Understanding the Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalii

The Persistence of Memory (1931), by the Spanish artist and Surrealist icon Salvador Dali, is among the few masterpieces of art that are instantly recognizable and that may be evoked by the mere mention of two simple words: melting clocks. Its recurrence and influence on popular culture has something to do with that. Its creator, the great and prolific Dali, may be the number one reason why this iconic painting made art history in the first place, but one thing is certain: the work managed to capture the very essence of surrealism.

What Does the Persistence of Memory Mean

Like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), The Persistence of Memory attracts tourists from every corner of the globe to the Museum of Modern Art as a piece that has evolved into a symbol of an entire ideology. 

The surrealist perspective transforms an unearthly landscape into reality with terrifying authenticity. This is the way a timepiece would melt if you tried to imagine it. It would sag, stretch, and change shape. But the clocks would keep ticking relentlessly.

 What Is the Melting Clock Painting Called?

Often referred to as The Soft Watches, The Melting Watches, or Melting Clocks, the painting’s actual name is The Persistence of Memory. Close to 100 years after it was created, The Persistence of Memory remains a visualization of a great artist’s unconstrained and unbridled vision. 

What Does the Persistence of Memory Mean?

The Persistence of Memory is a captivating, bizarre painting that is open to interpretation. The painting immediately plunges the viewer into a dreamlike, strange parallel universe. According to Dali himself, the painting is about cheese melting on a hot day. But it is most often interpreted as the painter’s ferociously precise commentary on the influence of rapid scientific advances.

Paris: Where Surrealism Was Born

In contrast to the dominant Enlightenment ideas that dominated literature and the arts of the 17th and 18th centuries, the poet Andre Breton developed his Surrealist manifesto in 1924. 

Breton believed that the dominance of rationalism and overemphasized objectivity had resulted in mental poverty and stifled creativity. Irrational thoughts and surreal imagery could have been the remedy to undo the damage done by Enlightenment.

Psychoanalysis and Diving Deep into the Unconscious

Breton and other Surrealists were ardent admirers of the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalytic personality theories provided the avant-guard collective of authors and painters with a compass for their artistic endeavors. Such artists would partake in a pure state of artistic creation that had not been tainted by society’s standards or insecurities by tapping into the subconscious repository of thoughts and ideas, recollections, dreams, and impulses not controlled by rational cognizance.

Like Dali, other painters of the Surrealist era found motivation in their dreams. Since dreams are a product of the collective unconscious, Dali resorted to sleeping as the engine for his work. He had a reputation for taking power naps on a regular basis as opposed to a long and peaceful slumber. 

Dali was able to momentarily enter a hyper-associative state after his short yet effective naps, which facilitated the fusion of peculiar associations and ideas.


Inspired and driven by Futurists’ tendencies, many Surrealists chose automatism, a manner of creating art that welcomed coincidence and sought to erase the conscious part of the mind, as a way of accessing knowledge hidden underneath the shell of consciousness.  The artists deliberately eliminated as much of their authority from the artistic procedure as they could by splashing paint, letting things fall, and also being put at random, then doodling around in the emergent structures and spontaneous arrangements. 

As a response, artists created pieces like Andr Masson’s Battle of Fishes (1926), a multimedia installation portraying an underwater battle royal between fish. The painting features sand scarlet splatters of paint applied straight from the tube, representing fish blood. 

Salvador Dali, a Pioneer of Surrealism


Dali started learning and showing his work as an artist at a young age. He was born in 1904 in Figueres, Spain. Despite being accepted into the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid at the age of 17, he was later expelled, but not for lack of talent or hard work. It did not exactly help that he showed disdain for his teachers and failed to pass his final exam.

He soon recognized that Paris was where he belonged. He admired Pablo Picasso, a fellow Spaniard whom he encountered in Paris in 1926. On yet another journey to Paris, he met Andr Breton and started working with the French Surrealists in 1929. 

In the following year, while traveling to Cadaques with a company of Surrealists, he met Gala, a married mother who would become his future wife. At the time, Gala was married to Paul Éluard. From that moment on, Dali was smitten with Gala, in spite of her chronic infidelity. 

Filmmaking and Exile

While working on literature and film ventures with the other members of the collective, Dali produced several of his best-known recognizable artworks throughout the 1930s. Despite the fact that Dali never stopped making Surrealist art, Breton kicked him out of the group well before the decade was through because of his increasingly strongly fascist-leaning political views. In 1940, he and Gala relocated to New York City, where they remained until 1948. In America, Dali created jewelry, devised theater setups for the ballet, and connected with Philippe Halsman, a photographer who snapped imaginative staged pictures of Dali.

Dali made the most of his stardom throughout the later period of his life, participating in commercials promoting everything from Old Angus whiskey to Lanvin chocolate on The Dick Cavett Show. He also dabbled in illustrating works of literature from the past, including the Bible and classics like Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland.

According to his contemporaries, Dali had an eccentric personality; his desire for attention was apparent. Demonstrated by antics like wandering around Paris with an anteater on a collar and attending an exposition premiere in 1936 while wearing a full deep-sea diving costume, which nearly caused him to suffocate. Dali also openly declared himself a genius in a book titled “Diary of a Genius” in 1963. Several of these antics appeared to overwhelm the gravity of his work, and for a while, in the years leading up to and immediately after Dalis’ death in 1989, experts appeared to disregard a significant portion of the artist’s body of work by asserting that his artistic career peaked in the 1920s and 1930s. The master surrealist has since earned respect back, and his legacy will go on forever.

The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory

Dali revised The Persistence of Memory a little more than thirty years later with The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory. This wasn’t the last time Dali would employ a number of these elements in his compositions (1954). In order to convey the much more recent fear of nuclear disaster, the artist updated his 1931 painting. 

Dali attributed artwork created in the early 1950s as belonging to his Rhinocerotic phase, which features rhinoceros horns that are reminiscent of subsurface missiles underwater.

The Legacy of The Persistence of Memory Lives On

In 1931, while Dali was only 28 years old and the Surrealist movement was at its pinnacle, he created The Persistence of Memory. He had already formalized his Surrealist affiliation at this point and perfected his paranoiac-critical artistic process. Dali would use this technique to put himself into a euphoric trance that let him escape from the real world. He hoped that once he had been free, the inspiration for his artwork could start to come to him.

The Persistence of Memory is a relatively modest piece of art with a significant place in art history and popular culture. Merely a few inches separate the painting from a regular sheet of computer paper. Although the artwork appears to be solidly grounded in an imaginative realm, Dali’s native Catalonia’s coast has been distinguished by the cliffs in the foreground. The scenario is perplexing, with the cliffs adding a perception of reality but deformed clocks melting on a withered tree, an enigmatic framework, and a flesh-colored indistinct shape (identified as a self-portrait of the artist in profile). Ants move forward towards a closed watch as though it were flesh, and the scene seems unnervingly motionless.

Dali asserted that he was unaware of the work’s significance. This has made it easy for academics and art enthusiasts to assign the picture new layers of meaning. Although it is generally accepted that the clocks represent the omnipresence embodiment of time, Dali insisted that they represent a French cheese instead, referring to them as the camembert of time. When Dali manipulates mechanical or hard items, they become limp. Although society’s waking hours are dictated by time, dreams and memories frequently bend it. The gathering ants (as well as the lone fly poised on a clock) give the impression that they may be decomposing flesh, evoking death and degradation. Similar to how things frequently are in dreams, these items are recognizable yet altered and pulled out of perspective. Upon the first view, the face-like shape that is dozing in the middle of the piece resembles a bone-dry cow head. Lengthy eyelashes, a nose, and even a glimpse of a curled mustache start to emerge on the skull over time.

dali young

The Persistence of Memory was mysteriously donated to MoMA in 1934 by an unidentified donor, and it has remained there ever since. It was not long after the artwork’s debut at MoMA enabled it to establish itself as one of the gallery’s key draws and would always attract a large audience. 

Since that day, cameo reenactments on The Simpsons and Sesame Street have furthered promoted the world-famous work. In the first one, Marge Simpson’s face melts off a platform, her blue hair pools on the surface, and a strawberry-frosted donut attracts ants. In the Sesame Street edition, a sleeping Cookie Monster stands in for Dali’s self-portrait, and dissolving cookies stand in for the recognizable melting clocks.

Even Though the Persistence of Memory was one of Dali’s earlier works, the way the surrealist principles were implemented within it made it a career-defining piece. Breton’s Surrealist manifesto held that surrealism is based on a conviction in the exceptional reality of some previously overlooked connotations, the omnipotence of dream worlds, and the dispassionate game of consciousness. Dalis’ legendary work has that dreamlike quality that continues to fascinate and intrigue viewers to this day, and so it will remain well into the future.