At Large  July 13, 2023  Megan D Robinson

Salvador Dalí's 'Melting Clocks' Is a Perfect Hot Summer Painting

Given anonymously. 162.193. © 2021 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí.

Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Oil on canvas. 9 1/2 x 13 in.(24.1 x 33 cm).

As temperatures rise to summer highs, one artwork seems to encapsulate our collective torpor better than most: Salvador DalÍ’s The Persistence of Memory. The iconic 1931 work depicts a series of clock faces that appear to be melting in a seaside landscape hauntingly barren except for a leaf-less tree, a couple of simple architectural structures, and a distorted, globular form resembling the face of a sleeping human with incredibly long eyelashes.

Instantly recognizable because of its widespread cultural impact, the beautifully bizarre painting has come to epitomize the Surrealist movement and is arguably the most famous work by Dalí, the artist most closely associated with the movement. Often referred to as Melting Clocks, The Soft Watches or The Melting Watches, The Persistence of Memory has been referenced and parodied in art, literature, and popular culture for nearly a century, and continues to inspire contemporary artists.

Salvador Dalí photographed in 1939. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

One of Dalí’s earliest Surrealist paintings, it was inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch and Giorgio de Chirico and Dalí is said to have mined his own psychological conflicts and phobias for artistic inspiration. 

The painting is an excellent example of Dalí’s obsession with juxtaposing hard and soft qualities such as the sharply rendered cliffs of the Catalonian coast contrasted with the softly oozing clocks. One clock hangs limply from an apparently dead olive tree branch, another slides down the edge of a block-like structure and yet another flops over the cheekbones of the monstrous humanoid organism (which may or may not be Dalí’s self-portrait), which is itself draped over a rocky outcropping, creating a sense of unreality, capturing how dreams can feel both anchored and fluid. 

According to Dalí, who used what he called the “paranoiac critical method” whereby he deliberately induced hallucinations to access his subconscious, the clocks were inspired by visions he had after eating Camembert cheese.

Julie Curtiss and Anton Kern Gallery

Julie Curtiss, No place like home, 2017.

Highly influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, Dalí created a rich iconography. Some of his favorite themes were death and decay, erotic desire and sexuality, metamorphosis and spirituality. This phantasmagorical painting is rife with symbolic imagery such as a brass pocket-watch covered with ants, which Dalí frequently used to represent decay. The ants grotesquely collecting on the metallic surface add to the oddity of the scene while hinting at death and the end of time. The three clock-faces limply draped across various surfaces could signify the mutability of temporal reality, and indicate experiences of the past, present and future. The rectangular mirror-like object in the background reflecting the sky could signify the conscious mind, and the small object near the shoreline appears to be an egg, a common symbol of rebirth and renewal.  

The focus on psychoanalysis and dream-like imagery has inspired many artists working today such as Glenn Brown and Julie Curtiss.

For a painting that looms so large in cultural consciousness, The Persistence of Memory is surprisingly small. It measures approximately 9.5 x 13 inches—only slightly bigger than a typical sheet of notebook paper. And while it is worth some $150 million today, it was sold for a mere $250 around the time of its first exhibition in 1932 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. The painting was anonymously donated to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) a few years later and remains in its collection today. 

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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