In Salvador Dalí’s most famous painting, the iconic The Persistence of Memory, the eye bounces from one disturbingly amorphous figure to another. On the horizon line, a clock oozes over a decaying olive tree; below it, a disembodied face is draped over a rock in the coastal landscape of this dreamlike scene. The distortion and unease of these central figures are striking, and it is easy to miss a small, upended clock in the corner of the painting. This clock has tipped onto its face, hiding its timekeeping hands from view, and its body is teeming with ants.
Although Dalí himself insisted that his 1931 painting was inspired by nothing more than a melting slice of Camembert cheese he had seen at a picnic, critics have long conjectured that it is a treatise on the slippery, unknowable nature of time. According to this widely accepted interpretation, the ant-infested clock represents the concept of objective time being devoured by death.
This painting, its surreal imagery, and Dalí’s seemingly nonsensical insistence that it was, in fact, a portrayal of a mundane foodstuff, provide a microcosm of the central conflict of the painter’s career: the tension between the real and the perceived. In fact, Dalí was a force that existed outside of these competing realms and created his own space, a place between atoms, a dream world where anything was possible.
Dalí himself is a figure mired in controversy. At many points throughout his wild and eccentric years of fame, he even seemed to seek it out, almost using scandal as an artistic medium in itself. Among detractors, a common criticism of Dalí is that he is a phony, a sellout, all image and no substance. Although his meticulous painting style stands as strong evidence to the contrary, the painter himself did little to dissuade those who made such claims.
He brought his pet anteater onto a popular American talk show and threw it into the lap of another guest. He appeared in commercials for Alka Seltzer and designed the wrappers for off-brand candies. He even found himself exiled from the Surrealist movement after he portrayed Adolf Hitler in multiple works and called Spanish dictator Francisco Franco “the only intelligent man in politics”.
These antics, some harmless, others less so, can be interpreted as bids for safety and privilege under oppressive regimes. They may also, however, be seen as a drawn-out and twisted piece of performance art. Perhaps, with his peculiar behavior and labored persona, Dalí was challenging his audience, which grew to include the entire world, to confront the existence of something that they could not believe was real. After all, Dalí’s quest in his visual art was the materialization of the unreal, the fabrication of dreams.
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