Surrealism is present in both literature and art. It is a movement that has been influenced by Freudianism and seeks to express the imagination, as it is revealed in dreams, free of convention and conscious control of reason. It became the dominant movement in the 1920s and 30s, and it was practiced on an international level through various forms of expression.(1) Salvador Dali was one of the artists that predominated the movement. His painting, The Persistence of Memory, is an excellent example of the surrealist movement.
Salvador Dali was a Spanish surrealist painter in the 20th century. He was first influenced by futurism, which glorified the machine age, danger, and war.(2) By 1929, however, he had become a leader of the surrealist movement. In 1940, Dali escaped from the Nazi-occupied France and came to the United States. Here, he tried to create films, advertising, and ballet under the influence of surrealism. Dali was a multitalented artist with a fascinating imagination, and he left an incredible mark on contemporary culture.(3)
One of his most famous paintings is The Persistence of Memory, which was painted in 1931, near the beginning of his surrealist period.(4) He was just beginning to move into surrealism, so he still had a lot of changes ahead of him, but it is the beginning of a line of paintings that are very similar in style. It fits perfectly into the surrealist movement in that it depicts a hallucinatory dreamlike world with enigmatic objects that have hidden meanings.(5) It is a strange piece, and hard to understand without researching its background. There are many pieces of the painting to pay attention to. First of all, it the subjects at the forefront of the painting with a cliff in the background that overlooks a body of water; this is in the upper right-hand corner. The objects that are in this setting appear to be three melting watches; one draped over a tree-branch that is protruding from a solid block, one on the block itself, and one over what appears to be an amorphous head with a closed human eye painted on it and a neck trailing behind it. There is a fly standing on the clock that is draped over the edge of the block, and there is a pocket watch sitting nearby. There are ants crawling on the case of the pocket watch. Overall, the painting uses the elements of light, shape, and space in an interesting manner.
What is being depicted in this picture is a conglomeration of objects that give the viewer many associations to time, death, memory, desires, fears, and other such thoughts. Dali would create his paintings using a process that he called “paranoiac-critical”, which was a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based upon the interpretative-critical association of delirious phenomena”.(6) In a self-induced paranoia, he would begin a piece with a specific object in mind. He would then respond to that object with other objects, resulting in a strange image that expresses an irrational process, but releases the subconscious.(7) That was his main focus: the subconscious. For this painting in particular, Dali was looking at a plate of cheese during dinner one night and developed the idea of the melting clocks, which are the predominant figure of the piece.(8)
His use of light, shape, and space all contribute to his purpose. The light in the painting shows a specific time of day, most likely sunset. Being able to see that there is a specific time of day is interesting because of the watches, which give the impression that time is important to the piece, as well as the title, which uses the word ‘memory’, also indicating time. With time being such an important part of the interpretation of the piece, the light only serves to enhance it. Shape also serves the painting well; the strange shapes add an eerie feeling to the painting, and give it a dreamlike quality. This is an indication of the paranoid state that Dali was in while he created the piece, and it serves to help unlock the subconscious parts of the mind. As stated before, the element of space also has a dreamlike quality to it. We have a different concept of space in our dreams; things can be farther away than they would be in real life, or objects would be bigger, smaller, or harder to reach. The cliffs are off in the distance, indicating that they have some significance, but they are not at the forefront of the purpose. Light, shape, and space are all incorporated to serve the purpose of unlocking the inner subconscious of the human mind; they all give the painting an eerie, hallucinogenic quality that puts the viewer into the world of the subconscious, where normal objects are not what they seem and have deep significance.
The Persistence of Memory does not allow for specific interpretation, as surrealist paintings were typically hard to decipher, but it evokes many associations. One of the most obvious is the passage of time, which eventually leads to death—indicated by the melting clocks and watch. Janson’s History of Art says, “Dali has created a provocative image of mysterious objects that can be read as metaphors for the deepest desires, fears, and anxieties, especially sexual, of the mind, and that can unleash multiple interpretations from a viewer’s own subconscious”.(9) Surrealism came about in the period between the world wars and was similar in attitude to Dadaism. It was different, however, because it attempted to bring greater meaning to logic and reason by fusing reality with the subconscious. It was highly controversial. In the words of Anton Breton, another leader of Surrealism, the movement “…rests upon the belief in the higher reality of specific forms of associations, previously neglected, in the omnipotence of dreams, and in the disinterested play of thinking”.(10) Dali’s work played directly into this purpose.
Judging a piece of artwork like this from a Christian perspective, without deeming it to be bad, is difficult because it is strange and difficult to interpret. Perhaps it is best to judge it based on whether the purpose was good. In this case, the purpose of the artwork was to create a dreamlike atmosphere that unlocks parts of the human subconscious. God created human beings as highly complex and intellectual creatures, and the inner subconscious is worth exploring because it holds so many pieces of us as individuals that we often do not realize. Understanding ourselves and why we are the way we are gives us a better understanding of who God created us to be and what purpose He has for us. The purpose behind artwork is good, and not meant to corrupt the mind. Therefore, it is worth merit.