Sunday, August 12, 2012

Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory"

Salvador Dali was one of the younger artists to join in with Dada, and a latecomer.  Influenced by the psychoanalytic writings and theories of Sigmund Freud and reveling in the revolutionary vogue of psychobabble, the dadaists were already moving away from the randomness of Dada and venturing into the deliberation of Surrealism.

That is probably the first thing any student of Surrealism needs to understand, that it was like a conference, a congress, a synod, with its own parliamentary rules about how the game was to be played and the style was supposed to go.  The clearest evidence of that is how Dali himself, the late joiner was ousted by The Surrealist Congress before 1940 and the advent of World War II.

And why was Dali, the poster boy for Surrealism in all the fashionable magazines, ousted by his fellows?  Because he validated the meaning of symbols in his religious paintings like "The Temptation of St. Anthony".  His validations of symbolic science also got him into trouble with his former friends.

So, what is "The Persistence of Memory" all about?  It is about the unconscious mind's inability to make sense of memories and it's insistence on reorganizing tropes.  This has been theoretically stated many ways:  the right brain never sleeps but not being the analytical side of the brain it occupies its nights trying creatively to draw order from the jumble of input that it takes in during the day; the unconscious mind (Id) reveals fears and anxieties and suppressed emotions through dreams; part of the brain is more spatial and visual and learns that way and therefore represents what it learns in new arrangements of visuals.  Back then, it was the new vogue of personality to interpret dreams because Freud had introduced dream interpretation as a method of psycho analysis.  Since it involved visuals and tropes and symbols and a quest for meaning and meant a new untapped gateway into the rich creative mine of the unconscious it was ripe for artists and was their baileywick.

In order to tap into the unconscious, the Surrealist artists cut to the chase, they didn't wait on slow laborious analysis of verbally recounted dreams, they ran into the dark mine via games such as "The Exquisite Corpse" and Automatic Writing.  These required nearly trance-like states and detachment from awareness and reality.  They produced strange shapes, "creatures" of the Id, with vague associations to reality, human bodies with birds' heads (Max Ernst's paintings) and things that looked like amoebas associating with roosters (Joan Miro's art).  For an example of automatic writing, look at John Hurt's performance in the 4th Indiana Jones movie, where part of the subplot is the exploitation of psychic science in the post-war Fifties.

Personally, I think it was a nice change from seeing innocent characters go through shock treatments and lobotomies.

Dali's painting began as shapes from the unconscious.  By the time he painted it he had seen plenty of the results from the Surrealist party games and free association sessions.

Pretty meaningless, isn't it?  But, if you add the kind of meaning one gets from dreams -- Think of how often you have awoken from a dream and said, "That must mean something!"  Dali added some of the most compelling tropes of our daily lives.  Clocks -- "I'm late, I'm late!"  The landscape of "home".  A human face, especially the eyes and eyelashes -- and even a known and recognized linguistic trope as a clue, the crawling ants.  Thus a meaningless painting with limp and unrealized shapes tugs at us perpetually demanding interpretation.

Of course, this is the Surrealist's game, to show us what fools we are for believing anything, as in Magritte's clever but a bit annoyingly derogatory "The Treason of Imagery".

In 1937 and 1938 the Surrealists fled Paris (and Germany) and Vienna because the Nazis labeled them degenerates and put them on wanted lists with guaranteed deportation to concentration camps.  They fled to New York, the same city where Sigmund Freud was seeking treatment for cancer.  While there, Dali met Freud.  Who knows if that meeting related to a change in his approach to meaning, but in 1938 Salvador Dali entered a Hollywood painting contest with "The Temptation of St. Anthony", a painting that uses and validates Christian religious symbols and meaning.

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