The Persistence of Memory is a 1931 painting by artist Salvador Dalí and one of his most recognizable works in the world.
First shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1932, the painting has been in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City since 1934 which received it from an anonymous donor. It is widely recognized and frequently referenced in popular culture.
The well-known surrealist piece introduced the image of the soft melting pocket watch. It epitomizes Dalí’s theory of “softness” and “hardness”, which was central to his thinking at the time. As Dawn Ades wrote, “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order.” This interpretation suggests that Dalí was incorporating an understanding of the world introduced by Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.
The orange clock at the bottom left of the painting is covered in ants. Dalí often used ants in his paintings as a symbol of decay. It is possible to recognize a human figure in the middle of the composition, in the strange “monster” that Dalí used in several contemporary pieces to represent himself – the abstract form becoming something of a self-portrait, reappearing frequently in his work. The figure can be read as a “fading” creature, one that often appears in dreams where the dreamer cannot pinpoint the creature’s exact form and composition. One can observe that the creature has one closed eye with several eyelashes, suggesting that the creature is also in a dream state. The iconography may refer to a dream that Dalí himself had experienced, and the clocks may symbolize the passing of time as one experiences it in sleep or the persistence of time in the eyes of the dreamer.
The Persistence of Memory employs “the exactitude of realist painting techniques” to depict imagery more likely to be found in dreams than in waking consciousness.
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