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The Accidental Physicist: Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory & the Bending of Time


Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, and the Bending of Time

Dalí photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1939 Photo Wikipedia Commons

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"The Persistence of Memory" by Salvador Dali Original Title: 'La persistencia de la memoria" Date: 1931 Style: Surrealism Period: Surrealism Period (1929-1940) Genre: symbolic painting Media: oil, canvas Location: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City, NY, US Dimensions: 24.1 x 33 cm Photo WikiArt

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Hanging in the walls of the MoMa in New York, is one of Salvador Dali’s earliest, and most defining pieces of work.  Created when the young surrealist was only 27 years old, the dripping time pieces and disfigured face, with ordinary ants congregating and humming against a rational mountainous background amongst the bizarreness, assured Dali’s stardom in the art world. And with the birth of his masterpiece, he was crowned one of the princes of Surrealism of the 20th century.

 The Persistence of Memory (1931), with its often unexplainable and objective symbolic imagery, has provoked many artistic and even scientific and philosophic debates among many thinkers over the decades, who have attempted to enter the scene to extract meaning from the absurdity. According to Dali, The Persistence of Memory was created under a self-induced hallucinatory and paranoid state of mind. And even he could not explain the exact meaning of the strange images and creatures he summoned from the inner reaches of his own subconscious material: “The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret.” 

The few ordinary and tangible images in the painting, the soft mountains and lines of the landscape, the ants known for their predictable organization, draw the observer back out from the subconscious intent, back to the world where the ticking away of moments guide our perfunctory motion. However, with a single glance, the observer can be transported back into the metamorphoses of the imagery to question the nature of one’s place in the universe. The work of Dali reminds us like so many thinkers, mystics, neuroscientists of today, that reality is not so easily defined or constructed. It is wrought with illusions and governed by states of consciousness that we as a species still cannot fathom in full entirety. However, through The Persistence of Memory and other works of art, perhaps we can have glimpses into these infrastructures that are moving somewhere “out there” in the brain/mind stratosphere.

Dali stated that his goal and purpose for taking us into these very far places in the inner cosmos was to invoke and “systematize confusion and thus discredit completely the world of reality.”  His work cascades effortlessly across the eras, holding onto its original meaning that remains relevant even in the modern day. It is “timeless”, operating outside a single theory of perception and the mind’s clockwork. Even Dali’s earlier critics were convinced the artwork was a representation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and was meant to expose the illusion of a fixed clock that governs all of our comings and goings in mechanistic purity. Dali initially denied this comparison, although he had been emerged in the world of science since adolescence. He had a library teeming with books on physics, quantum mechanics, the origins of life, evolution and mathematics, including psychology and dream interpretation texts. He studied Sigmund Freud and his theories of dream reality feverishly. The mathematics of optical illusions fascinated him, and this could be seen in the twisted alternate realities he created on his canvasses. The surrealists of his day were taken by the new quantum physics that sought to transcend the predeterminism of classical physics through a reality that gave the observer power to bring objects into the tangible. Places where a single particle could exist in two places simultaneously, opening up to the possibilities of multi-dimensional worlds. These exciting new scientific theories offered Dali further insight into his own strange lands, and the power they perhaps held beyond the five senses-artifacts of other existences, if even only from the imagination.

The melting time pieces and deforming faces in The Persistence of Memory are straight out of a Freudian dream reality, or what the quantum world would call a multi-dimensional existence that parallels the present day. However, it seems that this painting belongs to not one area of thought or understanding, or even one point in time.  One of the great defining works of the surrealistic movement, The Persistence of Memory can still be interpreted in a multitude of ways, without ever having the final answer on the ultimate truth behind it. And perhaps like in the theory of quantum mechanics, the painted scene cannot truly be born until it has an observer peer upon it, bringing the spectrum of hues, images and concepts from the immaterial into the material- brought to life only through the act of observation. But whatever theory you hold fast to your intellectual and artistic brow, it is certain that this powerful, thought provoking, and time bending work of art will bring those who look upon it with curious and open eyes, to places never explored before time and time again. If time even exists.

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