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The Cover Project, Track 2
The Persistence of Memory
For the second song of my album of covers, I have selected Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory.”
I’m not making any hard-and-fast rules for this project, but here are my considerations:
Famous paintings or a painting by a famous artist
Paintings that I’ve seen in person
Paintings that have had some kind of personal significance
“The Persistence of Memory” surely scores on the first two points. If you said “the melting clocks painting,” most people (I would hope) would know what you are talking about and have a clue as to who painted it. Or if you would just mention Salvador Dali to Average Joe, he’d probably comment on either the man’s famous mustache or this painting. I have seen it in person twice on trips to the Museum of Modern Art, where it resides.
I can’t really say the painting has had much impact specifically, but I’ve always been fascinated by Dali’s work. My ex-wife was also a big fan, and for a gift I once bought her a thick coffee-table book of his paintings, but I spent many hours perusing it myself.
But “The Persistence of Memory," like many of his other paintings, have a sense of desolation that appeals to me artistically, targeting my introspective nature, I suppose. I intend to include a Edward Hopper painting somewhere in this series for a similar reason, but the points of view are entirely opposite. Some of Hopper’s best images depict people in isolation, often contemplative, perhaps looking inward to a personal desolation. His is an observer’s view, whereas Dali looks out-ward to look inward, expressing a similar sensation with barren landscapes populated with bizarre, sometimes inexplicable objects.
The title suggests an introspective state. What am I if not my life experiences embodied? To you, I am who I pretend to be, but inside I am aswirl with random thoughts, persistent memories, and catchy tunes that I have to bat away while I keep up my façade. “Persistence” suggests tension (“Yet she persisted!”), so in the context of memory I believe that the painting should portray conflict, perhaps between what is remembered and what is objectively real or with the memories of others. Therefore I want to examine the depicted objects in the context of memory and internal tension. (It might also be worth noting that Dali painted this in 1931 at the height of Sigmund Freud’s career, eight years after The Ego and the Id.)
The painting is probably most noted for the three melting watches, which I interpret to represent the fluid nature of memories. I think most of us tend to embellish our memories at times, perhaps to make a better story or to make ourselves appear in a more favorable light. Or perhaps we replay the story in our mind in different ways to imagine better outcomes. The fourth watch appears intact, but face down and swarmed with ants, like a memory that’s been repressed but pounced upon by some scavenging entity, even if just a scavenging part of oneself (think Freudian). The next watch is face-up, but a fly has landed on its face. The fly has long been a symbol of mortality and decay in classical and modern art. In this context, perhaps it represents portions of time we have forgotten. A curator once told me that artists would include flies to break your attention from the perfect beauty of the objects to remind you of death.
This watch with a fly seems to droop over the side of a table, from which grows a barren tree whose only fruit is another clock folded in half, draping from the lone branch. It looks like the tree is somehow presenting the watch, perhaps as an offering, but to me it seems confessional, meek and ashamed. It seems to be reaching out to the rocky islands in the desolate distance, a reference Dali’s homeland Catalonia, looming and judgmental. (If I should personalize it, it would be Hamilton’s skyline.) That the tree springs from a table feels ironic, like a regression disguised as progression, from a finished state to a more natural, albeit decrepit, state.
The object behind the tree seems to be a mirror reflecting the sky. When we look in a mirror, we see things behind us and in reverse, the opposite of a direct view. I almost always recognize myself in a photo, but it’s not the face I see every day.
The third watch face is draped over a figure, a creature that seems part human, but nothing whole, just a nose, eyelashes and tongue. The other end at first seems kinda fishy, but it’s just the thing fading into the dark landscape. Dali uses a similar figure in other paintings, and it’s said to be a surrealistic self-portrait. In this context it seems dead and decaying, burdened by the persistence of memory.
Finally, there are two small rocks or boulders off in the distance, just facing the sunset like a couple of Edward Hopper characters. Perhaps just little bits of wistful memory.
Perhaps it’s none of that, but it was fun meditating on this painting for a couple of weeks, both looking at what Dali did and trying to figure out how to render it in my own voice. I’ve had it on my easel for a month, but it kept looking at me while I worked on other stuff, so I’ve had plenty of time to reflect.
I should also note that my cover version is almost three times bigger (40x30 inches) than the original, which only served to remind me of Dali’s skill and my lack thereof. I tried to imagine squeezing all of that into a 13x10 inch canvas, especially all those pesky ants.
Here’s MOMA’s on-line catalog description of “The Persistence of Memory”:
Hard objects become inexplicably limp in this bleak and infinite dreamscape, while metal attracts ants like rotting flesh. Mastering what he called “the usual paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling,” Dalí painted with “the most imperialist fury of precision,” he said, but only “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.” It is the classic Surrealist ambition, yet some literal reality is included, too: the distant golden cliffs are the coast of Catalonia, Dalí’s home.
Those limp watches are as soft as overripe cheese—indeed, they picture “the camembert of time,” in Dalí’s phrase. Here time must lose all meaning. Permanence goes with it: ants, a common theme in Dalí’s work, represent decay, particularly when they attack a gold watch, and they seem grotesquely organic. The monstrous fleshy creature draped across the painting’s center is at once alien and familiar: an approximation of Dalí’s own face in profile, its long eyelashes seem disturbingly insect-like or even sexual, as does what may or may not be a tongue oozing from its nose like a fat snail.
The year before this picture was painted, Dalí formulated his “paranoiac-critical method,” cultivating self-induced psychotic hallucinations in order to create art. “The difference between a madman and me,” he said, “is that I am not mad.”
The Persistence of Memory, perhaps his most famous painting, was an overnight sensation on its first exhibition in New York, in January 1932. (It had remained unsold when first exhibited in Paris the previous summer.) The gallerist and early champion of the Surrealists Julien Levy proclaimed the painting “10 by 14 inches of Dalí dynamite,” and an image of it was reproduced in nearly every review. 3 Years later, Dalí would recount its genesis, claiming that the “soft watches” had their origin in the remains of a “very strong Camembert” cheese.
Rendered with the artist’s meticulous attention to detail, the painting’s three pocket watches hang flaccidly from a denuded tree branch, a ledge, and a bestial form that, on closer examination, resembles Dalí’s own distorted face. As sunlight hits the distant cliffs and glassy water, ants teem on the surface of the single closed watch, and a fly alights nearby—suggesting rot and waste in an otherwise pristine landscape. With its uncanny juxtaposition of the ordinary and the bizarre, and its suggestion of time arrested or out of sync (the watches all point to different numbers), The Persistence of Memory possesses an eerily dreamlike quality. It showcases Dalí’s interest in exploring how the mind interprets reality and the primacy of sexuality to the human psyche—lines of inquiry that would remain constant throughout his career.