An Exploration of Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”, Essay Example
Section I: Introduction
“The Persistence of Memory” is a 1931 oil painting created by famed Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali. The painting is housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it has been on display since 1934. “The Persistence of Memory” measures 9 1/2 inches in height and 13 inches in width. The painting depicts a flat and semi-arid landscape bounded to the north by cliff-like mountains and a slice of water that could be ocean or pond. The foreground is dominated by four pocket watches: three are open and melting over various surfaces; the fourth is closed, its cover swarming with ants. As the title alludes, Dali’s painting illustrates that time and memory are both malleable and enduring, resisting the forces of death and destruction.
Section II: Compositional Logic & Dominant Structures
This visual journey through Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” begins with the arbitrary division of space, a task intended to facilitate our explorations of an oil painting which is small in terms of physical dimensions but massive in terms of its significance and influence on our understanding of Surrealism. To divide this painting into four equal quadrants would be to slice and sever distinct elements of the piece in the name of fair and balanced cartography. Instead, we will divide the painting into four irregular quadrants titled by their primary focal points: (1) mountain; (2) silver watch on melted face; (3) red and gold watches with ants and fly; and (4) silver watch draped over tree limb.
Section 1, mountain, fills the northeastern portion of the painting and depicts part of a white and burnt-orange shaded mountain range. This quadrant measures approximately 3 1/2 inches in height and 4 inches in width. Moving clockwise from the mountain’s top, we see that the mountain is bounded at its northernmost point by an inch and a half of blue sky which morphs from navy to sky blue to teal to a pale gold as it approaches the top of the mountain. The easternmost portion of the mountain is abruptly cut off by the edge of the painting. The southernmost portion of the mountain marks its base and is characterized by a riot of gold, golden brown, mustard yellow, and burnt umber which appears to unites the mountain itself with the land below it. Its surface is covered in golden grass, lichen, or some other kind of moss which reaches the base of the mountain and spills over onto the ground until it merges with clay red earth and the heavily shadowed ground which represents the demarcation point of this particular quadrant. The final, and westernmost, portion of the mountain is notable in that the mountain range begins to slope southward, becoming more gentle in its angles as it lowers itself towards a white-blue plain of water like a parched gazelle bending its long neck as it stoops for a much-needed and much-deserved drink. The mountain itself juts out aggressively into the water before snaking back in and merging with the red-brown earth of solid land. The water which surrounds the mountain in this particular detail is characterized by its near-invisibility. We know that the water is there because something must be here; however, sky and water appear to merge into a steaming, misty mystery of nothingness. The convergence of golden-white sky and turquoise-white water create a barrier which marks the western edge of this particular quadrant as we turn our attention southward to the second quadrant of “The Persistence of Memory.”
The largest of our four arbitrary quadrants, Section 2 takes up more than 1/3 of the overall painting and is approximately 5 inches in height and 7 inches in width. The background is a rich dark brown which remains semi-uniform throughout the quadrant with the exception of the northernmost section which is a slightly lighter shade of brown, as if the landscape has been briefly hit by an especially strong beam of sunlight such as is found when the clouds momentarily break to reveal the piercing, hot glow of the sun. Dali’s gaze in this particular painting does not extend high enough for us to gauge the absence or presence of full sun or cloudy sky. We only know that the sky is blue–ergo it is not night; and that the blue sky which we can see is not marred by moisture or clouds–ergo it is not raining. Everything else is conjecture and implication. And yet, the manner in which the ground shifts from tan to dark brown is suggestive, allowing us to infer that Dali’s interest in freezing a moment in time has allowed him to capture the brief seconds in which a cloud skitters away from the sun, allowing pure light to concentrate its intensity upon a patch of rich earth. Apart from that scant illumination, the outer frame of this quadrant remains of the darkest brown, a color suggestive of overturned earth, a near-black in the very right corner of the painting. We then turn our gaze to the inner frame of this quadrant and encounter our first pocket watch and the strangely flesh-like object upon which it is so casually draped. At first glance, this object would appear to defy description: is it beast or man, sentient thing or merely an abstract shape funnelled from the artist’s own dreams or nightmares? Viewed in its entirety it suggests a face in profile. We see shadowed folds which might be cheek and nose and forehead, along with a waving line upon which rests a series of long eyelashes suggestive of waving spider legs, the merest hint of soft eyebrow. Atop this ‘face’ (for lack of a better word) we encounter the pocket watch, an old-fashioned silver timepiece that is only partially visible. Draped across the section of ‘face’ bounded by the eye on the left and the nose on the right, the watch reveals a scattering of numbers: 10, 11, 12, 1, 2. Above the 12 is the watch’s winding device, an oblong ball of silver shaped rather like an apple. The big hand of the watch points to 12; the little hand is not visible, implying that time has no true relevance in this world of Dali’s imagination. The very base of the timepiece appears to fold upwards, affording us a brief view of its silver edge (although no further numbers are visible). And so, melted watch and folded ‘face’ thus described, we move on to Section 3, a smallish quadrant which takes up the bottom left corner of the painting.
Section 3 measures approximately 5 inches in height and 5 inches in width, representing the area of the painting in which images are brought to the foreground, appearing almost three-dimensional in their closeness to the viewer’s eye. This dimensionality is accomplished through the use of a boxlike square upon which sits two pocket watches: one closed, its reddish-orange cover teeming with tiny ants that appear almost like onyx drops of water upon the watch’s surface; the other open and draped across the edge of the light brown boxlike square. It is this second watch which holds the gaze most firmly. This brass-rimmed watch provides us with the closest approximation to time that the painting allows–according to its wavy, distorted watch-face, it is five minutes until seven. A single fly sits atop the watch-face, midway between the 1 and the 2, it’s tiny face bent towards the surface of the watch as if it is trying to find sustenance against what we know to be glass and metal gears. The fly’s shadow stretches out above it, reaching almost to the 12, a shadow which is larger than the fly itself. Moving away from the watches for the moment, our gaze takes in the north-westernmost portion of this quadrant. Here, we see the left-hand edge of the painting and the bottom of the tree which shall become the focus of our discussion of Section 4. The base of the tree sits a mere inch from the top of the quadrant and (as with the watches and the fly) casts its own small shadow which drifts to the left and out of view as it meets the edge of the painting. The tree itself is grey-blue and heavily shadowed so that portions of its trunk appear lost in black shadow.
And so we turn our gaze to Section 4, the final quadrant requiring description. Measuring approximately 5 inches in height and 8 inches in width, this quadrant marks the north-western corner of “The Persistence of Memory” and depicts the tree of which we caught a brief glimpse in the previous section, the fourth and final pocket watch, a blue-grey shape which appears to be part of a wooden board, and (as we reach the top of the painting) more shifting, ambiguous sky. We shall lift our gaze to the sky and begin our exploration of this final quadrant from top to bottom, background to foreground. Thus, we first encounter a swath of background sky which ranges from navy and cerulean to a light golden white suggestive of smoke tinged with the subtlest bit of smog. When our gaze lowers an inch or two we then discover the board-like object which inhabits the painting’s mid-ground, placed as it is atop the sky but behind the tree. This board juts out from the left-hand border of the painting approximately 3 1/2 inches and is colored a deeper, richer blue than the sky or the water that we glimpsed in Section 1. The right-hand edge of the board is a ragged brown which suggests raw wood unaided by sandpaper or paintbrush, a project left partially unfinished. The bumpy texture of this board edge captures the viewer’s gaze and directs it further south towards the blue-grey tree which inhabits the foreground (and majority) of this quadrant. The tree appears to be dead–at the very least it holds no leaves or other forms of life and has taken on the color of an ageing corpse. The top of its trunk ends abruptly with a jagged edge with an irregular rim. The interior of the trunk-top is heavily shadowed, again emphasizing its deadness, as if the tree itself has been hollowed out, all of its life-force removed. A single long branch juts out of the tree trunk at almost the halfway point of its length. This branch appears to be longer than the tree is tall, extending to the edge of the quadrant. Its smooth surface is interrupted only by a small secondary branch about an inch in length which rises from the main branch about 1/3 of the way from the tree’s body. This secondary branch is thin and slightly bent, like the thumb of a hitchhiker hoping for safe passage to his destination. The fourth and final pocket watch is draped over the branch a mere inch from its end. It is slightly larger than the watch-face in Section 2, with the same silver rim and angled so that both the back and the front of the watch are visible. It is folded over the branch at its halfway point so that the facing section reveals the bottom portion of the watch-face. According to its numerals, time has been frozen at approximately six o’clock–the small hand points to the six and the big hand disappears above the fold. Like the bottom portion of the bronze watch in Section 3, the watch-face in this quadrant is of an irregular and distorted shape which suggests that it has been melted or otherwise malformed, obscuring the numerals on the left side so that only 3, 4, 5, and 6 are visible to the viewer.
Section III: A Closer Inspection of the Four Structural Breaks
Let us return, once more, to Section 1 so that we might repeat our investigation of these four irregular quadrants with an eye to further detail and exploration, narrowing our gaze to capture the details which may have been missed upon our initial journey. The mountain range–or perhaps it would be better described as a cliff-face–contains a myriad of details which heighten our visual understanding of “The Persistence of Memory.” Most notable is the use of horizontal and vertical lines to give the mountain the appearance of texture and three-dimensionality. When we divide this section into an upper and lower quadrant, it becomes apparent that the top half is comprised of layers of blue, white, and golden-beige sky while the lower half is comprised entirely of mountain and land. The top quadrant soothes the eye with its smooth, texture-less surface, whereas the lower quadrant disrupts our gaze due to its jagged, jarring, and irregular use of horizontal and vertical lines, a variety of colors, and multiple textures and shapes. For example, there are six major horizontal lines across the surface of the mountain which vary in their thickness, giving the illusion of the types of cracks and crevices which occur in stone after the passage of time. Some of these cracks are heavily shadowed, whereas others are merely scant, fine lines. The effect of them as a group, however, is to draw the eye southward, directing the gaze towards earth which begins as a light gold and proceeds into reds and orange as the eye again runs up against the horizontal shadow line which marks the southernmost portion of this quadrant. At the point where mountain meets land, there is a distinct narrowing of the visible ground so that we encounter a small portion of earth which is book-ended to the east and west by water. These pools are painted so that they appear to reflect the land itself, echoing the golden color scheme and blurring the boundaries between land and earth, sea and sky. The final focal point in this quadrant is a small, egg-shaped object which measures less than a 1/4 of an inch and sits midway between the base of the mountain and the shadow line which marks the bottom of this quadrant. The shape could be an egg (though belonging to what kind of creature, we know not) or it could be a smooth stone cast up from the sea to sit untended and barely observed at the base of the mountain range. The shape is of a pure white and casts its own long shadow, a black squiggle which stretches from its left-hand side towards the sea at the west.
As our eye travels south upon the canvas plane towards Section 2, we narrow our gaze like a telescope’s lens, focusing tightly upon the misshapen flesh figure that bears the first of our four pocket watches. Unlike the solid, mostly uniform earth upon which it sits, this object lacks the kind of regularity which allows for our gaze to rest comfortably upon it. Instead, we come up against a variety of textures, shapes, and malformed surfaces which resist total interpretation or description. As noted before, the most recognizable aspect of this object is what appears to be a single closed eye viewed in profile. Looked at straight-on, the eye resembles a thin and tentative ‘S’ defined on its right side by a rash of long, slightly-curled lashes–18 or 20 in number. These lashes range in length from less than 1/4 of an inch to an inch and a 1/4; the shortest of them are red-brown, nearing black, whereas the longer lashes are closer to mahogany in color with distinct gold elements at their tips. The lashes at the top half of the ‘S’ serve as a directional arrow, pointing the viewer’s gaze towards the watch-face which drapes itself over the central portion of the flesh-like object. It is worth noting, here, that Dali has manipulated the light so that it appears to gleam off the silvered edge of the case containing the watch-face. This glare extends, somewhat, to the watch-face itself, creating the impression that sunlight has hit the glass face of the watch making its numerals slightly indistinct and wavering. Finally, if we continue past the right-hand edge of the watch-face we again encounter the fleshy surface of the profiled ‘face’ and discover a somewhat familiar element, especially for those viewers who have seen pictures of Salvador Dali’s face. The artist was well-known for his long and luxurious mustache, and it appears as if he has rendered this face in profile as an ostensible self portrait: beneath the suggestion of a nose is a raised surface which could be intended to represent an upper lip. A reddish-brown shadow travels vertically across this ‘lip’ off the edge of the face to almost disappear amongst the brown-black shadow of the earth. Close inspection suggests that a curl of mustache hair continues onto the landscape itself, although it defies a concrete explanation once it becomes lost in the shadowed darkness of the land.
We then continue our clockwise exploration of “The Persistence of Memory” by returning to Section 3 to focus our attention, first, on the three-dimensional box atop which sit the dead tree, the closed red pocket watch, and the open bronze pocket watch which appears to be melting. This box is the color of wet sand, except in the surface areas where objects (the tree, the watches) sit and cast their own distorting shadows. The box is wider at its northernmost top than at its southernmost base; only a portion of this box is revealed within the painting, implying that, if our eye was to retreat in order to give us a wider picture of the whole, the box itself is massive–perhaps as large as the painting itself. Moving from the bottom of this quadrant (which marks the southern section of the painting) we first encounter the red pocket watch. Gleaming in the light, it appears to be almost a perfect circle interrupted only by the winding apparatus that sits slightly to the right at its top (where the 1 would be, were the pocket watch opened). Close inspection reveals at least 12 ants dotting its surface; it is difficult to tell for certain how many ants there are altogether because they are so closely mingled that their tops and bottoms seem to intertwine with one another, giving them the faint and repulsive appearance of movement. The ants are most densely populated at the center of the watch’s cover and grow more sparse at its outer edges. Several of them appear to cast their own faint shadows, again increasing the painting’s overall sense of three-dimensionality. Moving away from the red pocket watch, we come to the bronze watch which sits above and slightly to its right. This watch is open and draped over the edge of the box, its lower half almost reaching the dark-brown surface of the earth. The top half of the watch-face is folded flush against the top of the box and is shaded a periwinkle blue which attests to Dali’s use of light as a
Dali, Salvador. The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
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