The Persistence of Memory

This is a very unusual type of post for me as I’m normally the math/science person, not the artistic one. But without further ado, here is Dalí’s famous time painting.

The Persistence of Memory, 1931

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Salvador Dalí

The image you see above is one of the iconic symbols of the 20th century. When I first saw it, in an art class back in elementary school, I thought it was stupid and just like all other paintings. But within the last couple years I’ve experienced a shift, not necessarily away from the sciences, but towards a real fascination with the humanities and arts. Philosophy is extremely important to me, and I see a lot of it in this work. (On the other hand, I’m not even going to try to run a real artistic analysis of the painting; I think that would be missing the big picture.)

What is so special about this work? My opinion: This painting epitomizes the human struggle with time. Not necessarily against time—rather, of time. Dalí realized that we had lived too long in a world in which time was an absolute definer, a Newtonian clockwork that controlled us with two rigid, always-moving hands. In this painting, time, represented by the deformed clocks, is no longer a straight issue: it bends, curves, and is hung in meaningless places. There is a contrast between things of human design, i.e. the clocks and rectangular objects on the left, and things of natural design, i.e. the tree stump, the mountains, the sky. The objects of the first group are futile in the picture; the objects in the latter group are hopeful (for a lack of a better word, which I cannot think of).

Also interesting is why the title is “The Persistence of Memory” when it seems to deal with time. The obvious explanation is of course that memory becomes confused, uncertain, nonsensical over time. But moreover, I see the painting as a play on time itself, the philosophical entity behind time, rather than its outer appearance. Thus, the content and form of the painting work together and build on each other, much like the electric and magnetic fields in an electromagnetic wave. Okay, bad analogy for liberal arts majors, but physicists, you should understand.

Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion

Soft Watch at the Moment of First Explosion, 1954, Salvador Dalí

This one is dazzling.

About Sean Li

A student at Cornell University.
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