The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali

The Persistence of Memory

"The Persistence of Memory" is perhaps the most famous painting by Salvador Dali, better known under the "popular" name "Soft Watches". When, in the  "hungry year" of 1931, the artist painted this canvas, which is by no means impressive in size (24 X 33 cm), he probably did not even imagine that the image of his "soft watches" would become known to every inhabitant of the Earh, including  the newborn and people infinitely far from art.


We mentioned the "hungry year" for a reason. For a better understanding of each and every piece of art by Salvador Dali, it is always important to know when, under what circumstances, this or that picture was painted. Why?

The answer is because every painting, sculpture or surrealictic object created by Salvador Dali is Dali himself, that very set of his views, thoughts, beliefs, phobias, obsessions, fantasies, financial and everyday circumstances at a particular moment of his life. Actually, the total stock of his works forms the complete biography of the Catalan artist captured by means of art.

Let us emphasize one tiny but prominent detail - a particular work relates to a specific moment of his biography, because in the life of Salvador Dali, all these "thoughts, views and circumstances" were constantly and rapidly changing beyond recognition - with the same delightful ease with which his "soft watch " changes its shape.

In 1931, Dali was expelled from his father’s house for his connection with Gala - the artist’s father categorically did not accept his son’s chosen one - a stranger, alien and rather "elderly", from the point of view of Salvador's father, a woman of dubious moral qualities, if not stronger.

Let us remind you that Salvador, who rebelled against his father's oppression, was not only "expelled", but also deprived of material support. At that time, Dali and Gala had to literally survive in a fishing hut on the very edge of the Catalan world - in the village of Port Lligat.

Subsequently, this hut will become the nucleus of the amazing house of Dali, and the landscapes of Port Lligat and Cape Creus, captured in numerous paintings by Dali, will be recognized by the whole world. But this  would  become true much later - and then one could only dream of it.

Then, in 1930, El Salvador and Gala were experiencing an unsettling time of great hopes and little cash. Sometimes, according to Dali's recollections, there was no money in the household at all, and he and his wife enjoyed every little thing - such as food, bought with borrowed 20 pesetas.

In a sense, it was food, according to the recollections of Dali himself, that became the prototype of his soft watches. Once friends came to them from Gala, and after an unexpectedly plentiful lunch, the crown of which was a delicious Camembert, the only event available in these wild lands was planned - a trip to the cinema, located 4 km away, in the wonderful fishing town of Cadaqués.

Dali refused to go to the cinema - he had a terrible migraine, which happened extremely rarely, and he did not feel able to get out of the house somewhere. After everyone had left, he sat for a while at the table, watching the half-eaten Camembert melt, swelling in the warm rays of the evening sun, then got up and went to the bedroom.

On the way, the artist decided to look into the studio for a second to glimpse the canvas on which he was working at that moment: a small landscape with views of the cliffs of Cape Creus and a dry olive tree in the foreground on the left.

The landscape, permeated with soft evening light, was good, but Dali, according to the artist himself, felt that the picture was missing something: a unifying idea, an image that would tie the disparate objects together and give the canvas completeness - but this image stubbornly did not find.

Dali turned to turn off the light, then looked at the canvas again - and saw! I saw that very soft watch melting and flowing in the same way as Camembert just melted and flowed! This idea captured him so much that he, forgetting about the headache, quickly prepared a palette and began painting, feverishly and recklessly trying to fix the marvellous image. Returning from the cinema, Gala had only one glance to understand: this time Salvador created a truly masterpiece!

She herself may not have been a creative person (although recently the point of view on this issue began to change), but she had an unmistakable instinct in matters of art. When Dali asked if she would remember this thing three years later, honestly and, as it turned out, quite prophetically, Gala answered: "Everyone who sees this picture once will never be able to forget it."

In the center of the picture's space is a strange, wretched and scary at the same time, amorphous-flowing creature with long eyelashes and closed eyes. This is one of the variants of the artist's self-portrait, which often appears in his works of that period ("The Great Masturbator", "Dark Game", "The Riddle of Desire: My Mother, My Mother ...").

This creature is not accidentally placed in the center: for us the world around exists only because we exist, and for the egocentric and egoist Dali, such an existentialist approach is completely normal and even the only correct one.

The creature is clearly in a state of sleep, which, according to the Freudian and surrealist Dali, is essential for creativity. By the way, to those who believe that this image was generated by the painful fantasy of young Dali, I responsibly declare that this is not so. The source of inexhaustible inspiration for Salvador Dali was the quite real cliffs of Cape Creus, next to which, in fact, Dali's house is located.

The cliffs of Cape Creus are truly amazing, and therefore, excuse the pun, it is not at all surprising that such a receptive young man like Dali found in them an infinite number of images for his paintings.

In particular, a boulder called "Cavallera", which can be seen in the photo, served as a prototype for Dali's self-portrait. But unconditional luck and the main find of the picture is, of course, the "soft watches" themselves. In the picture we see three pairs of melting clocks - precisely because, according to the generally accepted tradition, it is customary to divide time into Present, Past and Future.

But the soft, fluid form of the clock is Dali's statement that time perceived by us subjectively (otherwise we cannot perceive it) has the property of running at completely different speeds. Let me give you a simple example: imagine you have not been on vacation for a long time and are literally burning with the desire to quickly, finally, to leave the routine and jump on a plane that will take you to Barcelona. And there in Barcelona, as usual, there is a whole sea of unearthly pleasures that will not wait for your arrival!

As long as half a year is left before the coveted vacation, your time will flow at an average cruising speed, without giving you much trouble. But when the count goes on for days, then time will unbearably slow down and crawl with the speed of a dying snail. And then everything will happen, and finally, that wonderful vacation will come, two weeks of which will fly by for you like one sparkling day!


Dali's melting clocks is just about this: about the fact that in addition to the generally accepted time invented by people for the convenience of life, there is subjective time: our private and personal time that exists exclusively in our perception - and its course may coincide with the generally accepted one, or maybe on the contrary, it should be radically different from it.

By the way, the time "generally accepted" (time by agreement) is also presented in the picture - in the form of an onion clock, turned with the dial down. This dial turned down is not accidental - by doing so, Dali emphasizes all the vanity and unnecessary use of the generally accepted time - after all, it, by and large, does not exist.


Note: ants crawl on the back of this watch, in Dali's works they always symbolize the negative: rotting, decay, death. In the context of the painting "The Persistence of Memory" ants, of course, symbolize the all-consuming and indifferent course of physical time, which you know steadily strides forward, leaving behind mountains of skulls, erased from the face of the Earth by civilization and the ancient stone of ruins.

Everything passes, ends, perishes and collapses - from the insignificant human life to the whole Universe. At that time, the young Dali was often haunted by the fear of death - this meant that the artist had finally matured.


Do you know when a person becomes an adult? When he first realizes that he is not immortal. Immortality is the lot of happy children. Having matured, Dali, like all adults, lost his immortality, and perceived an ordinary clock as a countdown timer, into an elegant sarcophagus of which absolutely faceless and deadly identical seconds, minutes and hours of his life are squeezed and twisted into tight spirals of springs.

And each click of the arrow is another reminder of death. Click, click, click - with the gentle tinkle of a spring and the relentlessness of the executioner. As if death is walking in a distant corridor. Not from you - to you. And then the sound of these steps will come close to you, it will become unbearably loud, frightening, terrible - and you will die ...


But back to the soft watch: the clock-present, no doubt, is located closer to Dali himself, who is in a state of sleep. The clock-past hangs on a fragile branch of an old, surviving olive tree - but Dali placed the clock-future on the edge of the table - like some kind of daily bread, eagerly awaiting the artist's awakening.

 Creativity has always been such "spiritual bread" for Dali, and if we pay attention to the dial of the present clock, we will see a fly on it, in Dali's iconography always acting as a conductor of the divine energy of the sky - that is, inspiration.

Yes, it is: Dali will wake up with the first rays of the sun, as he actually did - perhaps it will be five minutes to seven - and, shining with inspiration, rushes to create.


At that time, the artist worked a lot, trying to somehow rectify the deplorable financial situation - and finally began to fully understand the full potential of the talent given to him by God. Dali was still poor and not very famous, but he already hoped to blow up the world of art with his painting, or rather, save it from inevitable degradation and death.

Dali's ambition, which he distinguished already in those years, is well known. Subsequently, he directly and without false modesty (and not without reason) called himself the savior of modern art - exactly to the extent that Jesus Christ was the savior of mankind.


Here we come to the solution to another image of the picture - an egg located at the very edge of the Ampordan plain, next to the cliffs of Cape Creus - that is, exactly where Dali was born. The egg is a well-known symbol of Christ the Savior (remember the Easter eggs), and in the context of the picture - the symbol of Dali the Savior, who is to become the "savior of modern art".

Even if this has not happened yet, but already in 1931 Dali is firmly convinced: very soon he, the "divine" Dali, will have to hatch out of the "ampurdan egg", soar to the heights of world fame and by his miraculous appearance, save contemporary art of total decay! (read the original text in Russian)

The author of the article is Sergei Zakharov, a writer and tour guide. When reprinting materials, please indicate the active link to the source. You can learn more about our books and buy them in the "Where and what to read" section. We invite you to our tours of the Dali museums in Catalonia. revealing secrets, debunking myths, telling the truth - we promise full and deep immersion in the amazing Universe of Salvador Dali!  

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