‘Persistence of Memory’ Will Always be Most Famous Dali Image
By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dali Historian
I think it’s fitting to ring in the New Year by re-visiting where it really all began for Salvador Dali in terms of the single painting that propelled him to ultimate fame. The one that will always remain his best-known work: “The Persistence of Memory” of 1931.
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I don’t think there’s any question that “The Persistence of Memory” – often referred to as simply “The Melting Clocks” or “The Soft Watches” – is the most famous surrealist image ever created. I’m not reticent to suggest, moreover, that it may be the most renowned painting in all of the 20th century.
“Persistence” was painted when Dali was a young man; he was just 27! Many are surprised to realize that. Just as they’re surprised to discover that, despite the work’s larger than life image and impact on art in general and surrealism in particular, it’s a very small painting – perhaps the size of your average laptop computer screen. Here’s a photo that puts that fact into clear focus:
I’ve seen this iconic work several times, at its permanent home in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in several exhibitions, and honestly it never fails to take one’s breath away. I think there are two chief reasons for that. One is the emotional experience itself, of coming upon “the great one.” The work that literally defines the art and mystique of Salvador Dali. The work that’s emblematic like no other of what he most famously painted – and how he painted it.
Which brings me to my second chief reason why “Persistence of Memory” is breathtaking: the painting is jewel-like in its exquisite technique. Art enthusiasts learned early on that, no matter what detractors might have averred about Salvador Dali the showman, Salvador Dali the painter was unquestionably a modern-day master.
Of course, the meaning of the soft watches continues to confound, despite countless interpretations and analyses. Could they mean time seemed to stand still in Port Lligat, Spain, where Dali and Gala lived virtually all their lives? Could they symbolize Albert Einstein’s then-new theory of time’s relativity and flexibility? Did the soft watches convey Dali’s disdain for mechanical things and the pressure of time itself on a time-obsessed society?
And how important was the inspiration Dali said he gained, while painting this work, of a nearby clump of Camembert cheese melting in the day’s hot sun?
Or, was it all just a way of expressing the inexplicable nature of the dream world?
Even more perplexing, perhaps, is why Dali chose to title the work as he did. We know that, when Dali revealed the painting to Gala for her reaction, she remarked, “Once a person sees it, they will never forget it.” Is this the idea of one’s memory persisting?
(While they may never forget the image, remembering the painting’s correct title is another story. Sometime after Dali died in 1989, the popular TV game show, Jeopardy!, featured an entire category on Dali. The last clue was a picture of the “Persistence of Memory,” but the contestant failed to properly provide the right title.)
What we know for sure is that all manner of parodies and permutations seem to emerge almost daily, in honor of this unforgettable Salvador Dali masterpiece. Here are just a few of the countless take-offs on Dali’s most universally recognized painting – in addition to his own re-interpretation of it in his 1954 “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”: