The Persistence of Memory, by Savador Dali, has the surreal effect that Dali is well-known for creating in all of his paintings. This surreal effect is one of familiarity joined with alienation. This painting gives the effect of a stranger looking in, however, at the same time, one feels that the subject of the painting is the viewer.
The painting achieves this effect on the viewer because it is three dimensional in its spatial arrangement. The geometric forms are stretched and elongated. Dali achieves the seeming ability to defy nature by doing this to natural forms. Dali is able to paint how memory can twist the absolute forms. This leaves the viewer questioning whether memory is accurate or a melting version of reality.

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The feelings that this painting brings out in the viewer include nostalgia, and also a dream-like confusion. Hence, the title of the painting is evident in the feelings that this painting elicits. The title is the only seemingly related notion in this painting, for everything is

The composition of the painting is not centered, but rather spatial displacement of melting clocks surrounding a suggestion of a face that is immersed in this panorama. Possibly, the half-face (that is most center in the painting) represents the viewer, and the melting clocks represent the passage of time.

The structure of the painting relates a horizon which displays an infinite sky joining the infinite sea. Then the beach, not infinite as it is void of all features. A tree devoid of life. Cliffs devoid of vegetation (life), yet a hint of blue, is this water? Is there hope of life? If so this is the only hope for all else the time for hope has come and gone. The theme of the infinite is explored by the structure of this painting.

The actual objects in the painting are not many. The sparsity is what draws the viewer to each individual object. What remains, a stark table with a dead tree. A stark plank devoid of purpose, or purpose unknown. A bizarre creature sleeping or dead. Was this creature once from the sea or more related to the human viewer?

The theme of this painting is evident in both the title and the repeated imagery of melting clocks. One can’t ignore the theme, time.  Time, infinite and finite.  The infinite sky and sea are blue and recognized. The finite shares features with the infinite. The plank, blue. The tad at the base of the cliffs, blue.  Most importantly, the clock faces seem to reflect the color blue, as well.

The perspective of this painting is critical to its meaning. As an observer we view all from a desolate vantage point. Possibly the viewer is the melting half-face that is decomposing faster than the clocks that represent time’s permanence, and time’s passing. We are limited by our concepts of time; are we that pitiful creature nestled under a clock-blanket whose time has run out?  If so, as the creature, we can view no more. We can view no more, for our finite time has elapsed, and we succumb to the infinite, we melt and fade away. The melting face represents this “fading away” of the individual in a landscape of time.

The repeated color of blue equates time with the ocean and sky; in this manner, time is natural. The color is one of neutrality, and of soothing natural colors, juxtaposed by the unnatural surreal imagery. The clocks are a feeble human attempt to capture time, and possibly the only accurate way to capture time is in one’s memory. The title of this painting certainly alludes to Dali’s intentions; the melting clocks and melting faces, against an unmovable background imply that human conception of time is temporary. The memories that humans have are absorbed into the larger landscape of time. The clocks do not measure time, proven by their melting away. 

The spatial arrangement of the objects creates a sense of isolation, for it does not seem that any two objects are connected or related. This landscape suggests that there is some sort of cache for human experiences, and that possibly, human experiences add up to disassociations.

There are many shadows in this painting which allude to a source of light. However, it is difficult to judge from where this light generates. However, the presence of light suggests a third presence between the viewer, the melting face in the painting, and the light source. This light source is either the permanence of time, or God, or whatever the viewer would attribute a higher power.

The unstated is more important than the obvious in this painting. The ants on the clock, for instance, probably represent mankind’s thoughts that the notion of time is a human concept. In this mysterious light, the human quest to control time and memory is futile, like ants on the clock.

The soothing textures in this painting are contrasted by the stark elements of the painting. It is strange that a painting with these objects (melting clocks, dead trees, melting face), could make the viewer feel secure and nostalgic. This effect is accomplished by Dali’s use of blending textures and soothing out contrasts with shadows.

Overall, The Persistence of Memory, is effective because the viewer actually fells as though this is a place that the mind has gone before, yet at the same time is comprised of completely unreal possibilities. The viewer is left to decide what is permanent and what is decaying.