In 1924, the French write Andre Breton announced the birth of Surrealism, a movement in painting that emphasized the unconscious. Surrealists were interested in presenting a more profound reality revealed by the unconscious mind. They wished to produce images that went beyond mere painting to reach a new level of reality. In their experiments, dreams became important sources of inspiration, and enigma or mystery played a major role.
The Spanish artist Salvador Dali was one of the best known Surrealist painters. He lived from 1904 to 1989. In 1929, Dali joined the Surrealist movement. He was an outrageous and eccentric personality. For example, at the opening of a Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936, Dali appeared in a diving suit. Throughout his lifetime, Dali's extravagant and humorous behavior generated wide publicity, eventually securing him celebrity status. However in 1942 André Breton officially expelled Dali from the Surrealist movement because of this self-promoting activity. The titles of Dali's two autobiographies tell us much about his personality. They are called The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, published in 1942, and Diary of a Genius, published in 1965.
Although Dali garnered attention through his provocative exploits and theatrical behavior, his paintings were central to the development of the Surrealist aesthetic. Dali's ambition was to "materialize images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision." Dali painted images from a dream world in such exacting clarity and meticulous detail that viewers feel they are entering a hallucinatory landscape. He called these paintings hand-painted dream photographs. They contain strange and bizarre juxtapositions of objects, and the transformation of one form into another form. For example, objects we know as hard and solid appear soft and malleable. Or inanimate objects appear alive and conscious. It's as though the normal laws of physics no longer apply to the people and objects in Dali's created world, much like the irrational and unpredictable world of the dream. We'll see many of these strange transformations in Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory, but first, we suggest listening to a short interpretive sound composition that evokes the essence of Surrealism.
This painting is a horizontal rectangle and is only slightly larger than a piece printer paper.
The setting for this painting is a rather bleak landscape. We see a sandy beach in the foreground and middle ground that appears dark, like it's in shadow. The beach stretches toward the background, where it eventually reaches a body of still water, probably a lake or ocean. This body of water meets the horizon line. The sky above the horizon is featureless, with no clouds, sun, birds, or anything. On the painting's upper-right side, there are jagged, rocky cliffs extending down into the water. In the left foreground, there is a large rectangular form, like a solid box, serving as a table. In the middle ground, directly in front of us, there is a strange organic form, which at first glance appears to be an animal lying on its side. Then we realize the form doesn't look like anything we've ever seen before. Four pocket watches are placed in this strange scene, three of them appearing to melt into soft, malleable shapes.
The natural illumination in the painting tells us the time of day is either late afternoon around dusk or early morning around dawn. We know this because the band of yellowish light near the horizon line tells us the sun is just below the horizon line. The foreground is relatively dark compared to the distant horizon line. The colors in the painting are dark brown in the foreground sand, yellow in the rocky cliffs and horizon line, and aqua blue in the sky, the thin sliver of water in the background, and three of the four watches.
There are very few objects in this painting. Most of them are quite strange. This strangeness contributes to the mystery of the landscape. Let's consider these objects. First, there's a box-like rectangular form in the lower-left portion of the painting. On top of it are two watches and a dark, dead tree trunk standing straight up. One of the watches drapes over the edge of the box. Part of the watch rests on the top surface of it, and part of it drapes down over the right side. The watch looks as though it's made of melting wax and is beginning to lose its solid form. Another way to describe it is to think of the round pocket watch as a limp pancake hanging over the side of a table. Another watch is placed on the top of the box with its face down. This means we cannot see the numbers or the hands of the face. Instead, we see the gold casing of the back of the watch. This watch is orange, and black ants are crawling over the surface of it. The ants appear to be feeding on the watch as though it's organic and edible.
A third watch is draped over a limb of the dead tree. Like the melting watch on the box, this hanging watch is also pliable and limp. Imagine it as a pancake folded over the limb and hanging down. The watch's face is toward us and its back is to the limb. We can see the numbers three through nine. We can see the hand on the watch and it points to the number six. But we cannot tell whether it's the minute or hour hand.
Behind the tree and near the water's edge is a flat board. It's not clear why the board is there or what it means. In the center of the painting is a large, fleshy, animal-like creature with the fourth watch draped over it. The creature is grayish and seems to be lying on top of a rock. This creature is stretched horizontally across the sand. It's a soft, pliable form. The creature's head is on our left, and its tail is on our right. We see its profile, which faces the painting's lower edge. The head has a human-like nose and long eyelashes. The head appears to be a distorted human profile. We can recognize a tongue, which hangs out of its mouth, eyelashes, and a closed eyelid. The body of the creature appears smooth and featureless, as though it's a cross between a fish, a dolphin, and a human. This animal-like form shows no signs of life. This figure is an example of metamorphosis, a device Dali and other Surrealists used to merge human, vegetal, and animal forms into a single unit. It occurs often in Dali's work.
Each object in The Persistence of Memory is painted with exactitude and is very recognizable. But this scene would not be found in real life. Such a combination of objects comes from the dream world. Everything looks real in the painting. Yet we know that it cannot be real. This deliberate confusion of real and imagined is central to the premise of Surrealism. In earlier periods of western art it is possible to find isolated examples of this kind of imagery. But Surrealism is the first time these ideas are cogently expressed as an attempt to represent the unconscious mind.
As in a dream, these strange combinations of elements have the power to evoke feelings and psychological states not normally available to us in everyday experience. Consider the experience of this painting. The viewer must pass through the more sinister foreground and middle ground to reach the serene background of this painting. In the background, the cliffs in the water are very beautiful, but they show no form of life. There is no movement on these cliffs. The water is also absolutely still. There are no waves in the water, and the image of the cliffs is clearly reflected on the water's surface. It's serene and peaceful in the background, and there is no evidence of human presence.
The foreground and middle ground, however, do show evidence of humans. The large rectangular box-like form. The flat board at the edge of the water. And the clocks of course. But why is the tree dead? Why are there no plants or grasses growing in this barren place? Why has measured time, signaled by the watches, stopped and melted? Why do the ants seem to be feeding on one of the watches? Why are insects the only active creatures in this landscape? And what is the animal-like or humanoid form in the center of the painting? Why are the watches so large in comparison to the dead tree and the animal-like, humanoid form? There are no answers to these questions. The world of this painting is ruled by an irrational order. It is disquieting and haunting. We return to the painting again and again to try to figure out the puzzle. But, as in a dream, no solution is offered.
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