Salvador Dali can be considered the iconic painter of the surrealist movement. He was cheeky, provocative, ironic, and disrespectful in his attitude to all he came in contact with. He took the foundations of surrealism to their extreme. Dali raised surrealism to a higher artistic level by depicting emotions and thoughts ranging from realism to delirium. His unusual creativity is evocative because of its mysteriousness and uncertainty. This paper attempts to discover a little more about this Spanish artist and takes a look at one of his most famous paintings.
The exhibition, “Thirty Years of Dali” has been created to display the transition of Dali’s work over the years from raw to exquisite. Dali’s creativity has long fascinated us, and in this exhibition, one can see how the dreamlike quality of many of his works has been improved over the years by the honing of his skills and the increasing attention to the detail in his works.
Dali’s paintings provide us with not only with images of dreams, but nightmares as well. The paintings, “The Persistence of Memory” and “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War” are the stuff of our worst nightmares – as they were probably intended to be. “The Persistence of Memory” exhibits an almost photographic quality, and could seem to be realistic if it were not for the fact that the clocks in the picture were melting in the sun. Said to be inspired by Brie cheese melting in the heat, Dali described this painting as an attempt to portray the passing of time as it occurs in our dreams compared with actual time.
The painting, “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War” is dominated by a stylized naked female figure attached to (or perhaps part of) another figure whose gnarled hand is compressing the single breast of the female. The painting represents the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, (in which the country was fighting against itself, as the figure in the painting is fighting against itself), which he said he predicted, but this is debated by some. The melting boiled beans, the food of the poor, are Dali’s nod to the Spanish at their ability to endure and survive. The almost photographic like portrayal of bizarre creatures and images connotes, at first viewing, recognition of our personal nightmares and stirs in us a process of delving further into the meaning of his works. No doubt this was his intention.
Dali combines the incomprehensible with the everyday normal. Such juxtaposition confuses us and we experience conflicting emotions as we struggle to understand the meaning of his works. His combination of everyday objects in unbelievable states or situations conflicts severely with our sense of what we know to be true, but the strange visions which Dali portrays in his artwork are meant to shock and disrupt us and to engender the conflicting emotions of excitement, and sometimes even disgust, fascination and horror.
The exemplar of the surrealist movement, Dali has managed to influence the common man’s perception of art and to drag him away from his preconceived notions, based on the sometimes “chocolate boxey” images of earlier movements. Often misunderstood, he is sometimes perceived as gauche – an eccentric showman whose exaggerated, dramatic work masqueraded as art (Rile, 2015). Following are the works included in this exhibition.
Critique of “The Persistence of Memory” 1931
The iconic painting, “The Persistence of Memory”, by Salvador Dali, measures 9 ½inches by 13 inches and is an oil painting depicting a surrealist landscape. It is held by the New York Museum of Modern Art. The top third of the painting’s background consists of the blue of the sky and the yellows of either fading or dawning light on the horizon, or perhaps the yellows are intended to reflect the extreme heat of the atmosphere reflecting on a parched landscape. Below this, but still in the top third of the painting’s background is the lighter blue of the sea.
The lower two-thirds of the background features a dark and foreboding brown and featureless landscape. To the right of the background in the top third of the painting, an imposing headland, painted in yellows and ochres, just forcibly into the sea. The color of the headland reflects the yellows in the skyline. To the left of the painting, where the water meets the land, a rectangular, elevated plane is depicted. Both the headland and this plane occupy about one third each of the horizontal upper third of the painting. Identical small objects, perhaps small rocks, are depicted in front of both the headland and the plane.
The left foreground of the painting contains a large, bricklike object on which is situated a bare tree branch. From this branch is suspended a melting pocket watch, which is reprised by a similar pocket watch melting over the edge of the brick. These pocket watches are almost identical in color and shape. Also resting on the brick in the supreme, left hand foreground, is a another pocket watch, depicted in red, and not appearing to be melted as are the other two are.
The central foreground is dominated by a dolphin-like figure with exaggerated eyelashes, painted in a pale color which contrasts strongly with the dark background. Over the back of this figure is another melting pocket watch, similar in color and size to the others mentioned earlier.
The apparent simplicity of this painting is confounded by Dali’s use of line, shape, texture and color. Dali’s use of line is robust in delineating the strong elements of the painting: the headland, the tree branch and the pocket watches. However, when he approaches the central element, the figure in the foreground, he uses very delicate brushstrokes to depict the creature. Even the striking visual element of the overstated eyelashes is rendered in a very delicate manner. The lineal detail on the pocket watches is very realistic, and the detail on the headland almost makes us believe that it is photographic.
There is a noticeable juxtaposition between the harsh and strident lines of the headland the brick, the platform and the tree branch against the fluidity of the melting pocket watches and the central figure. Shadowing in the painting creates an ominous, surreal effect. Shadowing appears only in the foreground and its dark, foreboding effect is a complete contrast to the sunlit, if somewhat imposing, background. Dali also uses a form as a method of contrast in this painting. The angular forms of the headland, the platform and the brick are in complete contrast with the fluid and malleable forms of the central figure and the melting watches.
Dali uses a variety of methods and techniques in his painting to achieve his intended result which is to foster a sense of unreality and inquiry in the mind of his audience. Whilst it is the melting pocket watches which are the focus of the painting, it is the under-described, a mysterious central pale figure which is the most intriguing. What is also interesting about this painting is that there appears to be no source of heat which would enable the watches to melt. The only visible heat source is that of the rising (or setting) sun in the background, which does not provide any fierce heat. It appears only as a benign source of light.
While our attention is solidly focused on the melting watches, every now and then out attention flits to this mysterious figure which portrays a sense of seeing movement out of the corner of one’s eye. Rationally we know that the figure cannot move, but all the same we tend to experience a feeling of movement when we are not quite focusing on it. The figure resembles a beached marine animal, and the closed eyes suggest that it is either asleep or dead. The long eyelashes suggest a dreamlike state, or something which can only be conjured up in a dream or by one’s imagination, or experienced by an unseen eye.
The contrast between light and dark in the painting enables us to see the “good” and the “bad” in the painting. The dark foreboding foreground and the melting watches predict doom, but through the central figure and the perspective created by the brick and the platform we are led to a brighter future full of hope (sunlight) in the background. The strong change of scenery in the painting provided the illusion of a journey into a better place, however, always hampered by the unknown reason why the watches are melting. Given the apparent coldness of the foreground, these watches are confusing to us and make us yearn to step deeper into the painting in search of safety and normality – the familiar sky, ocean and headland.
Dali’s paintings represent a clash of the two worlds of reality and imagination, and they are amply displayed in this painting and melded together by the figure in the foreground. The normal (the cliffs) and the abnormal (melting watches) are joined together by the observer’s personal interpretation of what the unknown figure on the beach is meant to represent.
. Like the early classical painters, Dali’s paintings are bathed in golden light, which illuminate the strange and unusual, or in the case of his “The Persistence of Memory”, the only “normal” element of the scene – the cliffs, which are reminiscent of the cliffs of Catalonia, where he grew up.
This painting is very successful in creating a feeling of surrealism. The different symbols within the painting allow the observer to generate their own meaning to suit their beliefs of what the painting is meant to portray. Deserted landscapes abound in Dali’s paintings and are representative of the story taking place, not in real time, but as if in the mind, as a dream, or in a state of suspended animation. Dali gives us the impression that he walks around inside a world conjured up in his dreams, much like today’s technology where a player steps into virtual reality This painting also gives us the impression that something is occurring just outside our field of vision, and yet is unobserved when we turn to face it. The painting is alive with mystery and surrealism.
.The themes of “The Persistence of Memory”, so named because it refers to Dali’s mind, or his memory, are created over and over again in Dali’s paintings and are used almost to add specific features of the artist’s own memories or dreams to the canvas. On canvas, he shares part of his mind with us. The painting also allows us to dream and delve deeper into our conscientious or inner being, in an attempt to extract our hidden secrets or beliefs. This painting disrupts our peace, it confuses and confronts us and creates a sense of unease and portending danger. But it also allows us to find refuge in the safety of the background where we are able to indulge in the normality of what is familiar. Whatever Dali’s intent, this painting grabs us by the shoulders, shakes us a little and wakes us up.
Hence the name The Persistence Of Memory becomes very apt for this painting. After studying the process by which it was created, we realize that it is not just the plain landscape painting with droopy watches that it appears to be. In fact, it is more so a self-portrait of the artist’s mind. Dali’s intention, if any, was not to show something visually, but rather share a part of his mind in the form of memories captured on canvas.
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