Dalí’s surrealist legacy: A consonance from Freud’s psychoanalysis to Einstein’s relativity


What do the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein’s relativity theory and the prominent surrealist painter Salvador Dalí have in common? This painting – “The persistence of Memory” – that binds them all together in the most fascinating yet unimaginable way possible.  


Salvador Dalí’s relationship with science began when he was an adolescent, as he started reading scientific articles at a very young age. This passion, which lasted a lifetime, was a fruit of the historical times that he had a chance to experience – among the most fertile in the history of science, with spectacular technological advances. We can confidently assert that by following the work of Salvador Dalí we traverse an important period in 20th-century science, at least in relation to the scientific advances that particularly affected him, through his paintings.  


Around the time of the painting’s creation in 1931, Salvador Dalí perfected his “paranoiac-critical method.” as the artist tried to enter a meditative state of self-induced psychotic hallucinations so that he could make what he called “hand painted dream photograph”. Of this unusual process, he wrote, “I am the first to be surprised and often terrified by the images I see appear upon my canvas. I register without choice and with all possible exactitude the dictates of my subconscious, my dreams.” 


The Persistence of Memory has sparked considerable debate about its interpretation. Some believe the melting watches in the piece are a response to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. As critic Dawn Ades describes it, “the soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time.” Although, when asked directly if Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was an inspiration, Dalí declared his true inspiration for the deformed clocks was a wheel of Camembert cheese that had melted in the sun. However, considering Dalí’s personality, the seriousness of this response is up for debate.  


In 1954, Dalí revisited the composition of this painting for “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”. the oil on canvas piece is believed to represent Dalí’s prior work being broken down to its elements. Through the subjects of The Persistence of Memory and The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory are the same, their differences illustrated the shifts that took place in Dalí’s career. The first painting was created in the midst of his Freudian phase, when Dalí was fascinated by the dream analysis pioneered by Sigmund Freud. By the 1950s, when the latter was painted, Dalí’s inspiration had become the science of the atomic age. 

Dalí explained this transition, saying, “In the surrealist period, I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world – the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud. I succeeded in doing it. Today the exterior world – that of physics – has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is theoretical physicist Dr. Heisenberg.” 


Image Source- Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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