Salvador Dali was a Spanish surrealist painter. This is his immortal work, “La persistencia de la memoria” or “The Persistence of Memory.” He painted this work in 1931, at the age of 27. By 1920, Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity gained widespread acceptance in the physics community. I will explain the connection between relativity and this painting later in the post.
There are several timepieces in this picture. We are used to clocks and watches being firm and solid. Clocks that melt, droop, and fold in on themselves contradict everyday experience.
Melting clocks may represent the collapse of pre-modern notions of time in the face of the Theory of Special Relativity. A thorough explanation of the Theory of Special Relativity would take more space than I am willing to devote on this blog. But part of the theory is that as a person’s velocity approaches the speed of light, time appears to slow down from the perspective of a stationary observer. The idea that time might depend on one’s frame of reference shocked the world, though now the theory has almost become boring as it is so commonplace.
There are ants crawling on a copper pocket-watch in the lower left-hand corner. These might represent death and decay. Of course, we are not used to watches decaying. Dali flips the normal expectation of time as eternal by depicting his clocks decaying.
In the middle of the painting rests a rounded gray figure looking somewhat like a dolphin. Some critics have pointed out that the figure resembles Dali’s face in profile. Others see features that look like long eyelashes which might symbolize female sexuality. If it is Dali himself, he might be musing on his own place in history, whether he will achieve lasting fame through his work or fade into obscurity. If the figure is feminine, Dali might be saying that sexuality changes with time.
On the left side of the picture, there are two rectangular platforms. They have hard, well-defined edges. In contrast, a cliff on the right side has rough, jagged edges. In between is a seascape. The sea and the cliff lend the painting a rigidity, a permanence that grounds the otherwise dreamlike imagery. In the upper left is a thin, barren tree. This tree adds to the sense of flexibility of time as one clock flops down from a branch like a pancake. Dali, as a surrealist, focused on dreams and hallucinations. This painting combines images that are unreal with images that are familiar much like a dream which juxtaposes the ordinary and the strange.