Salvador Dalí once said, "The difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad."
Dalí enjoyed the controversy he caused with his artwork and his unusual behavior. He is still today probably the most famous Surrealist painter, and the interpretation of his works continues to be a subject of debate in the art world as well as the sector of human psychology. Dalí's artwork usually represents his exploration of his own dreams and the mixed up memories in dreams. There is a definite Freudian influence in many of these paintings, and the artist's attention to symbolism carried on throughout his career. These are among the strangest paintings we will have looked at thus far, but not because they are totally abstract—they blend in with realism so well, and yet are so alien to our understanding, that their effect is one of Surrealism.
Probably the artist's most famous creation is this 1931 artwork entitled The Persistence of Memory. We are once again entering into a fantasy environment in which the artist has taken individual liberties which defy logic and physics. In the background on the left, we see a shelf of the sea taken out of the rest of the background seascape; and it has been raised on a platform above ground. This is impossible, but the artist can get away with it on his canvas—because it's his world, his creation. He reigns supreme here, with complete freedom and power and transcendence—maybe suggesting more than we initially realize.
Dalí created an eerie world in which death and decay are symbolized by a dead tree and a strange sea monster decomposing on a deserted beach. Ants swarm over a watch in an unsuccessful attempt to eat it. The droopy clocks, the painting's most enduring image, sag across the dead animal, the dead tree, and the unidentified platform on the left. These clocks almost seem to be decaying along with everything else in the painting (except for the insects). A bizarre situation in lighting focuses all of the sunlight (assuming it's sunlight) to the far background of the scene, illuminating distant cliffs and the horizon line of the sea on the right. The rest of the painting is covered in shadow, as if to imply imminent nightfall. The way the clocks sag and droop may indicate that a lot of time has passed; the way the dead sea animal lies alone along the beach, far from the shore, seems to show that it has been lying there a long time. Furthermore, there are no people, and the entire expanse of the landscape appears to be untouched by human life. Perhaps this is a post-apocalyptic image of time after death. The insect presence in the work also adds to the tone of decay, since generally creatures within the hexapoda subphylum (the most populous of land animals) tend to represent rotting or decomposing earth in an overrun sense. I've known evolutionary biologists who say, for instance, that humans will eventually die out to be replaced by insects who will then take over the earth. (Whatever.) It would appear, then, in this painting by Dalí that time has laid waste to everything—everything except time itself. For time alone is indestructible in the structure of our cosmos. These limp watches don't decay—but neither are they unbendable. Their minute and hour hands twist and hang from the center, vulnerable to influence (though perhaps not that of the insects). It's like they're made of paper—or paint, perhaps? You see, by painting clocks, the symbol of time, in such manipulated forms, the artist has taken control of time in the visual but also the thematic sense. Dalí is suggesting that artists alone can conquer time and achieve immortality through their medium, whilst the tiny scavengers (critics?) cannot get at them. This painting has survived long after his death and carries on a piece of his ideology into the 21st century with it. This is the "persistence of memory." Here we are, still studying his artwork long after he has himself passed away. What does that mean for art? Is it something outside of the realm of time and space, outside, then, of the physics of the cosmos? If so, such an entity should surely be labeled "surreal."