Let’s discover the symbols in the best known Surrealist painting of them all, painted by Salvador Dalì in 1931 and now to be found in hundreds if not thousands of tattoos
It is said that he painted it in just two hours. And it’s likely the truth because genius is often a spark that starts a fire. A fire that devours everything in its path. A blindingly brilliant idea destined to last forever. The relativity of time.
This isThe Persistence of Memory (original title in Catalan: La Persistència de la Memòria), the little oil on canvas (just 24 cm long by 33 cm high) painted in 1931 by the Spanish artist Salvador Dalì.
The painting is currently in the collection of MOMA/Museum of Modern Art in New York where it is put on display every year..
MOMA bought the painting in 1934 from the gallery owner Julien Levy for what was even at the time the paltry sum of 350 dollars. Levy had bought it himself some years earlier directly from the artist who accepted as he was short of cash
One of the best known works of Surrealism, The Persistence of Memory depicts a desolate landscape (inspired by the Catalan beach of Port Lligat in Costa Brava) with these iconic and unforgettable mysterious melting clocks.
Decidedly fluid clocks as definitive symbols of the elasticity and relativity of time. Time, which is turn is stupidly regulated by rigid human mechanics.
The same relativity which just a few years before Dalì painted his masterpiece, Albert Einstein had explained in an interview through an amusing paradox: “When you sit with a pretty girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That is relativity”. And who are we to contradict the distinguished physicist, who was German by birth, Swiss by adoption?
Dalì, as already mentioned, painted this picture in just two hours, suffering at the time from a debilitating headache. Unable to go to the cinema with his wife Gala, the Catalan genius was inspired that evening by the “hypersoftness” (his words) of a cheese – a camembert – that he was having for dinner. Which is where he came up with this groundbreaking philosophical reflection on the incessant flow of time.
Salvador Dalì recounts the story himself in his book Secret Life” with plenty of curious, revealing detail: “Together with dinner, we had eaten an extremely tasty camembert and, after the others had all gone, I sat there at the table at length, meditating on the philosophical problem of hypersoftness posed by that cheese. I stood up, went to my studio as was my habit, turned on the light to take one last look at the painting I was working on. It was a view of Port Lligat”.
“The cliffs,” continued Dalì “lay in the light before the dawn, transparent, melancholy, and in the foreground there was an olive tree with its branches cut, without any leaves. I knew that the atmosphere I had managed to create in that painting was to serve as the background to an idea, but I had no idea what that would be. I was about to switch off the light when suddenly, I saw the solution. I saw two soft clocks, one hanging miserably from the branch of the olive tree. Despite the fact that my headache was so intense now that it was torturing me, I hastily prepared my palette and set to work. When, two hours later, Gala came back from the cinema, the painting, which would become one of the most famous, was finished.”
And so, it has been admired for the past ninety years (almost). And the viewer’s eye is caught by those three soft clocks, almost liquefied, which are the absolute protagonists of the scene. The first, in the foreground, with a fly on it; the second as if it were hanging from the only remaining branch of the dry tree on the parallelepiped; the third wrapped around an embryonic figure which is melting on the ground. A fourth watch (the only one which has remained in a solid state) is lying on the parallelepiped and is covered with black ants.
Clear metaphors, all four, of a time which cannot now or in the future (the fourth watch) be imprisoned by any ticking or the arid processes of mechanical measurement. A time which will always be soft, blinding, liquefied and fluid – in a word: relative – in the memory of whoever contemplates it. Meaning all of us.