An Analysis: Salvador Dali’s “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”
To thoroughly understand the brilliance of Salvador Dalí and “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”, we must first briefly touch on the life of the artist himself, the thoughts or methods behind Surrealism, and develop and understanding of “The Persistence of Memory” (1931, oil on canvas, 9’5” x 1’1”), a work which really birthed “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” (1954, oil on canvas, 25.4 cm x 33 cm).
Surrealism’s main goal is to bring into consciousness what was fundamentally unconscious. This material was accessible through dreams and psychoanalysis as pioneered by Sigmund Freud and (Freudian heretic) Carl Jung.
Dalí, however, was also profoundly influenced by the work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s seminal work on paraphilias and (largely) deviant sexuality entitled Psychopathia Sexualis. Written in the late 1800s by neurologist Krafft-Ebing, it includes a fiery chapter on making homosexuality legal.
These thinkers were pivotal in development of Dalí’s famous “paranoiac critical method” of developing “photographs” of his dream states: a type of “voluntary hallucination”. Dali’s ultimate goal was making the irrational concrete.
Despite his fascist political leanings, Dalí was well-aware of the fertile ground his home country of Spain was for mystical and seemingly “irrational” art — these adjectives are high praise to the surrealist, and words Dalí heard in 1931 when he was just 28 years old when he released “The Persistence of Memory.” “I, Salvador Dalí, come from Spain, which is the most irrational country and most mystical country in the world.” Still, when “The Persistence of Memory was released in 1931, other surrealist artists did not consider Dalí “a surrealist” because of those inklings toward political fascism. Dalí responded, “I don’t care as I am Surrealism.”
Surrealism was, as the Comte de Lautréamont put it in his incredible 1870 novel Maldoror, “as beautiful as the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.” Maldoror itself was a huge precursor to the literary development of surrealism as the movement’s father, André Breton, really liked the book.
Part of the brilliance of the original “Persistence of Memory” that carries over into “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” is that both works can be read as a still life, self-portrait, and landscape painting, all at the same time.
This profundity and the further disquieting effects of confounding the modern with the ancient, nature and technology, and the soft with the hard (i.e. the melting watches), were never lost on the artist: even after WWII these elements still showed themselves in “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.”
The pre-war Dalí was indeed expressed in the new Dalí. Still, the pre-war Dalí was most entranced by his “father” Freud (reflected in “The Persistence of Memory”), the post-war Dalí had switched gears a bit to a fascination with the (then) new discovery of Quantum Physics (examine the bricks floating both above and below the water as an indication of this) and Dr. Heisenberg (reflected in “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”, also known as “The Chromosome of a Highly-Coloured Fish’s Eye Starting the Harmonious Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”).
What are the symbolic associations with such brilliant pieces from one of the 20th century’s greatest artists? The melting clocks alone suggest the fluidity of time. This alone may be seem like a benign idea but it really isn’t: I can tell you as someone who struggles with mental illness that it is fundamentally a problem in how one reckons time. Whether it’s distortions of time after a night of insomnia, or a distortion of time when you wonder unreasonably why you lover hasn’t texted back because your generalized anxiety is through the roof, or the inability to understand that suicide is forever because you are in a psychotic depression. It’s all about how one reckons time.
Articulating further on Dalí’s points, the reasoning is pretty simple: as water washes away into a drainpipe, sewer, or simple down a drain, it is gone. Thus, time itself becomes a fluid and disappearing object. In a world dependent on time, composed of human minds without a concept of time, all would presumably exist in a state of insanity and chaos. The ocean in the background disintegrating into nothing and revealing a fluorescent fish makes a similar point.
Ever the ambiguous artist — how else could it be in Surrealism? — Dalí also adds elements to the piece that suggest continuity. The presence of the artist’s beloved Port Lligat (also present in “The Persistence of Memory”, further known as “Soft Watches”, “Droopy Watches”, “The Persistence of Time”, and “Melting Clocks”) where Dali spent much time as a boy.
Thus the question remains, is the image itself disintegrating? Or is it perhaps an expression of continuity in a chaotic world? Or could the answer lie in that new spiritualism Quantum Mysticism that does indeed line up with Surrealist dream logic: the idea of designing your own universe?
As all brilliant art does, the ultimate interpretation speaks for itself to anyone who views the pieces.
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Breton André Robert, Helen R. Lane, and Richard Seaver. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. (Second Printing.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974.
Freud, Sigmund, and A. A. Brill. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud: Psychopathology of Everyday Life/the Interpretation of Dreams/Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex/Wit and Its Relations to the Unconscious. New York: Modern Library, 1995.
Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
Havard, Robert. The Spanish Eye Painters and Poets of Spain. Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2007.
Jung, C. G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Krafft-Ebing, R. von. Psychopathia Sexualis: the Classic Study of Deviant Sex. New York: Arcade Pub./Skyhorse Pub., 2011.
Lautréamont .. de, and Alexis Lykiard. Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte De Lautréamont. Cambridge: Exact Change, 2011.
Wess Haubrich is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in true crime and film, the former contributing editor of London’s award-winning The 405 Film, staff writer at Citizen Truth, and ½ of the weekly true crime podcast Real Monsters. Follow him on Twitter here or email him here.