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The persistence of Dali

When The Persistence of Memory is unveiled next to The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the first-ever pairing of the paintings will create another unforgettable Salvador Dali image.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2002

When The Persistence of Memory is unveiled next to The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the first-ever pairing of the paintings will create another unforgettable Salvador Dali image.

The melting watches, set in a landscape both real and dreamlike, are compelling, disturbing and unforgettable. The Persistence of Memory, painted by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali in 1931, is probably his most famous work and among the most recognizable in 20th century art. It is also considered by many scholars to be among his finest, a definitive example of the surrealist movement, a technical tour de force and the embodiment of Dali's own preoccupations.

It has rarely left its home at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since its accession in 1934. But in a coup for St. Petersburg's Salvador Dali Museum, MoMA has agreed to send it here for three months. It arrived by courier before dawn and will be unveiled on Friday, displayed next to the Dali Museum's The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, painted between 1952 and 1954, in which Dali revisited the themes and symbols of the earlier work.

The two works have never been exhibited together. Seeing them side by side should be a rich and probably never-to-be-repeated experience.

"Dali was the rising star of surrealism when he painted it," said William Jeffett, curator of exhibitions at the Salvador Dali Museum. "It was in the first exhibition of surrealism in the United States, in Hartford (at the Wadsworth Atheneum), and it captured the imagination of people in America."

Time, space and form are distorted in Dali's dreamscape. In the background are the craggy cliffs of Port Lligat, a town in Catalonia, a province of northeast Spain, where Dali spent much of his life. In the foreground, along a broad sweep of sand, three pocket watches are draped over a bare olive tree, a step and a distorted profile that seems to have washed ashore. Ants swarm over a fourth closed watch.

"The painting is full of contradictions," said Jeffett, "hard and soft, mechanical and organic, realistic and dreamlike."

Dali was only 27 when he painted it, but his obsession with decay and death -- the ants and the fly alighting on one of the watches -- already was informing his work. The watches, too, are powerful symbols of time and its passage, and the mind's ability both to preserve and mutate memory over time.

Dali twists the traditional use of the olive in Western art as a symbol of peace, hope and healing. In this painting, the tree is barren. The bizarre head is a self-portrait, which he repeated in other paintings. Whether the artist here is dead or just asleep is unclear.

Dali, who was familiar with Freudian symbols, may have used the steps to add a reference to sexual intercourse, which Freud associated with steps and ladders. It could be yet another contradiction -- a man-made construction in unlikely natural surroundings. Or, as one scholar suggested, he could have added the horizontal planes more for form than theme.

In the later The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the symbols and landscape are similar but changed in important ways. The watches are falling apart, the tree is truncated, the head has morphed into an almost unrecognizable blob. The steps have exploded into a grid of blocks.

"The biggest thing in the interim years was the atomic bomb," said Jeffett, "and he was fascinated by physics and quantum theory, though I'm not sure how well he really understood them. The elements of the first painting are reintroduced in light of what was happening in those areas. Things are not as solid as they look."

The sea is peeled back to reveal a fish, perhaps signifying there are two realities -- that which is visible, and that known only to the intellect. The fish, a symbol of Christianity, could also reflect Dali's interest in religion and mysticism.

People who have only seen the works in books are astonished by their small size. At about 10 inches by 13 inches, they are "gemlike and meticulously painted," said Jeffett. "But they have the scale of large landscapes. That is another of the contradictions."

It's hard to imagine, in today's art market, that a dealer purchased The Persistence of Memory for $250 in 1931. The Wadsworth Atheneum could have bought it for $300 but passed. A private collector bought it a few years later for an unrecorded sum, probably less than $500, and gave it to the Museum of Modern Art. Today, it is beyond price.

"It's rare to loan a work as important as this one, said Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art. "There is an expectation that our iconic works will always be on view to visitors to New York."

The Dali museum had hoped for years to borrow it but had no luck until MoMA began a $650-million building project that will close the museum for several years. Many masterworks are being put into storage, making MoMA more inclined to let go of the painting temporarily.

Dali, aided by his ambitious wife Gala, knew how mystery and myth could enhance his celebrity. In his 1942 autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, he explained how he created The Persistence of Memory. He pondered a softening wheel of Camembert they had had for dinner, then looked at a landscape he was painting of Port Lligat. In a moment of epiphany, he wrote that he "saw" what the painting should be. Two hours later, when Gala returned, the picture, watches and all, was complete.

"You have to take everything he said with some doubt," said Jeffett. "That story sounds too good to be true, to be able to paint it in two hours. Still, Dali was a virtuoso painter."

Dali wrote that he asked Gala, "Do you think that in three years you will have forgotten this work?"

He claimed she replied, "No one can forget it once he has seen it."

The story may be apocryphal, but that line has proven true.


The Persistence of Memory will be unveiled Friday night during a private party at the museum. A gala is scheduled for Saturday night. Dalifest 2002, the free community celebration, features a flamenco dance demonstration, face painters, jugglers, magicians, tango lessons, an arts and crafts tent and more, noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday outside the museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. Admission prices Sunday are the same as they were in 1982: $3 adults, $2 seniors, $1 students. (727) 823-3767.

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