Timeless wonder

different strokes

intriguing Salvador Dali’s

Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was only 27 when he painted ‘The Persistence of Memory’ in 1931. An iconic image of the 20th century, it is credited for not only enthralling and intriguing viewers, critics, and scholars, but also for raising deep psychological questions about time and timelessness, illusion and reality, and about life and death.

Rendered with striking colours and incredible precision, this surprisingly small painting — just nine-and-a-half inches by thirteen inches in size — has Dali bringing together several disparate but compelling elements including a fly, a lifeless olive tree with a protruding leafless branch, a herd of crawling ants, and a monstrous figure with a long delicate nose and hanging tongue (often recognised as the portrait of Dali himself!).

The most arresting portions of the painting are the three watches — super-soft, melting, dripping, and limp timepieces — which instantly grab the viewer’s attention.

According to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York in whose permanent collection ‘The Persistence of Memory’ resides, the watches are “irrational, fantastic, paradoxical, disquieting, baffling, alarming, hypnologic, nonsensical and mad — but to the surrealist these adjectives are the highest praise.”

For the artist himself, the soft watches were nothing more than ‘the tender, extravagant and solitary paranoiac-critical camembert of time and space’; and ‘like fillets of sole, they are destined to be swallowed by the sharks of time.’

Coming into being

In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, published in 1942, the artist explains in detail the origin of the painting.

It happened on an evening in 1931. Dali was living with his lover Gala (she became his wife in 1934). On that evening in 1931, they had planned to go to a movie with friends. At the last moment, Dali developed a slight headache, felt tired and decided to skip the engagement.

Gala left with the friends while Dali stayed home and decided to go to bed early.
“We had topped off our meal with a strong Camembert, and after everybody had gone I remained a long time at the table meditating on the philosophic problems of the ‘super-soft’ which the cheese presented to my mind. I got up and went into my studio, where I lit the light in order to cast a final glance, as is my habit, at the picture I was in the midst of painting. This picture represented a landscape near Port Lligat, whose rocks were lighted by a transparent and melancholy twilight; in the foreground an olive tree with its branches cut, and without leaves. I knew that the atmosphere which I had succeeded in creating with this landscape was to serve as a setting for some idea, for some surprising image, but I did not in the least know what it was going to be.”

He was about to turn out the light, when instantaneously he ‘saw’ the solution.
“I saw two soft watches, one of them hanging lamentably on the branches of the olive tree. In spite of the fact that my headache had increased to the point of becoming very painful, I avidly prepared my palette and set to work.”

By the time Gala returned from the theatre two hours later, the picture was completed. Dali made her sit down in front of it with her eyes shut: “One, two, three, open your eyes!”

He looked intently at Gala’s face, and saw upon it the unmistakable contraction of wonder and astonishment. “This convinced me of the effectiveness of my new image, for Gala never errs in judging the authenticity of an enigma.”

Dali asked Gala: “Do you think that in three years you will have forgotten this image?”
She replied: “No one can forget it once he has seen it.”

Thus was born ‘The Persistence of Memory’, arguably Dali’s most famous painting.

Mystery and stillness

First shown at the Pierre Colle Gallery in Paris in June 1931, ‘The Persistence of Memory’ was bought for $250, by American Julien Levy, who called it a “10 by 14 inches of Dalí dynamite.”

The painting was featured in the United States at a show titled Newer Super Realism in November 1931 where it created an immediate sensation and received immense publicity with journalists from coast to coast jostling to write stories about the “Limp Watches”. It kept moving from show to show before reaching MOMA.

Ever since its first appearance in public, the enigmatic painting has been subject to countless observations and interpretations.

It is described, among others, as an arena of silence; a frozen nightmare — in which nothing moved or made a noise; a paranormal vision where the dream did not dissolve; an image which led the viewer into a state of radical doubt about the supposedly fixed nature of reality.

For eminent art critic Robert Hughes, it was looking down the wrong end of the telescope at a brilliant, clear, shrunken and poisoned world. “One could not imagine walking on that stretched, satiny beach among the oozing watches. This atmosphere of voyeurism lent force to Dali’s obsessive imagery of impotence, violence and guilt.”  

According to MOMA, ‘The Persistence of Memory’ is aptly named, for the scene is indelibly memorable. “Hard objects become inexplicably limp in this bleak and infinite dreamscape, while metal attracts ants like rotting flesh… Time is the theme here… Mastering what he called ‘the usual paralysing tricks of eye-fooling,’

Dali painted with what he called ‘the most imperialist fury of precision,’ but only, he said, ‘to systematise confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality’.”
While the brilliance of many of his early works including ‘The Persistence of Memory’ remained unquestioned, Dali became increasingly known for his personal eccentricities and indifferent paintings in later years.

When he died on January 23, 1989, Hughes wrote: “With some artists, death is only a ratification of decay: it releases them from the humiliations of their late careers. So it was with Salvador Dali… He was the first modern artist to exploit fully the mechanism of publicity. He appropriated the idea of the artist as demonic obsessive. Armored in paradox, he was a household word rivalling Picasso in fame, at least in the eyes of a mass public that knew him as an eccentric first and a painter second.”

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