The Persistence of Memory: Modern Classic by Salvador Dali

The Illustration of the Movement

The history of art consists of several crucial moments which resulted in several stunning epochs. Every epoch can be regarded as a reflection of the development of human society. People have revealed their major aspirations in numerous works of art. Apart from this, in the majority of cases works of art inspired people to develop and long for something better. Thus, Surrealism can be regarded as one of the most individualistic and really inspiring art movements. Admittedly, Dali is one of the most important figures within the movement. Many of his works can be regarded as iconic artworks which reveal the essence of the art movement. Of course, The Persistence of Memory is one of the best known works which is often regarded as one of the most conspicuous illustrations of the movement. The picture can also be regarded as a symbol of the first part of the twentieth century when people were overwhelmed by ideas, movements and theories. Surrealism and Dali’s painting was a kind of liberation from all conventions and haunting ideologies.

Origins of Surrealism and Its Essence

Surrealism dates back to the times when the World War I devastated Europe. Paris has always been one of the main centers of artistic activity. However, due to the devastating war and its horrible aftermaths, artists had to abandon the glorious place.[1] Various thinkers tended to proclaim the importance of self-reflection. Many people understood that there was something wrong with conventions which had led to the World War I. People were confused. They were at a loss.

Thus, Breton, who was one of the most important figures in the development of Surrealism, claimed that artists had to create works “outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupation”.[2] Admittedly, people were disoriented and that made them focus on their selves. Artists also acknowledged the delusions of the beginning of the twentieth century. Such notions as progress and development were seen as something rather wrongful as people saw that strive for progress had led to the horrible war. Some artists managed to understand the reason for such a failure and they managed to come up with a specific solution. They claimed that people had to learn more about themselves. Of course, works by Freud and Jung contributed greatly to the development of such ideas. Some artists believed that it was essential to understand peculiarities of human’s mind, soul and/or consciousness in order to start the quest for the true progress and development. Dali claimed that Surrealism is the only way to develop as any artist should understand that this movement no longer involved the representation of the external world, but that of the intimate and personal world of the artist.[3]

Thus, surrealists were eager to share their dreams and images produces by their consciousness. They saw these images as a way to explore human nature.

Importantly, this movement was highly criticized by many. For instance, some called Surrealism “assassination of painting”.[4] Many critics and artists claimed that surrealists often tended to create works characterized by “morbid sadism, pederasty, persistent filth, the whole stench of drugs and brothels”.[5] Admittedly, some works did have elements of vicious creations. However, many surrealistic works became great inspirations for other artists and many people.

Even Dali had many ‘crazy’ works but some of his works like The Persistence of Memory are inspiring. More so, this work is seen as one of the most meaningful masterpieces of the twentieth century as it helps to open up new horizons and it helps to take a closer look at people’s place in this world.

Salvador Dali

In the first place, it is necessary to focus on some facts from the artist’s biography to understand his famous work better. Salvador Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres.[6] It is possible to state that he was surrounded by love of women (his mother, his grandmother, his aunt). Thus, Salvador “was treated as a little king”.[7] This exclusive attention and treatment influenced greatly the artists and this influence can be traced in his later years. When the boy was sent to school, his life changed drastically. No one treated him as his women used to. Therefore, Salvador was rather a hermit. He spent most of his time dreaming and creating his own worlds.

Salvador Dali painted his first work at the age of ten.[8] This was an impressionistic work. It is also important to note that Salvador was afraid of his father who had a really hard character. Dali also found himself in a school where authority of the teacher was the basic law. These two facts could become preconditions for the development of the artist’s rebellious nature. Salvador often tried to disobey orders and rebel against any authority.   

Of course, the young artist could not but accept new ideas which reigned in the post-World War I world. Surrealistic ideas were accepted and developed by Dali who became one of the most important figures of the movement. The artist accepted the ideas concerning the rotting society of the world after the horrible war. He also believed that wrongful conventions had led the world to the disastrous war. Apart from this, the situation in Spain was also a kind of illustration of the wrongful order.[9] Dali witnessed the rise of fascist movement within his homeland. He understood that this order could only lead to even more disastrous changes in the society. Dali understood that people were led by delusive ideas which could result in self-destruction.

Of course, the artist also paid a lot of attention to Freud’s works which revealed the secrets of human mind. Dali also tried to explore his own self. He devoted a great deal of his works to the world of dreams and hallucinations. Dali worked out his own philosophy and technique which he himself called a “paranoiac and active advance of the mind”[10]. He admitted that there was some craziness in his works and any other surrealistic work. More so, he stated that the only difference between himself and a crazy man was that he was not crazy.[11] The artist once claimed: “I believe that the moment is near when by a procedure of active paranoiac thought it will be possible to systematize confusion and contribute to the total discrediting of the world of reality”.[12] It was in the late 1920s when Dali met his life-time partner Gala. This was the time when he painted one of his most famous works, The Persistence of Memory.

The Persistence of Memory

The Form

The Persistence of Memory was created in 1931. The painting is quite small as its dimensions are 24.1 x 33 cm. It is oil on canvas.[13] As has been mentioned above this piece is one of the most conspicuous surrealistic works. The work depicts several surrealistic objects. There is also a particular landscape in the background. Dali depicted his homeland, Figures, or the cliffs and the sea of Figueres, to be more precise. As for the surrealistic objects, these are several ‘soft’ watches, a surrealistic tree, insects and the artist’s profile (which is also revealed in a surrealistic manner). There is also a table or a box. Finally, there is a flat square blue surface in the background of the painting.

The artist uses quite mild colors to reveal his ideas. Blue and grey colors prevail. It is necessary to note that these colors reveal the atmosphere of a dream or hallucination perfectly well. The cliffs are depicted in bright yellow and grey colors, which make them, stand out. Remarkably, the cliffs are depicted in a very realistic manner. Again, this contributes greatly to the idea of dreaming as people see realistic images when dreaming.

Its Creation and Symbolism

The painting is often regarded as a result or the artist’s interest in psychology and his interest in the “concepts of soft and hard”.[14] Once Gala went to the cinema and Dali was alone at home. He looked at some “gooey cheese and thought of things that were very soft”.[15] The artist then looked at one of his unfinished paintings. The painter “suddenly envisioned two soft watches”.[16] Dali painted the two watches and “was very pleased with the result”.[17]

It is important to note that this painting like no other fulfills major objectives of Surrealism, i.e. it makes people self-reflect. When looking at the painting, one cannot but think of relativity of time and the relativity of the world. People are made to think about the meaning of their existence. Every viewer sees specific messages communicated by the surrealistic world created by Dali. Honour and Fleming provide a very interesting interpretation of the work:

Time stands still within the dreamer’s mind, as in Freud’s timeless unconscious, so that in Dali’s arid, airless landscape the metal watches go limp and stop forever. They even melt and decompose, attracting iridescent insects as they take on organic shapes such as that of the watch drooping like some rotting fruit on the bare branch of a dead tree.[18]

It is necessary to point out that the painting is full of conspicuous as well as covert symbols. Thus, the watches reveal relativity of time and space. The artist depicts his vision of time which is soft and melting. Dali breaks conventions and instead of depicting time in a form of some kind of sandglass, the artist stresses that time is melting.

The profile that is depicted in the center of the painting stands for the human being. Of course, this is Dali’s profile as surrealists have revealed their inner world and their vision. However, Dali depicts himself as one of millions of people who also have to follow universal rules. Thus, the image in the center of the painting reveals Dali’s ideas concerning self. He understands that people’s existence is also relative. Basically, people do not live, they melt in the melting world. The profile is often compared to a snail. Thus, Dali depicts himself in his shell claiming that all people have shells of their faces-masks. The melting shape of the profile also reveals people being amorphous and, at the same time, the image stands for people’s ability to ‘acquire’ any shape.

This idea is especially suggestive in terms of surrealistic perspective. Surrealists of the beginning of the twentieth century believed that people were deceived by the wrongful order and delusive ideas. The surrealists also believed that people were overwhelmed by various ideas and conventions. Dali provides his own vision on the matter. He suggests that people are accustomed to certain abundance of influences and they can acquire any shape when necessary. The melting profile is a kind of illustration of a human who has to live in the ‘soft’ reality.

Dali also reveals the idea of a rotting society as he depicts his watches, which are attacked by insects, which is one of the signs of destruction, decomposition, decay. Dali saw the society as a rotting entity. The artist resorted to the image of insects in many of his works.[19] The Persistence of Memory could be no exception. Of course, the artist reveals his concerns about the rotting society in the painting which can be regarded as certain embodiment of Dali’s outlook.   


Dali is regarded as one of the most influential painters of the twentieth century. His works confirm that symbols could communicate important messages to viewers. Admittedly, The Persistence of Memory can be regarded as an illustration of the manifesto of surrealists. The painting reveals the artist’s vision of the world, his vision of himself in the world. The work also reveals his own world. Besides, Dali’s famous work The Persistence of Memory also reveals people’s disorientation which was a characteristic feature of the society between the two World Wars.

The Persistence of Memory


Fanes, Felix. Salvador Dali. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

Greeley, Robin Adele. Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming. A World History of Art. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005.

LaFountain, Marc J. Dali and Postmodernism: This Is not an Essence. New York, NY: Sunny Press, 1997.

Ross, Michael Elsohn. Salvador Dal and the Surrealists: Their Lives and Ideas: 21 Activities.Chicago, Il: Chicago Review Press, 2003.

“The Collection.” MoMA. Accessed April 30, 2012.

[1]. Marc J. LaFountain, Dali and Postmodernism: This Is not an Essence (New York, NY: Sunny Press, 1997), 84.

[2]. Quoted in Robin Adele Greeley, Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 8.

[3]. Felix Fanes, Salvador Dali (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 82.

[4]. Quoted in Felix Fanes, Salvador Dali (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 82.

[5]. Ibid., 82.

[6]. Michael Elsohn Ross, Salvador Dal and the Surrealists: Their Lives and Ideas: 21 Activities (Chicago, Il: Chicago Review Press, 2003), 5.

[7]. Ibid., 6.

[8]. Ibid., 11.

[9]. Robin Adele Greeley, Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 51.

[10]. Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005), 810.

[11]. Ibid., 810.

[12]. Ibid., 810.

[13]. “The Collection,” MoMA, accessed April 30, 2012,

[14]. Michael Elsohn Ross, Salvador Dal and the Surrealists: Their Lives and Ideas: 21 Activities (Chicago, Il: Chicago Review Press, 2003), 67-68.

[15]. Michael Elsohn Ross, Salvador Dal and the Surrealists: Their Lives and Ideas: 21 Activities (Chicago, Il: Chicago Review Press, 2003), 68.

[16]. Ibid., 68.

[17]. Ibid., 68.

[18]. Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005), 810.

[19]. “The Collection,” MoMA, accessed April 30, 2012,