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,” Dalí painted with “the most imperialist fury of precision,” he said, but only “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.” It is the classic Surrealist ambition, yet some literal reality is included, too: the distant golden cliffs are the coast of Catalonia, Dalí’s home.
Those limp watches are as soft as overripe cheese—indeed, they picture “the camembert of time,” in Dalí’s phrase. Here time must lose all meaning. Permanence goes with it: ants, a common theme in Dalí’s work, represent decay, particularly when they attack a gold watch, and they seem grotesquely organic. The monstrous fleshy creature draped across the painting’s center is at once alien and familiar: an approximation of Dalí’s own face in profile, its long eyelashes seem disturbingly insect-like 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, Dalí 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.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
With its uncanny, otherworldly feel, and its melting pocket watches and mollusk-like central figure strewn about a barren landscape, Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory seems wholly imaginary. In fact, it sprang not only from the artist’s imagination, but also from his memories of the coastline of his native Catalonia, Spain. As he once explained: “This picture represented a landscape near Port Lligat, whose rocks were lighted by a transparent and melancholy twilight; in the foreground an olive tree with its branches cut, and without leaves.”
Dalí frequently described his works as “hand-painted dream photographs.” He applied the methods of Surrealism, tapping deep into the non-rational mechanisms of his mind—dreams, the imagination, and the subconscious—to generate the unreal forms that populate The Persistence of Memory. These blend seamlessly with features based on the real world, including the rocky ridge in the painting’s upper-right-hand corner, which describes the cliffs of the Cap de Creus peninsula. Utilizing what he called “the usual paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling,” Dalí claimed that he made this painting with “the most imperialist fury of precision,” but only “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.”