Between the horrors of World War I and the misery and death of World War II, writers and artists searched for answers and ways to find some peace of mind. With the introduction of Sigmund Freud's theory of the subconscious, a group of painters hoped that they could find these answers within the genius of their own minds. Perhaps, under the layers of rational thought and visions of the real world in front of them, they could reunite conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world of existence in "an absolute reality, a surreality." As Freud once noted: "A dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is not opened." Surrealism offered the opportunity to push the envelop and find the truth. Thus, rose the very nontraditional artistic movement of Surrealism, which is clearly exemplified by Salvador Dali's painting, "Persistence of Memory. Understanding this piece of artwork and Dali, himself, is easier when having a basic understanding of the ideas behind Surrealism.
It is not surprising that Dali was involved with the unorthodox artistic approach of Surrealism was not surprising. Born in 1904 in Figueras, Spain, nine months after his brother, by the same name, died, Dali's parents believed he was actually a reincarnation of his deceased sibling. The death haunted him throughout his whole life. During Dali's childhood, Dadaism, a pessimistic and negative form of art -- was popular. These artists and writers believed that a society that could produce the First World War was an evil society whose philosophy and culture should be totally destroyed because it was socially and morally bankrupt.
Andre Breton, a French doctor and author who had fought in the trenches in World War I, was pained to see such a dismal type of art when a much more uplifting kind was needed. Surrealism, or a closer connection with the subconscious, Breton believed, would be a better approach. It would allow individuals to go into their dreams where life seemed more functional. This is how he explained it in his first writings about the subject of Surrealism:
What I most enjoyed contemplating about a dream is everything that sinks back below the surface in a waking state, everything I have forgotten about my activities in the course of the proceeding day. Can't the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life? Are these questions the same in one case as in the other and, in the dream, do these questions already exist? Is the dream any less restrictive or punitive than the rest? I am growing old and, more than that reality to which I believe I subject myself, it is perhaps the dream, the difference with which I treat the dream, which makes me grow old.
Let me come back to the waking state. I have no choice but to consider it a phenomenon of interference. Not only does the mind display, in this state, a strange tendency to lose its bearings (as evidence by the slips and mistakes the secrets of which are just beginning to be revealed to us), but, what is more, it does not appear that, when the mind is functioning normally, it really responds to anything but the suggestions which come to it from the depths of that dark night to which I commend it.
Breton thus defined Surrealism as the "psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern."
The Surrealists saw beauty in strangeness, in memories, in coincidences. The poet Isidore Ducasse, who lived in the mid-1800s, known as the Comte de Lautreamont, wrote the following words in the poem "Songs of Maldoror," which were later believed to sum up the movement of Surrealism:
Beautiful, as the chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.
When Dali was a young man living in Paris and met Breton, he immediately gravitated toward this new surreal methodology. He had been painting for years, and felt very comfortable with the style. After Dali began to paint in the Surrealism fashion, he began to call his work the Paranoiac Critical Method and later the Oniric-Critical method. As an paranoiac, the artist could delve into the unconscious layers of the mind and let these internal images free themselves and be depicted on canvas, analyzed and understood.
Further, with the paranoiac-critical methodology, Dali could study everyday objects and attach a subjective meaning to them based on personal obsessions, fears and concerns. The result was an innovative and intriguing visual presentation of reality. Dali also gave this approach a different twist, with his link to the paranoiac-critical method. With paranoia, which was characterized by chronic delusions and hallucinations, he said he had the ability of looking at any object and seeing another. Dali, who was known for his eccentricities, boasted that he was not paranoid, but was able to place himself in a paranoid state. He said he chose to do it the hard way -- by actually going mad, rather than simulating madness through chemical means. "I don't take drugs. I am drugs," he once explained.
One of Dali's first paintings, in 1939, "The Lugubrious Game," clearly demonstrated the completely different style for which he would long be famous. He began to join together the strange, hazy and bizarre thoughts and inhibitions found within the mind. As a seeker of attention and the limelight, Dali enjoyed the reaction he received from Surrealism. Although he and Breton would soon dissolve their friendship, due to Dali's support of President Franco, it did not take long for the artist to gain his own following. He bragged that he even had the backing of Freud, who declared in 1938 that Dali was the only interesting case in a movement whose aims he confessed not to understand. Further, in the eyes of the public, Dali was increasingly becoming "the" Surrealist. He did everything possible, including excessive exhibitionism, to keep this reputation alive.
By the time that "Persistence of Memory" was painted in 1941, Dali was very comfortable both in his internal and outer-universe canvas worlds. The "Persistence of Memory" is one of Dali's paintings that has ironically persisted the longest in the minds of viewers. Many people who do not know him by other works, will quickly know that this painting is his.
In order to describe the oil painting "Persistence of Memory" to individuals who have never seen it, you will have to ask them to erase all mental images of the usual and normal. Here is a landscape scene that they would never see in real life -- only in their vivid imaginations and dreams. The best thing for them to do is close their eyes and listen as you offer a detailed description.
Imagine, a barren and void-of-human landscape at the seashore of Catalonia at Cape Creus in Spain, with its rugged rocks jutting up in the upper right background of the frame. This is not just any landscape, however. Rather, it is an alien terrain where nothing appears real. It is said that Dali got his inspiration for this work of art one hot August afternoon in 1931, when slipping a pencil under a piece of camembert cheese, which was warm and runny. The heat of the landscape in the painting is seen in the illuminated and melting images.
At first glance, the picture looks like an actual photograph, because of everything being in focus and of the layout and composition. Dali even called it a "hand-painted dream photograph." However, at second glance, due to its incongruity, you know that it could not be anything real.
The scene of the painting is dominated by the earth tones and shades of oranges and rust of the land and yellow of the cliffs, along with dark shadowed areas of brown and black and brilliance blue of sky. The horizon stretches backward, moving into infinity. The contrast throughout of soft and hard, dark and bright, straight and wavy, near and far provides no anchor, no structure. Overall, the work leaves you with a sad feeling and you are left unsettled.
In the foreground lies a formless self-portrait of Dali, organic yet lifeless. It lies on the ground, with a watch melting over it. The painting, in fact, has three melting watches, which have become the trademark of Dali's work and appear in other artwork as well. By making the watches melt, Dali is refuting rational thought and softening and making fluid the hard quality of time. The world of logic, of being awake, depends on orderly measurable units of time. In the dream state, there is no reality of time and clocks no longer work. One…