The Persistence of Memory: The Outstanding Qualities of the Painting

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There is a famous saying by Henry Ward Beecher: “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” A painting not only communicates its messages but it also depicts the artist’s personalities and style. As you may know, Salvador Dali is well known for his extravagant and eccentric personalities which are revealed in many of his works from paintings to sculpture, to photography and film. Throughout the time he was under the influence of Surrealist movement, he developed a method called “paranoiac critical” to depict images from his dream world or hallucinatory states of mind. Using the method as an instrument, Dali produced unique and extraordinary artworks that made him one of the best Surrealist artists of all time. One of his greatest achievements is The Persistence of Memory, in which ordinary clocks become enigmatic and bizarre.

In August of the year 1931, Salvador Dali, who was just a beginner of the Surrealist movement at the time, created a remarkable painting named The Persistence of Memory. Despite its tiny size of 9 1/2 x 13 inches, The Persistence of Memory stands out from other massive paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York because of its mysteriousness and attractiveness. Like most of Dali’s paintings, The Persistence of Memory is painted by oil on canvas and is laid horizontally. The setting of the painting makes me think of a desolate and infertile desert landscape. It contains a horizon that is light blue and fades gradually into a light yellow color where it meets a body of perfectly still water, which can be a lake or a reflecting pool. On the right corner of the painting lies a rocky cliff extending down into the water. And there is a little pebble lying in front of the cliff. On the left corner of the painting, a smooth, reflective, rectangular platform remains next to a pebble that looks quite alike the pebble on the right. On top of a brown desk-like object, there is a barren and stunted tree that has only one branch on which a silver clock is hanging and melting. A gold watch appears distortedly on the edge of the desk. Alongside of it is a metallic brown clock that is placed shut. Strikingly, the exterior surface of the clock is covered with plenty of ants feeding on the clock. Contrary to the sky, the ground of the painting is brown, changes into dark brown in the middle of the painting, and then turns into black on the bottom of the painting. Appearing in the center of the painting is a peculiar creamy-white creature. It has extremely long eyelashes, something resembles a nose, a tongue, and a closed eyelid of a human profile. There is a silver pocket clock which is also melting on the back of the white object. Salvador Dali uses light and dark tones of several colors such as brown, yellow, and blue to give the objects a realistic look and emphasize the sunlight and the shading. Important elements that suggest movements are different types of lines, including thin lines, thick lines, and curved lines. These lines outline the shapes of the painting to make the shapes look three-dimensional. Dali uses various shapes from geometric rectangles, distorted round shapes, bizarre shape of the white creature, and the shape of the cliff. These shapes interact with each other and the overall structure of the painting well which creates a strong and balanced form for the painting. It is amazing how Dali makes the viewers feel smooth and flat on the platform while feeling bumpy and rough on the cliff. Our sense of touch varies according to the objects. All the details and elements of the painting are used carefully and thoughtfully to convey a message of the passage of time that we experience in dreams.

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One thing that makes this painting outstanding and distinctive from other famous paintings is the idea that solid clocks become malleable. According to an article, a Camembert cheese melting in the sun was the inspiration for this central motif of The Persistence of Memory (“Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory Explained | Art | Agenda.”) These clocks interacting with other objects in the painting by resting or touching them. For example, the gold clock is lying on the edge of the desk, the silver clock is hanging on the branch of the tree, or another silver clock is resting on the central creature’s back. Everything in the painting appears to be lifeless and strangely still, giving the viewers a feeling of tranquility and peacefulness. The cliff on the right corner of the painting has a harsh and rocky surface while the platform on the left corner is absolutely smooth and flat. Besides that, the cliff is yellow, which is the same as the yellow portion of the horizon. The platform, on the other hand, is blue which looks alike the color of the top portion of the horizon. The Persistence of Memory depicts a dream state that Salvador Dali had experienced, therefore, it contains an unrelated combination of objects and places including realistic and logical objects as well as irrational and imaginary ones. The landscape on the background of the painting is believed to be Dali’s hometown Catalonia. More specifically, the cliff represents Cap de Creus, a peninsula near to the artist’s home (Richman-Abdou). The face-like figure in the center of the painting is actually Dali ’s self-portrait. The closed eyelids suggest that he was sleeping and was in a dream state. It is whimsical to see the ants feeding on the bronze clock as if the metal clock is something organic and delicious. Dali uses that idea to symbolize decay which corresponds with the lifeless tree and empty surroundings. The usage of dark and light tones of colors creates an apparent contrast between the horizon and the ground. Moreover, the usage of light and shadows of objects are crucial to the overall effect of the painting because it indicates the three-dimensional qualities of objects and make the painting look realistic.

Until now, we cannot know for certain what meaning Salvador Dali intended The Persistence of Memory to convey. A professional critique suggests the message is that life is fast, and we all made choices that resulted in unfavorable outcomes, but we moved on from that (“The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí: An Analysis.”) Another reliable source demonstrates that Dali communicates the passage of time and the relation between actual time and remembered time (“Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory Explained | Art | Agenda.”) Elliot Eisner, an accomplished professor at Stanford, onced said: “The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.” All these conclusions are made based on logic reasonings and specific proofs. We cannot understand a work of art truly if we do not examine it from different perspectives and appreciate different opinions about it. However, to me, the message that is hidden inside this painting is that the passage of time is unimportant and arbitrary in dreams. In our real world, time is considered to be valuable and powerful because time makes things possible. People’s lifetime is limited and fast-paced. Nevertheless, in another world, a world we call dreams, time is useless and insignificant. The memories that correspond with a period of time are also represented by the melting clocks. The metal clocks have become malleable just like the memories are fading away.

The Persistence of Memory is not only Dali’s masterpiece which made the name “Salvador Dali” well-known and familiar to aesthetes all around the world but it is also a symbol of Surrealism. The painting’s complicated symbolism and bizarre iconography are unique characteristics of the Surrealist movement. The ways Dali skillfully used the concept of Surrealism in his painting portray a lot about Dali’s personalities and his unique sense of art. With that being said, the original and one-of-a-kind quality of this painting is what makes it a remarkably magnificent piece of art of all time. In this dream state in The Persistence of Memory, random objects are combined into one painting, such as the clocks, the platform, the desk, the cliff Cap de Creus, the tree, and the small reflecting pool. However, this outlandish combination of objects turns out to be an excellent unity and balance for the overall painting. Consequently, The Persistence of Memory has a well-organized artistic form and strong relationships between the details and the structure. Dali successfully conveys the subject matter of this painting through a dream world that he depicted. Lastly but most importantly, this piece of art attracts my attention and participation from the moment I saw it. Its mysteriousness makes the viewers examine it carefully and constantly in order to interpret the message that it communicates. Philosopher’s Lamp by Rene Magritte is a Surrealist piece of art that has some similar ideas to that of The Persistence of Memory, including the lengthened candle and the distorted nose of the man in suit. Both Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte have their own special taste of art and make people think about the traditional definition of art when examining their paintings. In my opinion, The Persistence of Memory is an insightful and successful piece of art.

It is unsurprising that The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali was one of the best painting of the 20th century. Until now, It always has been an influential and inspiring piece of art to all the viewers and artists worldwide. Because of Dali’s talent and artistic imagination, the painting helped define Surrealism and brought its concept to the world. I find it amazing that dreams or the unconscious mind are the source of inspiration and important theme in every Surrealist paintings.

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