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The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí
(Spanish, 1904–1989)

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

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.”

An unreal, deceptive, or misleading appearance or image.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.

A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.

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.

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

In popular writing about psychology, the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings, etc., that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior (noun). The Surrealists derived much inspiration from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s theories on dreams and the workings of the subconscious mind.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

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

The shape or structure of an object.

The area of an image—usually a photograph, drawing, or painting—that appears closest to the viewer.

Freud and Dalí
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) founded psychoanalysis, revolutionizing the way people think about the mind with his theory of the subconscious. Salvador Dalí and the Surrealists were heavily influenced by Freud’s description of the subconscious as the division of the mind containing the sum of all thoughts and feelings that are not subject to a person’s perception or control but that often affect conscious thoughts and behavior. Freud asserted that dreams are coded messages from the subconscious. Dalí and the Surrealists sought to tap into their dreaming, subconscious mind and discover its revelations.

Madness to His Method?
Salvador Dalí induced himself to hallucinate in order to access his subconscious while making 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….” By rendering these images so meticulously, he fostered the illusion that they might exist in the real world. In his typically ironic way, he once proclaimed, “The only difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad.”

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The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904–1989)