The persistence of memory
The works of Spanish artist Salvador Dali, or Avida Dollars as he’s sometimes known as, are at once complex and simple

"In my work, there is love of everything that is gilded and excessive, my passion for luxury and my love of oriental clothes."
"The difference between a madman and me is that I am not mad."
— Salvador Dali

The Persistence of Memory is a wonderful title for a painting, and appropriately so, for it relates to one of the most memorable works of the 20th century, an iconic image that truly belongs to its age. But its maker, the Spanish artist Salvador Dali — full name Salvador Domènec Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, Marquis de Púbol: born 1904, died 1989 — was not the most widely admired man of his times. Estimates of him vary from "an undoubted genius" to "an insufferably arrogant man", "a shameless self-promoter." Whatever the case, he certainly was an eccentric, and delighted in projecting himself as one.

The Persistence of Memory. Painting by Salvador Dali, 1931. Collection: Museum of Modern Art, New York
The Persistence of Memory. Painting by Salvador Dali, 1931. Collection: Museum of Modern Art, New York

With his bug-eyes and wax (sometimes sugar)-stiffened moustache that rose vertically upwards, he stood out anyway, but he cultivated this persona with relish and care. Endless stories about him and his bizarre behaviour keep circulating. There is, thus, this account of his having appeared for a formal lecture in London, buffoonishly dressed in a diving suit so that he could ‘descend’, he said, ‘into the subconscious’.

When the airtight helmet began to suffocate him and his ego, his "wife scurried on stage and desperately attempted to hammer a billiard cue through the suit's heavy casing while the audience fell about the auditorium in convulsions of laughter."

Again, when interviewed by Mike Wallace on the much-respected television show in America, 60 Minutes, Dalí kept referring to himself in the third person, and told the startled Wallace matter-of-factly that "Dalí is immortal and will not die".

During another television appearance, on The Tonight Show, Dalí carried with him a leather rhinoceros and refused to sit upon anything else. With him nearby, there was never a dull moment around, nor was controversy very far.

A piece of Jewellery. Based on Dali's Persistence of Memory
A piece of Jewellery. Based on Dali's Persistence of Memory

With all his fame, or notoriety, following him wherever he went, however, few could deny that Dali had genuine talent. Having started showing his work at a very young age, and won high praise for it, his rise was meteroric, so to speak. As he grew and travelled, moving between Cubism and Dadaism, and fields like film, photography, fashion, literature, his circle of friends and acquaintances and collaborators, and naturally critics, kept growing. Tracking the course of his life — apart from many writers, he wrote about it himself more than once — one comes upon countless names: artists like Picasso and Miro — his countrymen — whom he greatly admired; Man Ray and Duchamp, who with their defiance of norms were challenging the very definition of art; Stefan Zweig and Garcia Lorca, the writers; Sigmund Freud, the towering figure of psychoanalysis; Luis Bunuel and Alfred Hitchcock, celebrated filmmakers, and so on.

But it was his entry into the rapidly growing movement — Surrealism — that had begun sweeping the world, in fact, his emergence as one of its foremost figures, that made him the iconic figure that he is remembered as. The world of dreams, automatism, the embedded layers of the subconscious, disconcerting encounters between reality and imagination, is what Surrealism was exploring with spectacular results. Dali inhabited that world and thrived.

Impeccably drawn and coloured as they were, his paintings shocked and startled: burning giraffes, weightless elephants with spindly legs, eggs with narcissuses sprouting from their cracks, women's bodies with half-pulled desk-drawers coming out of them. What stands out, however, from the entire body of his work, however, is that one painting, The Persistence of Memory, which he painted in 1931, when he was only 27 years of age.

It is not easy to describe the painting in words for it is complex on the one hand and simple on the other. In it, Dali plays with time, using watches of different descriptions. I quite like how one critic — not friendly in general but almost forced to acknowledge its mesmerising quality — summed it up. Here, he wrote, "a trinity of stopwatches — each frozen on a different hour as if summoned from far-flung dimensions — melt over broken branches on some eternal shore where a sleeping face, like a wave-worn seashell, has run aground."

The painting is unexpectedly small, and is now in the famed Museum of Modern Art in New York whose gallery notes on it have bravely kept changing over the years. But each time they acknowledge that here Dali was "systemising confusion, and thus, helping to discredit the world of reality".

Each watch tells a different time; one of them hangs from a leafless branch, melting; another has ants swarming over it, as if over edible flesh. The mind moves constantly from one thought to another, switching between corners of the painting. Melting watches? Ants eating up the golden case of a watch? A mysterious fish/snail-like creature almost asleep on the shore?

A beautiful Catalan rock rising out of the sea far at the back? Everything painted with ‘meticulous verisimilitude’. But what does it all mean, one wonders? Is Dali making here a "hand painted photograph of a dream", as he often claimed he did? Someone suggested that the painting, with watches telling different times, was his way of stating that time was not rigid or deterministic, or was even a comment on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity; quickly, Dali denied this, saying roguishly that it was inspired by the sight of Camembert — that soft French cheese — melting in the hot August sun. But if I ask myself why am I suddenly turning to this enticing work in the present column, it may be that I came recently upon an advertisement of an obscenely expensive piece of jewellery based on Dali’s Persistence of Memory: studded with diamonds and rubies and emeralds. What was I looking at, I wondered. The transformation of a moving work of art into an object denoting, in bald terms, only money? Suddenly, I was reminded of that caustic comment on the late, purely commercial, phase of Dali (when the painter had been formally expelled from the Surrealist movement) by Surrealist poet Andre Breton in which he coined the phrase "Avida Dollars", meaning "eager for dollars". The phrase was an anagram, using the same letters that are in the name Salvador Dali, but organised differently.