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On view  |  Painting and Sculpture I, Gallery 10, Floor 5

Salvador Dalí. The Persistence of Memory. 1931

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Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904–1989)

The Persistence of Memory

Oil on canvas
9 1/2 x 13" (24.1 x 33 cm)
Credit Line:
Given anonymously
MoMA Number:
© 2015 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Audio Program excerpt

MoMA Audio: Collection

, 2008

Curator, Anne Umland: Salvador Dalí's 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory is a very small, cabinet-size picture filled with exquisite, meticulously rendered detail. It is probably for its hallucinatory, hyper-realistic atmosphere that this work is one of the most iconic Surrealist paintings.

The Surrealists were a revolutionary movement with the goal of destabilizing societal, political, cultural norms. The Surrealists were deeply interested in dream states, in Freud, in alternative realities to provoke, to stimulate, to overturn people's expectations. And what Dalí did was arrive at this conflation of things that both look so real, palpable, touchable almost, and yet are in a state of dissolution. Things that normally would be hard are draped, oozing, soft. So is this large pink, fleshy, vaguely anthropomorphic form that sprawls across the foreground that in fact, resembles the artist himself.

Dalí liked things in this state of becoming, unbecoming, with ants crawling over the golden watch in the lower left corner, and again these sagging, limpid, loose, floppy time pieces. Dalí once, in fact, referred to the melting watches as the "camembert of time," which has all sorts of wonderfully smelly connotations. Their utility is completely thwarted in this vivid dreamscape that is as much about an interior state of mind as anything that youd experience in everyday life.

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999

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. Mastering what he called "the usual paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling," Dali painted with what he called "the most imperialist fury of precision," but only, he said, "to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality." It is the classical Surrealist ambition, yet some literal reality is included too: the distant golden cliffs are the coast of Catalonia, Dali's home.

Those limp watches are as soft as overripe cheese—indeed "the camembert of time," in Dali's phrase. Here time must lose all meaning. Permanence goes with it: ants, a common theme in Dali's work, represent decay, particularly when they attack a gold watch, and become grotesquely organic. The monstrous fleshy creature draped across the painting's center is at once alien and familiar: an approximation of Dali's own face in profile, its long eyelashes seem disturbingly insectlike or even sexual, as does what may or may not be a tongue oozing from its nose like a fat snail.

The year before this picture was painted, Dali formulated his "paranoiac-critical method," cultivating self-induced psychotic hallucinations in order to create art. "The difference between a madman and me," he said, "is that I am not mad."

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