The first summer that Dalí spent in Port Lligat, Figueras in 1931 marked him for life. It was here that he created his most famous painting, ‘The Persistence of Memory’. This iconic painting introduces the image of the soft pocket- watch; the limp melting watches drape languidly over various hard surfaces, suggesting the irrelevance and transitory or fluid nature of time. The sea like landscape is clearly taken from Dalì’s memories of the coast in Catalonia. Dalí seeks to juxtapose everyday images into a surreal setting with the inclusion of ants and clocks, this being the central tenant of Surrealism.
The painting epitomizes Dalí 's theories of 'softness' and 'hardness', which were central to his thinking at the time. His message is, that our subliminal unconscious mind is present in what we do in our daily lives and has more power over us than man-made objects of the conscious world. In this, possibly Dalí 's most recognised painting, time has no importance; objects created by humans, such as the watches, are wholly transitory.
This painting was first exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York as part of a retrospective 'Surrealist Paintings, Drawings, and Photographs' in 1932. The painting was also of significant importance because it introduced Dalí to America, it now hangs in the MOMA in New York.
Soft watches also appeared in Dalì ’s later painting, ‘The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory,’ (1952-54). In this painting, done twenty years after the former, the seascape is covered in water. The sand floor is broken up into blocks, seemingly floating in the ether. The olive tree from which the soft clock hangs, is also breaking apart. The painting portrays a ‘disintegration’ of the images first seen in the 1931 canvas. Dalí often described his paintings as ‘hand-painted dream photographs’.
Dalí ’s increasing interest in quantum physics represented a step away from Surrealism; this interest in the nuclear is clearly represented in this painting
‘The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory’, is currently on display in the Dalí Museum in St Petersburg.
The theme of malleable time, symbolized by the soft watch, was utilized by Dalí through various artistic mediums, including sculpture. In fact, watches appear in all of these three-dimensional artworks; ‘The Persistence of Memory’ (1980) ‘The Profile of Time’ (1977-1984), ‘Horse Saddled with Time’; ‘Nobility of Time’ sculpture (1975-84), ‘Dance of Time’ I,II,& III. (1979-84), ‘Woman of Time’ (1973-84).
As the artist himself explains, ‘materialization of the flexibility of time and the indivisibility of time and space. Time is not rigid. It is one with space, fluid’.
Dalí, through his use of overt symbolism, examines the human perception of time, that is, the speed of time, while precise in scientific use, is widely variable in human perception. When we are involved in pleasant activities or in work that absorbs all our attention, 'time flies', but when we are mired in boredom or discomfort, it drags. The limp watch no longer 'keeps' time; it does not measure its passage. Thus, the speed of time depends on the individual.