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Updated on January 3, 2016

Salvador Dali "The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory" An Analysis




AHI 285


In order to thoroughly understand the brilliance of Salvador Dali and “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”, we must first briefly touch on the life of the artist himself, the thoughts or method behind Surrealism, and develop an understanding of “The Persistence of Memory” (1931, oil on canvas, 9.5” x 1’1”)[1], a work which really birthed “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” (1954, oil on canvas 25.4cm x 33cm)[2].

Surrealism’s main goal was to bring into the conscious what was fundamentally unconscious, accessible only through dreams and psychoanalysis as pioneered by Sigmund Freud and his acolyte (and later Freudian heretic) Carl Jung. Dali, however, was also profoundly influenced by the work of Richard von Kraft-Ebbing’s seminal study on paraphilias and (largely) deviant sexuality entitled Psychopathia Sexualis[3]. These thinkers were pivotal in the development of Dali’s “paranoiac critical method” of developing “photographs” of his dream states: a type of “voluntary hallucination”[4]. Dali’s ultimate goal: making the irrational concrete.[5]

Regardless of Dali’s fascist political leanings, the artist was well aware of the fertile ground his home country of Spain was for mystical and seemingly “irrational” art (which are high praise to the surrealist and words Dali heard in 1931 at just 28 years old when he released “The Persistence of Memory”[6]). “I, Salvador Dali, come from Spain, which is the most irrational and most mystical country in the world.”[7] Still, when “The Persistence of Memory” was released in 1931, other surrealist artists did not consider Dali a “surrealist” because of his political leanings to which Dali basically responded, I don’t care as “I am surrealism.”[8]

Surrealism was, as the Comte de Lautremont put it in his seminal 1870 novel Maldoror “as beautiful as the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.”[9] Maldoror itself was a huge precursor to the literary development of Surrealism as Surrealism’s founding literary father, Andre Breton, adored the piece.[10]

Part of the brilliance of the original “Persistence of Memory” that carries over into “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” is that the paintings can be read as a still life, self-portrait, and landscape painting all at the same time[11]. This profound effect and the further disquieting effects of confounding the modern with the ancient, nature and technology, and the soft and the hard (i.e. the melting watches), were never lost on the artist: even after WWII, these elements still showed themselves in his work as in “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.” The post-war Dali was indeed expressed in the new Dali.[12] Still, the pre-war Dali was more entranced by his “father” Freud (reflected in “The Persistence of Memory”), the post war Dali had switched gears a bit to a fascination with the discovery of Quantum Physics (examine the bricks floating both above and below the water as an indication of this[13]) and Dr. Heisenberg (reflected in “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”, also known as “The Chromosome of a Highly-Coloured Fish’s Eye Starting the Harmonious Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory[14]).[15]

Yet, what are the symbolic associations with such brilliant pieces from one the 20th century’s greatest artists? The melting clocks suggest the fluidity of time. This alone may be a benign idea, however, articulated upon logically, the reasoning becomes simple: as water washes away into a drain pipe, sewer, or simply down a drain, it is gone. Thus time itself becomes a fluid and disappearing object. In a world dependent on time, composed of human minds who, without a concept of time, would presumably not exist, this would equal profound chaos, and there is another element within the work that rams home this interpretation of the piece: namely the ocean in the background disintegrating into nothing and revealing a fluorescent fish.[16]

Ever the ambiguous artist (after all, how else could it be under Surrealism?), Dali also adds elements to the piece that suggest continuity too: namely the landscape of the artist’s beloved Port Lligat (also present in “The Persistence of Memory”, further known as “Soft Watches”, “Droopy Watches”, “The Persistence of Time”, and “Melting Clocks”[17]) where Dali spent much time as a boy. Thus, the question remains, is the image itself disintegrating? Or is it perhaps an expression of continuity in a chaotic world? Or could the answer lie in the Quantum mysticism idea that does indeed line up with Surrealist dream logic: the idea of designing your own universe?[18] As all brilliant art does, the ultimate interpretation speaks for itself to everyone who views the piece.[19]


Alquie, Ferdinand. (1969). The Philosophy of Surrealism.

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Breton, Andre. (1969). Manifestoes of Surrealism.

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Harvard, Robert. (2007). The Spanish Eye: Painters and Poets of Spain.

Suffolk, UK: Tamesis Books.

Lautreamont, Comte de. (1965). Maldoror (Les Chants de Maldoror).

New York: New Directions Paperback. 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Persistence of Memory. Retrieved from:

MoMA. Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory. Retrieved from:

The Salvador Dali Museum. Clocking in with Salvador Dali. Retrieved from:

The Salvador Dali Museum. The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory. Retrieved from: Salvador Dali’s Method and Quantum Mysticism. Retrieved from: The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory. Retrieved from:

Von Krafft-Ebing, Richard. (1965). Psychopathia Sexualis.

New York: Bell Publishing.

[1] The Salvador Dali Museum: Clocking in with Salvador Dali


[3] Von-Krafft Ebbing

[4] Alquie, 123

[5] The Salvador Dali Museum, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory

[6] MoMA

[7] Harvard


[9] Lautreamont, 123

[10] Breton, 169

[11] The Salvador Dali Museum : Clocking in with Salvador Dali

[12] Ibid.



[15] Ibid.

[16] The Salvador Dali Museum, Clocking in With Salvador Dali



[19] The Salvador Dali Museum, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory


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