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Understanding “The Persistence of Memory,” Salvador Dalí’s Surrealist Masterpiece

The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Spanish artist and icon is one of the rare works of art that can be conjured with the mention of two simple words: melting clocks.
Like ’s Starry Night (1889) and ’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907), The Persistence of Memory attracts visitors from all over the world to the Museum of Modern Art as a work that has come to represent an entire movement. The Surrealist vision brings an uncanny landscape to life with unnerving accuracy—when you imagine how a clock would melt, this is how it would melt. It would droop, distort, and elongate.
“My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialize the images of my concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision,” Dalí wrote in his book Conquest of the Irrational.
This “fury of precision” is exactly what makes The Persistence of Memory so surreal. Instead of rendering a fantastical world in hasty brushstrokes and arbitrary colors, Dalí painted familiar objects in unfamiliar ways.

Surrealism begins in Paris

Artist Salvador Dali, lifting his cane, in a crowd. Image via Getty Images.

Artist Salvador Dali, lifting his cane, in a crowd. Image via Getty Images.

Poet founded Surrealism in 1924 in opposition to the prevailing Enlightenment ideals that governed much of art and literature in the 17th and 18th centuries. For hundreds of years, rationalism had been at the center of society, and Breton believed it had contributed to the “impoverishment and sterility of thought processes.” The ideals of the Enlightenment emphasized objectivity, science, and rationalism, and smothered creativity—so irrational thought had to be the antidote.
Breton and the Surrealists were devoted followers of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and his psychoanalytic theory of personality gave the group of artists and writers a North Star for creative production. By accessing the unconscious mind—the collection of thoughts, memories, dreams, and urges not dictated by the conscious mind—these artists would engage in a pure form of artmaking that had not been sterilized by social mores or insecurities.
Surrealists looked to different methods to access the buried information that existed below the surface of their consciousness, but many adopted , a means of making art that embraced chance and attempted to remove consciousness. By splattering paint, allowing materials to fall and be placed according to chance, and doodling around the resulting shapes and composition, the artist essentially removed their agency as much as possible from the creative process. This resulted in works like ’s Battle of Fishes (1926), a multimedia piece in which randomly adhered sand becomes a mountain range and red splatters leak like blood from a fish’s mouth.
Other artists, like Dalí, looked to dreams for inspiration. Dreaming is a function of the unconscious mind, and Dalí took advantage of sleep to fuel his practice. He was known to take micro-naps throughout the day. These quick bursts of sleep provided both creative and physical benefits. Brief naps allowed Dalí to enter into a hyperassociative state—even if briefly—that made it easier to bring unexpected associations and concepts together.

Salvador Dalí, the Surrealist icon

Salvador Dali paints with shaving cream on the blackboard of the children’s playroom on the S.S. United States. Image via Getty Images.

Salvador Dali paints with shaving cream on the blackboard of the children’s playroom on the S.S. United States. Image via Getty Images.

Dalí was born in 1904 in Figueres, Spain, and began studying and exhibiting art at an early age. Although he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid at 17, he quickly realized he was more interested in the artistic innovations happening in Paris.
He idolized fellow Spaniard Pablo Picasso and met him on a trip to Paris in 1926. That year, Dalí was expelled from school after insulting the intelligence of the tribunal grading his work, saying: “I am infinitely more intelligent than these three professors, and I therefore refuse to be examined by them. I know this subject much too well.”
In 1929, he was introduced to André Breton on another trip to Paris and began collaborating with the French Surrealists. He met his soon-to-be wife Gala (who at the time was married to ) on a trip to Cadaques with a group of Surrealists later that year, and from that point on, Dalí was enamored by her—even as their relationship became fraught with infidelity.
Throughout the 1930s, Dalí created some of his most iconic paintings and collaborated with others in the group on writing and film projects. Although Dalí never stopped creating Surrealist work, he was expelled from the group by Breton before the end of the decade for his politics, which were more firmly aligned with Fascism. He and Gala moved to New York City in 1940, where they stayed until 1948. In America, Dalí designed theater sets for the ballet, began creating jewelry, and developed a relationship with , a photographer who captured Dalí in whimsical staged portraits.
Throughout the second half of his life, Dalí took full advantage of the household name he had become, going on The Dick Cavett Show and appearing in ads for everything from Lanvin chocolate to Old Angus scotch. He also took up illustrating classic literature like Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland, even bringing his Surrealist spin to the Bible.
Dalí was known for being an eccentric character, and his love of the limelight manifested in stunts like wearing a full deep-sea diving suit (nearly suffocating as a result) to an exhibition opening in 1936; unabashedly declaring himself a genius, most prominently in a book titled Diary of a Genius (1963); and walking around Paris with an anteater on a leash. Some of these antics seemed to overshadow the seriousness of his work, and for a period of time towards the end of his life and just following his death in 1989, scholars seemed to discount much of Dalí’s oeuvre, claiming that he peaked as an artist in the 1920s and ’30s. Respect has since been restored for the Surrealist master, his lasting influence indelible.

The legacy of The Persistence of Memory

Dalí painted The Persistence of Memory in 1931 when he was just 28 years old, and the Surrealist movement was at its height. By this time, he was formally involved with the Surrealists and had developed his “paranoiac-critical method” for creating art. Through this method, Dalí would self-induce a hypnotic state that allowed him to break free of reality. It was his hope that once he was unfettered, the visions for his paintings might begin.
The Persistence of Memory is a physically small work for the large art-historical and pop-cultural reputation it holds—the painting is just a couple of inches wider than a standard piece of computer paper. The piece may seem rooted firmly in an imaginary world, but the cliffs in the background have been identified as the coast of Catalonia, Dalí’s hometown. Though the cliffs bring an element of reality to the ambiguous scene, distorted clocks melt on a dead tree, an inexplicable platform, and a flesh-colored amorphous form (identified as a self-portrait of the artist in profile). Ants swarm to a closed timepiece as if it were flesh, and the landscape gives the impression of total, eerie stillness.
Dalí proclaimed that he didn’t know the meaning of the work—this has given scholars and art lovers alike plenty of room to impose meaning on the painting. While the clocks are widely thought to symbolize the omnipresence of time, Dalí refused to associate them with anything other than a French cheese: He referred to them as the “camembert of time.” Dalí takes hard, mechanical objects and renders them limp—although time controls society’s waking hours, it is often bent in dreams and in memory. The gathered ants (and the single fly, perched on a clock) appear as they might on rotting flesh, alluding to death and decay. These objects are familiar, but distorted and taken out of context, as things often are in dreams. The face-like form, sleeping in the center of the work, looks like a bone-dry cow skull at first glance. With time, the skull begins to reveal human characteristics: long eyelashes, a nose, and even the wisp of a curled mustache.
This isn’t the last time Dalí would include many of these symbols in his work, and around 30 years later, he returned to The Persistence of Memory with The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952–54). The work takes his 1931 painting and updates it to reflect the more contemporary anxiety of nuclear warfare. Dalí referred to work from the early 1950s as part of his “Rhinocerotic period”—rhinoceros horns that evoke missiles launched under water.
Strangely, the provenance of The Persistence of Memory is a mystery—an anonymous donor gave the work to MoMA in 1934, where it has hung since. Once it appeared at MoMA, it didn’t take long for the painting to become one of the museum’s main attractions, always drawing a line. The work’s ubiquity has since been cemented by cameo recreations on The Simpsons (Marge Simpson’s face melts off a platform, her blue hair pooling onto the ground, and a strawberry-frosted donut grabs the attention of the ants) and Sesame Street (a snoozing Cookie Monster takes the place of Dalí’s self-portrait in the center of this rendition, and melting cookies appear in lieu of the iconic clocks).
Although The Persistence of Memory is an early work for Dalí, it was career-defining in its execution of Surrealist ideals. In his impassioned first “Manifesto of Surrealism,” Breton wrote: “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” Dalí’s iconic work creates new associations, deconstructs the all-powerful mechanism of time, and brings to canvas the often unnerving and nonsensical feeling of dreaming. Nearly 100 years after its creation, The Persistence of Memory remains a portrait of a great artist’s unbridled vision.
Sarah Dotson is Artsy’s Managing Editor.