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Surrealism: a Closer Look at Dali’s Works and Life

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In order to understand the concept of surrealism, it is important to study those artists who most influenced the style. Salvador Dali, born in Figueres, Spain on May 11, 1904, is considered to have revolutionized this genre with his renowned eccentricity and knack for self-publicity. Having previously worked with cubism, Dali was drawn to surrealism by the nature of the style. He believed that true creative genius could be inspired only by singularity and randomness, which seemed to come together in surreal painting. Even after a difficult childhood from the death of his mother and the difficult relationship he had with his father, Dali remained in Spain for most of his life. The painter lived his hometown of Figueres as well as Catalonia and Madrid but also lived in the United States for about fifteen years. Dali lived in major cities such as New York, Paris, and London while his art was on tour. (Sandoval “Salvador Dali Biography;” The Dali Museum “Salvador Felipe Jacinto…”)

Renaissance artists largely influenced Dali’s art. It is thought that even his moustache, which became a staple of his appearance, was modeled after that of seventeenth-century painter Diego Velázquez. Renaissance influence in his painting is suggested by his fine brush strokes and delicate style. This way of painting, along with his use of oil paint as a common medium, creates a generally smooth texture in most of his art. His paintings were also influenced by cubists like Picasso, who he met during his climb to the top of the artistic world. As specialists in the form of art he developed roots in, these artists inspired Dali to foster the modern style he held at the time and would carry into the future. These two influences created somewhat of a contradiction in his work between fine, delicate painting style and the unreal “dream state” established by his work in surrealism. By using a method known as automatism, or what he called “critical paranoia,” Dali was able to “cultivate genuine delusion as in clinical paranoia while remaining residually aware in the back of [his] mind that the control of reason and will has been deliberately suspended” (Sandoval “Salvador Dali Biography”). He was able to consciously remove himself from reality to achieve a maximum level of creativity for his work. (Renoir Fine Art “Salvador Dali”)

Dali’s strong political views may have influenced his paintings but certainly influenced how people in the art community viewed him. Dali was open about the fact that he supported both anarchism and communism, though there is speculation that his political declarations were more for his image than anything. The fact that he chose to live in Spain under the authoritarian rule of General Franco for his whole life and refused to renounce fascism was looked down upon by other progressive surrealists, and it caused some of his later works to receive less recognized merit than his earlier works. While he was one of surrealism’s biggest contributors, he was eventually “expelled” from the movement in 1934 because of his views, though this did not stop him from continuing to tour with his popular surrealist art. (Sandoval “Salvador Dali Biography”)

Throughout Dali’s career, he placed certain images and themes in many of his works. Such objects as animals, clocks, and distorted humanoid figures represented different things to Dali. In “The Persistence of Memory,” which was painted in 1931 and is currently kept in the Museum of Modern Art (New York), melting clocks are a significant image. This clock represents the belief that time is relative, not concrete. In this painting specifically, the extension and amorphous nature of time is also suggested by the sprawling landscape Dali creates by his use of space. The elephant, on the other hand, is used in many other paintings as a distortion of space, which is what Dali saw the animal as. Sometimes exhibiting elephants with unnaturally thin, spindly legs, the paintings suggest weightlessness and an unusual phenomenon in relation to mass in Dali’s dream world. Dali takes his inspirations and distorts them so that other people can see them how he sees them in his mind. His paintings are designed mainly to provoke emotion. His later works, more religious in nature, return to a more classical style. (Renoir Fine Arts “Salvador Dali”)

The “Persistence of Memory” is one of Dali’s most famous oil paintings. In it, he creates a feeling of dullness and perhaps sluggishness, as if time has slowed to pass very slowly, by his use of space and image symbolism. This refers to the indefinite and relative nature of time. His color scheme uses the principles of color theory in a way that adds to this feeling of dullness. Dali uses mainly primary colors in the piece as well as browns and grays so that it is not vibrant or uplifting. Various shades and tints of these colors are applied to span over a wide value scale, creating shadow throughout the painting. This adds a gloomy effect, especially to the foreground. The lighter colors near the top of the painting, when combined with the illusion of distance, suggest that a more pleasant setting exists further away. Emphasis is definitely placed on the foreground, with focal points specifically on the organic form lying on the ground and the clock melting over the edge of the rectangular prism in the lower left-hand corner. These areas are most emphasized by the high contrast of values. The lighter shades of the organic figure stand out from the dark foreground and the light reflections of the clock make it pop from the image. It has a distinct three-dimensional shape. The edge of this prism is also used, along with the dead tree, to employ line and movement in the painting. Both lines lead the eye from the focal points in the center of the foreground into the distance, which is the background. Flowing lines are used more than rigid ones to create a calm rhythm of movement in the piece. This is done so that the viewer’s eye moves from place to place constantly but sluggishly, again pointing to the slowness of time. This is the common theme throughout the painting that all the elements of design point to. I like the surrealist style of Dali’s paintings in general, but the mysterious nature of the “Persistence of Memory” draws me to it in particular. The interpretation that I gather from a combination of these artistic elements is that time is relative to where one is and how one feels. Perhaps this was Dali’s idea behind all his emotion-provoking art. It is during the moments when time seems to move more slowly that our worst, most dismal memories return to haunt us, as if they will never truly fade.

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Surrealism: a Closer Look at Dali’s Works and Life. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
“Surrealism: a Closer Look at Dali’s Works and Life.” GradesFixer, 11 Dec. 2018,
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