's most famous work of art is probably The Persistence of Memory (1931), often called just "Clocks" and widely regarded as a Surrealist masterpiece. But what is the meaning behind Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory? What do all of those melted clocks mean?
The meaning behind Surrealist Salvador Dali's artistic masterpiece The Persistence of Memory (1931) is not easy to grasp. In the painting, four clocks are prominently on display in an otherwise empty desert scene. While this might seem uncanny enough, the clocks are not flat as you might expect them to be, but are bent out of shape, appearing to be in the act of melting away. In classic Surrealist manner, this weird and unexpected juxtaposition poses a lot of questions right upfront. First off, why are these clocks melting? Why are the clocks out in the desert? Where are all the people?
Since the subject matter and content of the Salvador Dali's clocks painting seems illogical or irrational, one might be surprised by the very representational and nearly photographic quality of the painting, fitting well with Dali's own description of his art as being "hand-painted dream photographs." The concept of the "dream" is integral in understanding Surrealism and plays a key role in the meaning of The Persistence of Memory, as well.
Coming up with the best visual representation of what it is like to be dreaming was one of the main goals of the Surrealists. In the beginning, Surrealism might seem a little crazy, but we've all had dreams where unrelated people, places, or objects come together in completely inexplicable ways. Understanding that Persistence of Memory most likely depicts a dream state is the first part of coming up with a meaning for this painting.
If Persistence of Memory depicts a dream state, the melting and distorted clocks symbolize the erratic passage of time that we experience while dreaming. Have you ever woken up and expected it to be still the middle of the night and are surprised to find that it is already morning? While we often are pretty good and keeping track of what time it is while we go about our days, keeping time while we are asleep is another story. There are many different ways to interpret the meaning of Persistence of Memory. If we look at the art through the perspective of a dream state, the distorted clocks don't have any power in the dream world and are melting away because of that.
In Persistence of Memory Salvador Dali illustrates how useless, irrelevant, and arbitrary our normal concept of time is inside the dream state. During our daily lives, we're always rushed and busy, trying to get all of our work done on time. Many art scholars debate over whether these timepieces are clocks or in fact pocket watches, very popular accessories in the 1920s and 30s, when the Surrealists worked. The Surrealists laughed at most things middle-class society takes seriously, and that includes the importance we place on things like pocket watches that mark passage of time.
Some art scholars believe that Dali's melting clocks may symbolize Albert Einstein's groundbreaking Theory of Relativity, a new and revolutionary idea back in the culture of the 1930s. Through the theory of relativity, Einstein proposed a new concept of time as being relative and complex--not something fixed and easily tracked with as crude a gadget as a pocket watch. In Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali shows the clocks melting away and thus losing their power and stability over the world around them. Through his melting clocks, Salvador Dali might be saying that simple machines like wall clocks and pocket watches are primitive, old-fashioned and even impotent in a post-Einstein world.
The dream state is very important in Surrealism, but jokes, humor, sarcasm and wordplay are also central to Surrealist art. Salvador Dali uses sarcasm in the title of the clocks painting, Persistence of Memory to add a darker meaning to the painting. as we've discussed, the clocks are losing their power in this dream world. They are literally melting away, and thus seem anything but "persistent" in Dali's depiction. Likewise, the ants eating away the face of the red clock also symbolizes the decaying and therefore impermanent nature of our arbitrary way of keeping time.
The desolate landscape where the clocks melt is also barren and infertile. Some art scholars notice the resemblance that this and other Salvador Dali landscapes have to his own beachfront hometown of Port Lligat. The possibly autobiographical meaning of the painting's title Persistence of Memory could very well refer to Dali's own memory of his own childhood surroundings. An autobiographical reading could account for the abandoned and uninhabited quality of the landscape in the painting, not visited since Dali's childhood. One watch hangs on a tree branch like laundry left out on the line to dry; the branch is not flowering or covered in leaves and green, but is sapped and dried out. Dali painted The Persistence of Memory at the age of twenty-seven years old. If we are looking for the autobiographical meaning of Persistence of Memory, the clocks might be representative of his adolescence and are fading or melting away because Dali cannot remember them accurately now that so much time has passed.
The Persistence of Memory is perhaps the most famous Dali painting, with its iconic "melting clocks" becoming the icon of Surrealism and one of the most recognizable pieces of art of the twentieth century. While we cannot know for certain the true meaning, interpretation or analysis that Dali himself intended for his painting, it is likely that Dali himself recognized and developed the different shades of historical, artistic, social and autobiographical meaning encrypted into his artwork. The real meaning of Persistence of Memory is most likely some combination of them all.
Image credit: Salvador Dalí. (Spanish, 1904-1989). The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13" (24.1 x 33 cm). © Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph taken in 2004.