The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali


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The Persistence of Memory (La persistencia de la memoria, 1931) by Salvador Dali is one of the most well-known artworks of the twentieth century, which has turned into a symbol of surrealism. The Three Surrealist Manifestos by Andre Breton, who is known as a principal theorist of the movement, criticizes the realistic attitudes of positivism, which he describes as a denial of intellectual and moral rise. A large part of the manifestos is occupied by considerations on the dream. The author presents the theory on painting that, in such a work, the content, feeling or emotion directing the painter is more important than purely painting values. Surrealists used the automatic method, i.e. a practice based on free, uncontrolled creation. The creation of the work was to be dependent on the spontaneous movement of the hand, and automatism to obtain the best way to express hidden thoughts and the recesses of the human psyche. Based on this method, Dalí came up with his own, which he called ‘paranoid-critical”, which consisted in submitting to hallucinations in order to create something that would be unusual, original and illogical. Paintings of the Spanish painter are characterized by a surprising combination of realistically depicted objects and places with sleepy illusions and deformations. Destroying the logical order of reality, combining elements by accident and inspiration from dreams was a base of many artworks of Dali and The Persistence of Memory can be one of the best examples to spot these motives

Image composition is a mix of realistic elements with distorted objects, placed side by side in a way lacking any logical meaning what is considered as the essence of the surrealistic trend. The picture’s colours are subdued and calm. Browns, blues, whites and black predominate here. Shadows are unnatural and unrealistic. Because of that one studying the image can feel like in a dream where rules of nature are omitted or, if familiar, the feeling after consuming hallucinogenic drugs. In the background of the painting a naturalistic seaside landscape with a cliff above the surface of the water can be seen, which, according to the author himself, was originally the dominant feature in the composition. The left side of the image from its down corner up to the surface of the ocean is occupied by a structure in the shape of a geometric solid with regular edges from which a tree trunk grows. Around this structure, looking like a piece of furniture, closed box or a coffin, there are three clocks: two of them melt down from the platform’s edge (a coffin?) and from the branch of the tree, while the third, closed, is presented in a realistic, rounded shape but almost completely covered with ants. In the centre of the painting, however, there is another soft clock covering an unspecified structure in which the observants can find features of a human face.

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This face according to many scholars is an surrealistic auto portrait of the author and can be found in other artworks of Dali, taking the Great masturbator (El gran Masturbador, 1929) or The Enigma of Desire (El enigma del deseo – Mi madre, mi madre, mi madre, 1929) as examples. The eyes of the face are closed what can be read as another hint given by the author that the space is placed somewhere between reality and a dream. On top of the biggest melting clock, small fly can be spotted. It can symbolise that “time flies” and the evanescence of its nature. However, one can argue that the situated fly and the mass of ants covering almost entirely the surface of the closed clock could indicate vanishing rule of time. It suggests a picture of a decaying body, ugliness and the rotting process. At this point, coming back to the image of the face, the shape of it can be linked with a decaying sea animal on a beach. Because Salvador Dali feared ants, it can be assumed that this pocket watch also portraits the fear of future, getting old and inevitable death of every person.

The persistence of memory can symbolize impermanence of life. Time is not frozen like a clock. It goes by and dissolves. This memory lasts as long as we want, even without clocks. The artwork makes us reflect on our lives. Time goes by, and the clocks that symbolize life inexorably change their position. There is no doubt that the image of Salvador Dali showing melting clocks also leaves a lasting mark in our memory, forcing us above to think over the sense and the essence of our life.

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