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Surrealist Landscapes

Discover how Surrealists explored the terrain of the subconscious mind in landscape paintings.


Landscapes: Real and Imagined

Discover groundbreaking techniques in early modern landscape paintings.


The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí
(Spanish, 1904–1989)

1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13" (24.1 x 33 cm)

Salvador Dalí frequently described his paintings as “hand painted dream photographs.” He based this seaside landscape on the cliffs in his home region of Catalonia, Spain. The ants and melting clocks are recognizable images that Dalí placed in an unfamiliar context or rendered in an unfamiliar way. The large central creature comprised of a deformed nose and eye was drawn from Dalí’s imagination, although it has frequently been interpreted as a self-portrait. Its long eyelashes seem insect-like; what may or may not be a tongue oozes from its nose like a fat snail from its shell.

Time is the theme here, from the melting watches to the decay implied by the swarming ants. Mastering what he called “the usual paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling,” Dalí painted this work with “the most imperialist fury of precision,” but only, he said, “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.” There is, however, a nod to the real: the distant golden cliffs are those on the coast of Catalonia, Dalí’s home.

Emerging from psychological methods, a creative process, developed by Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí in the 1930s, for the exploration of the creative potential of dream imagery and subconscious thoughts.

The part of the mind below the level of conscious perception. The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

A representation of oneself made by oneself.

The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.

What’s Freud Got to Do with It?
Salvador Dalí was very interested in Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychology. An Austrian psychologist writing in the late-19th and early-20th century, Freud revolutionized the way people think about the mind with his theory of the subconscious. The subconscious is the part of the psyche that thinks and feels without the person being aware of those thoughts and feelings. According to Freud, dreams are coded messages from the subconscious, and Surrealist artists like Dalí were interested in what could be revealed by their dreams.

Madness to His Method?
Dalí self-induced hallucinations in order to access his subconscious while creating art, a process he called the paranoiac-critical method. On the results of this process, he wrote, “I am the first to be surprised and often terrified by the images I see appear upon my canvas. I register without choice and with all possible exactitude the dictates of my subconscious, my dreams….” Although he claimed to be surprised by the images, Dalí rendered them with meticulous precision, creating the illusion that these places could exist in the real world. Dalí, in his typically ironic way, once proclaimed, “The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.”