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Referred to as the “camembert of time” by Salvador Dalí, the Spanish painter’s haunting melting clock motif has intrigued art scholars and museum-goers for decades, notably featured in his 1931 painting “The Persistence of Memory”.

Clocks are a globally recognized symbol for time, order and certainty. Timekeeping and its measurements are one of the only globally accepted systems. Dalí’s infamous painting unsettles the viewer not because it contains any particularly gory or disturbing content, but rather it suggests a weakness in a system that was once regarded as infallible.

The Surrealism movement was well underway by 1931 when “The Persistence of Memory” was released. The artistic and literary movement which was born as a response to WW1 can be summarized by a quote from one of the movement’s co-founders André Breton: “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.”

Dalí was a leading figure in the movement due to his uncanny ability to depict fantastical landscapes and ideas in a believable and realistic manner. Beyond comparing the fluid timepieces in the painting to melting camembert, the painter has offered little to no insight into the meaning behind the piece. Nevertheless, art theorists provide us with their best guess.

Dance Of Time II (Conceived in 1979) via Artsy

One widely held speculation is that the melting clocks reference Albert Einstein’s time dilation theory of relativity. Published in the early 20th century, Einstein proposed questions and arguments about the relativity of time and its relationship to physics. To save us both from headaches, I’ll refrain from attempting to summarize the theory. I’m sure there’s a Youtube video for that. One thing is for certain, Einstein’s findings deconstructed widely held beliefs in the objectivity of time – something which was once believed to be definite was now ambiguous and, dare I say, fluid. The clocks in “The Persistence of Memory” are rendered useless due to their deformed shape—their fluidity can be seen as a reference to the newly discovered ambiguity of time.

Persistence of Memory (1931) via MoMA

In the left corner of the painting, a closed pocket watch in pristine form is covered by ants. Ants feast on decomposing things and have been used as a symbol of death and decay throughout art history. It is worth nothing that the only non-distorted watch in the painting is overtaken by an army of ants as if it were a rotten peach in a picnic basket. Perhaps Dalí was arguing that in its newfound subjectivity, time and its keeping are merely an outdated and dead tradition. Maybe it was a mere suggestion to reevaluate the power we assign to the ticking clock. 

Surrealists set out with the goal to liberate creativity, thoughts and language from the boundaries of rationalism, so in many ways attempting to understand a surrealist work of art is self-defeating. In the vagueness of his work, Dalí created a canvas for his viewer to project their hopes, dreams, fears and insecurities onto. Only Dalí himself can assign meaning to his work with certainty, but nevertheless, knowing a theory or two can go a long way on a first date at a gallery, even if that theory begins and ends with camembert cheese.

Words by Jamison Kent

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