The Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali is one of the most enigmatic artists of the twentieth century. Known for his often weird and surreal subject matter, Dali's most famous work of art is probably The Persistence of Memory (1931), widely regarded as a Surrealist masterpiece. What is the meaning behind Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory and its iconic melting clocks?
Sometimes referred to as just the "clocks" painting, in Dali's Persistence of Memory (1931) a mysterious human-like white figure sleeps in an otherwise deserted landscape. A clock covers the sleeping figure's back, almost the way a blanket might cover a sleeping child. Another clock is hung over a limb like a wet piece of laundry hung out to dry. Unlike the clocks we use and are surrounded with everyday, Dali's clocks are not flat and hard, but are bent out of shape and seem to be soft, melting away in the desert sun. What do all of these melting clocks mean? Why are the clocks laying out there? What is the meaning?
The content of Persistence of Memory seems out of this world, but Dali paints his objects using a surprisingly straightforward technique. Unlike the Expressionists who transformed everyday objects with broad strokes and bold colors, Surrealists like Dali painted strange and often irrational subject matter with precise and almost photographic detail. In fact, Salvador Dali referred to his surrealist art as "hand-painted dream photographs."
The concept of the dream is integral to understanding Surrealism and also plays a key role in unlocking the true meaning of The Persistence of Memory. A major goal of Surrealism was coming up with the best visual representation of what it is like to be in the dream state. In the beginning, Surrealism might seem a little crazy, but we've all had fantastic dreams where unrelated people, places, or objects come together in completely inexplicable and irrational ways. Understanding that Persistence of Memory may depict a dream state is the first part of understanding the hidden meaning of this painting.
If Persistence of Memory depicts a dream state, the melting and distorted clocks symbolize the erratic and unreliable passage of time that we experience while dreaming. Have you ever woken up and expected it to still be the middle of the night and are surprised to find that it is already morning? The distorted clocks don't have any power or importance in the dream world and because of that are melting away.
In Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali illustrates how useless, irrelevant, and arbitrary our obsession with time is, inside and outside of the dream state. During our daily lives, we're always rushed and busy, trying to get all of our work and errands done on time. Many art scholars debate over whether these timepieces are clocks or in fact pocket watches, popular fashion accessories in the 1920s and 30s, the peak of the Surrealist art movement. The Surrealists laughed at most things middle-class society take seriously, and that included the importance we place on things like pocket watches that we obsessively check to mark the 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 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 flaccid clocks melting away and thus losing their power over the world around them. Through his melting clocks, Salvador Dali might suggest that our current time-keeping devices are primitive, old-fashioned and even impotent in this 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 hidden meaning to the painting. The clocks are literally melting away, and thus seem anything but reliable or "persistent." Likewise, the ants eating away at the face of the red clock, almost like a piece of hard candy, also symbolize the decaying and impermanent nature of how we keep track of time. This includes our sweetest memories.
Is there a personal meaning to Dali's painting? Some art scholars notice the resemblance that this and other Salvador Dali landscapes have to his own beachfront hometown of Port Lligat, Spain. Is Persistence of Memory a painting of Dali's childhood home? Beyond the clocks, a vast body of water stretches out, perhaps symbolizing an ocean of memory surrounded by the sands of time. The desolate, sandy landscape where the clocks melt is barren and infertile. Perhaps the landscape seems so abandoned and uninhabited because it has not been revisited since Dali's childhood. One watch hangs on a tree branch like laundry left out on the line to dry, forgotten; the branch is not flowering or covered in leaves and green, but is sapped and dried out like a faded memory.
Who is that sleeping white figure in the foreground? Eyes cloaked with big, babydoll eyelashes, the sleeping figure in the foreground also seems to boast a recognizable moustache — is that Salvador Dali's iconic moustache? Is the sleeping figure in fact Dali? 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 youth and are fading or melting away because Dali cannot remember them accurately now that so much time has passed. The portrait of the artist also is noticeably wispy at the edges.
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 painting's true meaning, interpretation or analysis that Dali himself intended for his painting, it is likely that Dali himself recognized and developed the different layers 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 Dali. (Spanish, 1904-1989). The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13" (24.1 x 33 cm). © Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph taken in 2004.