On the fifth floor of the MoMA, in The Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Galleries, lies a small canvas- The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. This work of art represents a whole art movement- Surrealism. The painting depicts a set of melted clocks on various surfaces against a barren landscape and an irregularly shaped figure lying on the ground. 

Story behind the Art- The Persistence of Memory - Sheet1
The Persistence of Memory_Salvador Dali_©httpsmymodernmet.comthe-persistence-of-memory-salvador-dali

What is Surrealism | The Persistence of Memory

The Enlightenment governed much of the art and literature movements in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment ideals relied heavily upon rationalism, objectivity, and science. Poet Andre Breton rejected these ideals. He believed that they contributed to the impoverishment and sterility of the thought process”( Dotson, S.,2020). He founded Surrealism in 1924 as a reaction to Enlightenment and to revive the creativity it has smothered. He believed that irrational thoughts would be the perfect antidote. 

Surrealists were followers of Sigmund Freud’s teachings of psychoanalysis. They used this theory as a guiding light to tap into their unconscious mind to access their irrational and raw thoughts, memories, dreams and urges. These artists would engage in such a pure form of artmaking that wasn’t dictated by the conscious mind and thus was not sterilized or thwarted by social norms and cultural insecurities. 

Surrealists used different methods to tap into their unconscious minds. There were two common methods of doing this: automatism and dreams. Automatism is a means of making art that relied upon chance and attempted to eliminate consciousness. It involved splattering paint and then drawing around it. An example of popular surrealist art created through automatism is Andre Masson’s ‘Battle of the Fishes’.  Artists like Salvador Dali used the second method. Since dreaming is a function of the unconscious mind, Dali took advantage of sleep to fuel his art. 

Story behind the Art- The Persistence of Memory - Sheet2
Surrealist Automatism through Andre Masson’s Battle of the Fishes_©httpswww.widewalls.chmagazinesurrealist-paintingsandre-masson-2

The Artist- Salvador Dali

Salvador Dalí was a Spanish (from Catalonia) artist who became one of the most important painters of the 20th century. He engaged in various other forms of art like sculpting, drafting, theater and film. He studied in Madrid in 1922 at the Residencia de Estudiantes. Here, he made important associations with other creative individuals. These partnerships lead to collaborations like the film he made with Luis Bunuel- Un Chein Andalou (Gromley, J, no date). He completed The Persistence of Memory (1931), his personal most popular piece of art, and that of Surrealist art as well, at the age of 28. 

Story behind the Art- The Persistence of Memory - Sheet3
Salvador Dali_©httpsjbf.frgallerysalvador-dali

For artistic inspiration, Dali took numerous ‘micro-naps’ throughout the day to help get in touch with his unconscious mind. These quick bursts of sleep provided both creative and physical benefits. Brief naps allowed Dalí to enter into a hyper-associative state that made it easier to bring unexpected associations and concepts together (Dotson, S.,2020).

Representation and Interpretation | The Persistence of Memory

After completing the painting, Dali proclaimed that he didn’t know the meaning of the work. this gave art critiques ad scholars plenty of opportunity to interpret the painting in various ways. The Persistence of Memory, however, depicts numerous recurring themes and objects from Dali’s other works like melting clocks and the landscape. His painting depicts a landscape with cliffs in the back. There lies a face-like figure in the center of the painting covered with a melted clock, almost as if covered by a blanket. Other melted clocks are strewn across a platform and a dead tree. Another, closed clock also on the platform is full of ants. These objects are familiar, but taken out of context, as in dreams. 

Landscape: Catalonia 

While the work might appear rooted firmly in an imaginary world, the cliffs in the background have been identified as those from Catalonia– Dali’s hometown. This landscape brings an element of reality to the otherwise ambiguous painting. The landscape contributes a still eeriness to the painting (Dotson, S.,2020). 

Story behind the Art- The Persistence of Memory - Sheet4
Calalonia Cliffs Painted by Dali_©httpswww.salvador-dali.orgenartworkcatalogue-raisonne-paintingsobra174cliffs

Melting Clocks | The Persistence of Memory

Melting clocks have been a frequent theme of Dali’s work. Dali would reach his unconscious by inducing hallucinations, among other techniques. The melting clocks were induced by such a camembert-cheese-eating hallucination, claims the artist. He thus refers to them as the ‘Camembert of Time’. However, critiques and art historians have interpreted these as representing the omnipresence of time (Dotson, S.,2020), a mockery of the chronometry of time (Gromley, J, no date), or a representation of warped illusions of time in a dream and memory v/s time in reality. Others believe the melting clocks may symbolize Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, a revolutionary idea in the 1930s Shabi, K. (2013). This new concept of time, according to Einstein’s theory, describes it as a relative and complex concept that cannot be tracked with such a crude, simple gadget as a clock. The limp clocks may suggest the clocks’ impotency in this new scientific light. 

Story behind the Art- The Persistence of Memory - Sheet5
Melting Clock Sculpture by Dali_©httpswww.artsy.netartworksalvador-dali-dance-of-time-ii-5

The Face

Melting clocks have been a frequent theme of Dali’s work. A face like a form in the center of the work appears like a skull at first but begins to reveal human characteristics: long eyelashes, a nose, and even the wisp of a curled mustache. Some interpret this as a distorted sense of self felt during a dream, under the blanket of bent time- a self-portrait of the artist in profile). This facelike amorphous form appears in other works like ‘The Great Mastorbator’ as well.

Details of the Work

‘The Persistence of Memory’ by Salvador Dali was an exemplary defining painting for Surrealist ideals and it was completed when the Surrealism Movement was at its zenith. It is all surrealist ideals packed on 9 1/2 x 13″ (24.1 x 33 cm) canvas and painted in oil on canvas. The painting was completed in 1931. It was first exhibited in New York in 1932 and sold for $250. After it was purchased, an anonymous donor gave the work to the MoMA in 1934. It has become one of MoMA’s main attractions since. 

Story behind the Art- The Persistence of Memory - Sheet6
The Persitence of Memory Scale_©httpswww.moma.orgcollectionworks79018

Popularity | The Persistence of Memory

The work, one of surrealism’s most popular, has made a cameo on popular American tvs like the Simpsons and Sesame Street. (Dotson, S.,2020). Years after it was created, Dali made a retake of his most popular work, this time titled ‘The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory’ (1952-54). 

The Disintegration of Persistence of Memory_©httpsfineartamerica.comfeaturedthe-disintegration-of-the-persistence-of-memory-salvador-dali.html


Dotson, S. (2020) “The Persistence of Memory” Explained | Artsy, Artsy.com. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-understanding-the-persistence-memory-salvador-dalis-surrealist-masterpiece (Accessed: 24 January 2023).

Gromley, J. (no date) The Persistence of Memory | Description & Facts | Britannica, Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Persistence-of-Memory (Accessed: 24 January 2023).

Shabi, K. (2013) Salvador Dali Persistence of Memory: Meaning of the Melting Clocks, Legomenon. Available at: https://legomenon.com/salvador-dali-persistence-of-memory-melting-clocks-meaning.html (Accessed: 28 January 2023).


Raveena is passionate about design, architectural theory and the climate crisis alike. She aspires to understand and translate designed space- and its experiential qualities- into buildings that make a difference and respect the earth.