Why People Misunderstand The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali cover image

The Persistence of Memory is a painting that needs no introduction. When you think about the artwork of Salvador Dali, it’s very likely to be this painting. No other painting by Dali has been this popular, or this misunderstood!

The Persistence of Memory is certainly a painting that can confuse the most experienced art analyst. Decode a hundred paintings and this painting will make you pause for a second, and this speaks a lot about the excellence of Dali’s imagination and its depiction. 

When you look for the meaning of this painting, the results are going to be a disaster; Some people talk about how this painting is the artist showing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, while others say it depicts the different perceptions of time. 

The problem behind why people misunderstand this painting is they overanalyze it. Torture a painting long enough with detailed analysis and the canvas bends to your ideas. Since paintings are visual depictions and not concrete words, they can be interpreted in different ways.

So what does “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali actually mean? It would be hypocritical for us to say that we know the actual meaning right after saying how others have gotten it wrong.

The persistence of memory by Salvador Dali

What Dali Meant About the Painting

The deeper implications of the painting and what influenced Dali to make this painting will always remain unknown. Only if we had Dali as our contributor, we could boast about the “true” meaning of the painting. 

When asked if the painting was somehow related to the relative nature of time as shown by Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Dali said that the watches were not inspired by that theory but by how Camembert cheese melts in the sun. 

So if you think about it, all the cosmic order interpretation and how time runs in a different way at different planes of existence goes out of the window. Is the painting just that? Clocks made of cheese melting in the sun? 

A Closer Interpretation

Dali used to take small naps to go to the dream realm and observe how his unconscious mind created this world and what it would show him. After that, all that was left was for him to depict the convoluted scenes on canvas with extreme precision. 

The painting does have meaning but it certainly does not reach the far galaxies and higher dimensions of existence. The meaning of the painting is very grounded, and simple, yet impactful.

The painting is about what time really is, and what time really is, is us. We are time. Every living thing is the manifestation of time. Our memory is time. And the painting shows what our memories of dreams feel like. 

Death of Time

The melting clocks were inspired by how the cheese melts in the sun. But why clocks? The name of the painting is “The Persistence of Memory,” which means how long our memory lasts. 

One can understand how Dali had the almost impossible task of painting what his dreams showed. We all know the fleeting nature of a dream’s memory. Dali is trying to convey just that. 

The Elements in the Painting

The most prominent elements in the painting are the four melting watches in different places. Then the viewer notices this bizarre figure that looks like a sleeping face lying at the center of the canvas.

There’s a small mountain in the background along with a sea and a chiseled platform. That’s pretty much it. Nothing else. 

Let’s talk about the most bizarre element in the painting (that would be all the elements if we are honest); the central sleeping figure. 

Who Sleeps in the Middle? 

The person in the middle…sorry, the representation of a person in the dream world is supposed to be Dali himself. As mentioned before, Dali took micro-naps to induce hallucinogenic states and observe what his unconscious mind was showing him. 

So it makes sense to assume that the ectoplasmic figure (which is also melting) is Dali. But the figure does not look like Dali at all with blonde hair and long eyelashes. 

The best explanation of this figure would be that this is a nameless, faceless representation of the human form in this world where things are melting. But it represents the thinker of the painting; Dali. 

The persistence of memory by Salvador Dali

Meaning of the Melting Clocks

The melting clocks represent every living thing and the memories in them. We are nothing but a representation of time in this world. How do we experience time? We age, we grow old, and we finally die. 

That’s what the painting is depicting. Every clock in the painting represents living things and the memory inside them. All the memories slowly melted and drooped, becoming something unrecognizable. This is what happens when you wake up from a dream. 

The memory of a dream behaves exactly like the clocks in the painting; we know what happened, but every detail of the dream seems to melt and distort, mixing together and forming a large blob of few details. 

But there is more to the painting. The reason why Dali has placed ants and flies on these melting clocks is to show just how when some organic thing decomposes (like plants, animals, and humans), it gets swarmed by these creatures. 

The memories have died and are now being taken away by these ants and flies. The same is true for the clock on the sleeping figure. The figure’s memory is also melting away. The dream is collapsing and fading away.

But what about the clock that has not melted? Why is the watch covered and protected from the ants trying to take it away? 

Perhaps this clock represents a handful of dreams that we remember even after ages. You might have those kinds of dreams (or nightmares) that you still remember even after decades have passed. The orange clock represents just that. 

Meaning of the Painting: A Summary

The best way to summarize the meaning of the painting is by thinking about the dream you had today; you lived it while sleeping, and remembered only a bit of it when you woke up, but very soon the entire dream faded away. 

You might remember some parts of the dream till the very end and even beyond that day. These are permanent dreams, the “orange clocks’ ‘ of your dream memories. 

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali is a painting that shows the persistence of the memory of a dream. It shows the short life of these specific memories that slowly melt away and lose their graspability. 

Dreams are shown as living creatures in the form of clocks slowly melting away, decomposing, and getting carried away by flies and ants. The visual description makes no sense, and that makes this painting a perfect example of Surrealism.  That was all about The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Also look: The Son of Man by Rene Magritte: The Meaning