Where did Dalí get the idea of soft watches?

Nguyen Dinh Dang

The surrealist master Salvador Dalí created the painting “The persistence of memory” at the age of 27 (1931). This 24 x 33 cm canvas had become one of the most famous artworks by Dalí as well as of surrealist arts at large thanks to the striking image of the soft watches melting down from the rectangular parallelepiped stone and olive branches. But where did Dalí get this idea?

Salvador Dalí Sự dai dẳng cuả ký ức (1931) sơn dầu, 24 x 33 cm

Salvador Dalí
The persistence of memory (1931)
oil on canvas, 24 x 33 cm

1) Story by Dali himself

In his autobiography “The secret life of Salvador Dalí“, Dalí wrote:

“It was on an evening when I felt tired, and had a slight headache, which is extremely rare with me. We were to go to a moving picture with some friends, and at the last moment I decided not to go. Gala would go with them, and I would stay home and go to bed early. We had topped off our meal with a strong Camembert, and after everybody had gone I remained a long time at the table meditating on the philosophic problems of the ‘super-soft’ which the cheese presented to my mind. I got up and went into my studio, where I lit the light in order to cast a final glance, as is my habit, at the picture I was in the midst of painting. This picture represented a landscape near Port Lligat, whose rocks were lighted by a transparent and melancholy twilight; in the foreground an olive tree with its branches cut, and without leaves. I knew that the atmosphere which I had succeeded in creating with this landscape was to serve as a setting for some idea, for some surprising image, but I did not in the least know what it was going to be. I was about to turn out the light, when instantaneously I ‘saw’ the solution. I saw two soft watches, one of them hanging lamentably on the branches of the olive tree. In spite of the fact that my headache had increased to the point of becoming very painful, I avidly prepared my palette and set to work. When Gala returned from the theater two hours later the picture, which was to become one of my most famous, was completed. I made her sit down in front of it with her eyes shut: ‘One, two, three, open your eyes!’ I looked intently at Gala’s face, and I saw upon it the unmistakable contraction of wonder and astonishment. This convinced me of the effectiveness of my new image, for Gala never errs in judging the authenticity of an enigma. I asked her:

– Do you think that in three years you will have forgotten this image?
– No one can forget it once he has seen it.
– Then let’s go and sleep. I have a severe head-ache. I’m going to take a little aspirin. What film did you see? Was it good?
– I don’t know. I can’t remember it any more!”

Dalí continued:

“A few days later a bird flown from America bought my picture of “soft watches” which I had baptized The Persistence of Memory. This bird had large black wings like those of El Greco’s angels, and which one did not see, and was dressed in a white duck suit and a Panama hat which were quite visible. It was Julien Levy, who was subsequently to be the one to make my art known to the United States. He confessed to me that he considered my work very extraordinary, but that he was buying it to use as propaganda, and to show it in his own house, for he considered it non-public and ‘unsalable’. It was nevertheless sold and resold until finally it was hung on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art, and was without doubt the picture which had the most complete ‘public success’.  I saw it recopied several times in the provinces by amateur painters from photographs in black and white—hence with the most fanciful colors. It was also used to attract attention in the windows of vegetable and furniture shops!”

But did Dalí really get the idea of soft watches from the camembert?

2) Speculation by Marcel Jean, surrealist artist contemporary with Dalí

According to Marcel Jean (1900 – 1993) in “The History of Surrealist Painting“, the source of Dalí’s soft watches is not in the melting cheese but in a double meaning of French words. Marcel Jean wrote:

[The word montre (watch) is a word-image with a double meaning: in French, it is the imperative of the verb montrer (to show) and the name of the apparatus (montrant) the time. But there is a very common childhood experience: the doctor asks the sick child to ‘montrer sa langue’ (‘show his tongue’), which obviously is soft. The child, we may say, la montre molle (shows it soft: with the double sense that in French this phrase can also mean ‘the soft watch’). The irrational and even anguishing nature of this act for the child, in view of the circumstances, could certainly constitute an experience capable of leaving profound impressions in the psyche. Here, then, is a most concrete origin for the image of the soft watches, an origin founded in an authentic childhood memory; this seems to be confirmed by the title of the picture, which may not have been premeditated by the artist but remains far from ‘gratuitous,’ as can be seen. The watches in The Persistence of Memory resemble tongues more than anything else. The word-play is untranslatable into Spanish, but the picture was painted in Paris when French had already become Dalí’s second language. A later picture of his, painted in America, with the rather farcical title Uranium and Atomica Melancholica Idyll, depicts among other things a watch ending in a tongue. In English, the phrase: ‘Watch your tongue,’ while not an equivalent of ‘montre ta langue’, conveys the same sense of adult supervision of the child’s activity. It would have been most interesting if the artist had indicated clearly the true explanation, but one can easily understand why, consciously or not, he has preferred to conceal it behind the deceptive symbol of Einsteinian camembert. The image of the soft watch is not only double but multiple: the tongue itself is a symbol, that of a soft penis. Dali has always been haunted by ideas of deficiency. The great number of crutches and of figures deformed by soft extensions or subtractions, which he has always enjoyed painting, is revealing. The case of Dali provides a good illustration of Adler’s theory that anxiety about insufficiency is balanced by compensatory ideas of power: his paintings often include human figures whose heads are fantastically swollen.”

Marcel Jean Cái tủ siêu thực (1941)

Marcel Jean
Surrealistic armoire (1941)

3) Observation by Nguyen Dinh Dang

Dalí was notorious for borrowing images, compositions, ideas from old masters. The double images, floating objects etc. were not his inventions. They were present in European fine arts long before Dalí. Examples are the double images in the paintings by 16th century’s Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526/27 – 1593),

Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Anthropomorphic lanscape

and the floating shell in Caravaggio’s painting:

Caravaggio Bữa tối tại Emmau (1606) sơn dầu, 141 x 196.2 cm

Caravaggio
Supper at Emmau (1606)
oil on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm

The great surrealist predecessor Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516) was also amongst the old masters whose ideas and compositions Dalí borrowed. In 2007 Félix Fanès, one of the most knowledgeable Dalí scholars in the world, pointed out that the composition of “The great masturbator “, which Dalí created in 1929, two years before the painting “ The persistence of memory “, is almost identical to that of the fragment in the left painting of the triptych “The garden of delights” by Hieronymus Bosch [1].

Left: Left painting of the triptych "The garden of delights" (1490-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch with the fragment framed in red at the right margin. Right: The enlarged fragment of the Bosch's painting (top) and "The great masturbator" (rotated by 90 degrees) by Salvador Dalí (1929)

Left: Left painting of the triptych “The garden of delights” (1490-1510) by Hieronymus Bosch with the fragment framed in red at the right margin.
Right: The fragment from the red frame in Bosch’s painting on the left (top) and “The great masturbator” (rotated by 90 degrees) by Salvador Dalí (1929) (bottom)

However Félix Fanès did not mention the connection between the same fragment of the painting by Hieronymus Bosch and “The persistence of memory“. When I compared this fragment of the Bosch’s painting and the left part of “The persistence of memory“, it became clear to me that the soft watch melting down from the rectangular parallelepiped stone in Dalí’s painting came from the bug-like creature on the rock in Bosch’s painting. The dots on the bug and its two antennas have a direct association with the watch dial with its numbers and its two hands in Dalí’s painting. Meanwhile the orange pocket clock covered with ants at the bottom left of Dalí’s painting looks very similar to the wine-bladder-shape creature covered with white dots below the bug monster in Bosch’s masterpiece. Dalí might even have given a hint to (or camouflaged) this connection by putting in the lower midst part of the composition a human profile, which looks exactly like “The great masturbator” that he created 2 years before.

I had been searching for this source of the Dali’s soft watches, which I have discovered by myself only today. The knowledge of art history had indeed played an important role in the career of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

13 September 2014

Fragment of the paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (left) and Salvador Dalí (right)

Xem bản tiếng Việt

___________________

[1] Félix Fanès, Salvador Dalí: The Construction of the Image 1925–1930 (Yale University Press, 2007) p. 74.

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