24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

The Exploration of Other Realities through the Conscious and Unconscious Mind

The Persistence of Memory is a classic surrealist painting well recognized by the public due to its unusual imagery of melting clocks. This piece continues to influence many artists, including the modern painter Michael Cheval. As the most popular image of surrealism, Dali shows significant influences in artworks among the topics of the subconscious, time, and individual realities.

Dali is one of the most well-known and earliest surrealist painters. In the article “The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dali (1904-1989)” Michael Salcman writes about the origins of surrealism and Dali’s role. The term “surrealist” was first used in a literary context by Apollinaire describing his drama Les Mamelles de Tiresias, and the term spread among other poets. The poet Andre Breton utilized the technique automatism, which he defined as “dictation of thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, and beyond any aesthetic or moral preoccupation.” This method was then used in drawing and painting. Soon after meeting his wife Gala Eluard, Dali began working on The Persistence of Memory featuring three melting clocks on a barren landscape near the shore with a fourth clock covered in ants. One clock is draped over a fleshy mass that resembles a face indicated by the long eyelashes, a wavy eyebrow, and what appears to be the hook of a nose.[1]

The origins of The Persistence of Memory arise from a night when Dali and his wife were planning on going to the movie theater with their friends, but due to a headache, he stayed home. Dali had eaten Camembert cheese, which caused him to reflect on the notion of the “super-soft”. He then went into his studio to continue his painting of a landscape of rocks near Port Lligat, and then came up with the idea to complete it with soft watches, one hanging from the branch of the tree. Dali also painted his self-portrait lain on the floor with closed eyes, accentuating the dream state of the image.[2] The piece was small in size and contained ordinary objects distorted. The watches melt and the fleshy profile of Dali’s head lays in the ground. He painted ants on top of one watch, which he often used as symbols of death or female genitalia.[3] This painting helped him become the image of surrealism, serving as a source of inspiration to artists even from a young age.

Michael Cheval is one artist whose work shows a clear influence from Dali’s work, specifically in creating other realities apart from the norm. He was primarily fascinated by Salvador Dali at 15 years old, because his art revealed to him that there are no boundaries and limits for fantasy in art.[4]

Michael Cheval uses absurdity as a basis for his art to distort reality and logic. He is inspired by the Surrealist movement and the works of Lewis Carroll. Similarly to Salvador Dali, Cheval uses realism and unusual imagery to encourage viewers to create their own reality from his paintings. Cheval always dreamt of becoming an artist due to being raised in an artistic family. He is inspired by everything around him including books, music, and films. When Cheval moved to the United States from Russia, his art also changed to become brighter but the philosophical concepts in his paintings remained consistent.[5]
Although Dali did not have Einstein’s theory of time in mind while painting this piece, the watches became a well known symbol of the relativity of time.[6] In a time when the relativity theory arised, the flexibility of the melting watches reflected the flexibility of time itself.[7] The melting clocks in Dali’s painting could represent the flexibility of time when we are unconscious. Time does not dictate us during our dreams, like it does in the real world when we have to wake up and go to work or school. The ants eating away at the clock in the bottom left corner could portray the easy destruction of time, and make fun of how much faith people put in to something man-made.

Michael Cheval’s piece, Time to Be a Queen also has a focus on time, but could be providing a different meaning. At first glance, the painting obviously depicts the Cinderella fairy tale. However, when looking more closely, the viewer may notice that Cinderella is sprouting out of the pumpkin where the stem should be. She is not wearing the iconic beautiful blue dress from the fictional story, and she is looking at her single glass shoe in her hand. The carriage is now a mechanical contraption with a phonograph at the back, and instead of horses pulling the carriage, there are two dalmatian dogs. Time is represented in the sky using gears and sinister looking colors, giving it a dark and ominous atmosphere, in contrast to the bright orange of the carriage. There is a fluid mass blending the sky to the gears of the clock, which can indicate how time is invisible to the eye, and not something we can control. In contrast to Dali’s painting, Time to Be a Queen could be arguing that time does dictate our lives, even within the fairy tale.

Cheval put a twist to the Cinderella story giving it an outcome that is different from the traditional happy ending of the Disney film and an opportunity for the story to advance in a different direction. He may be suggesting that everyone has different experiences in life, and it is difficult to predict what obstacles we will encounter. We are not always going to end up living “happily ever after” and we can only control how we react to these outcomes.

Surrealism involves artists portraying the imaginative ideas from the unconscious using unrealistic combinations of objects. In dreams, our perception of time is often skewed. Painting as a Reflection of the Unconscious Self by Sanjukta Das Bhowmick focuses on explaining how Dali’s paintings reveal his unconscious self. He argues that the creation of the painting is “suspended” between the repressed unconscious and consciousness that tries to control the repression. According to Freud, art involves portraying the unconscious desire relating to sexuality, so illusion allows the artist to immerse themselves in a world different from harsh reality. In surrealist paintings, there is no repression of the unconscious and so it reveals the true nature and desires as it is in dreams. Bhowmick references the film Inception which concentrated on the possibility to do anything in the dreamscape while the conscious was repressed. During the time Dali married Gala Eluard, he developed his artistic method called the “paranoiac-critical,” which created a “visionary reality from elements of visions, dreams, memories, and psychological or pathological distortions.” Dali believed a person could let go of their previous understanding of the world and view reality in a different way, allowing artists to see in their subconscious.  He painted the images he saw in his subconscious, describing them as “hand painted photographs.”[8] While Michael Cheval has definite influences from Dali and other surrealist artists, his creation of a fantasy, unique world seems to stem from his conscious imagination rather than the unconscious.

Bhowmick points out that there are recurring themes in Dali’s work and Dali is encouraging viewers to see reality in a different manner, throwing away preconceived notions. Dali uses the juxtaposition of images to support the burst of suppressed feelings from his unconscious on the painting. Many of his paintings display themes of death, decay, and eroticism, leaving traces of memories from his childhood. Dali had fears of castration and the crawling of insects on his skin, which became known as delusional parasitosis. He was also fascinated by male and female buttocks, shown in his painting The Great Masturbator. These fears and fascinations are present in all his paintings, where Dali visualized and displayed the unusual and unexpected parts of his dreams. Dali used realism and bright colors that “could subvert one’s sense of reality.” In using realism when painting the images of his subconscious, Dali had to encounter all his repressed fears, desires, and past painful experiences, and resolve those problems on the canvas, reaching harmony which Breton described as a plane in the mindscape where a harmony is reached between desire and reality.[9] The Persistence of Memory is not merely just another surrealist painting, but it represents the exploration of another reality, which according to Dali, is far superior to what we consider to be rational, because it is only in this other reality where we are truly free from repressions. This other reality, unique to each person, is similar to Cheval’s view that Absurdism invites viewers to disagree and experience their own version of the world.

Chapter 2 of Saperstein’s theses, The Vision of Reality as a Dichotomy, focuses on The Persistence of Memory to show Dali’s perspective of reality as a dichotomy with the existence of both the rational and irrational. Dali used “soft and hard” elements in his painting, the hard forms as the irrational, and the soft forms as the rational that is experienced in everyday life. This helped him develop the role of reality in paranoiac criticism. The angular, hard rocks in the landscape create an uncomfortable contrast with the soft objects; this contrast shows that he viewed reality as a dichotomy. Compared to his 1929 paintings, The Persistence of Memory shows the objects in the middle of their transformations: the clock is melting and the face is distorted and lain on the floor. In 1930, Dali found that both Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity touch on “a different dimension of experience beyond the reality of daily life,” and served as his proof for his belief of reality as a dichotomy and the existence of an irrational dimension. Saperstein argues that both relativity and psychoanalysis are equally important in Dali’s view of reality and its portrayal in The Persistence of Memory. He believed that both the rational and irrational coexist.[10]

Through Time to Be a Queen, Cheval invites viewers to develop their own reality, just as Dali had in his surrealist pieces. It is through Dali’s influences in The Persistence of Memory, that Cheval was able to explore his imagination further and similarly use realistic detail to create the unrealistic imagery behind the mysterious stories of his art.

[1] Michael Salcman, The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). (World Neurosurgery, 2011).
[2] Eric Shanes, Salvador Dalí. (Parkstone International, 2014), 92
[3] Salcman, Persistence of Memory.
[4] Park West Gallery, Answering the Absurd: 10 Questions with Artist Michael Cheval. (Park West Gallery, 2019).
[5] Park West Gallery, Answering the Absurd.
[6] Salcman, Persistence of Memory
[7] Shanes, Salvador Dalí, 92
[8] Sanjukta Das Bhowmick, Painting as a Reflection of the Unconscious Self (The Literary
Herald Journal, 2016).
[9] Bhowmick, Painting as a Reflection.
[10] Stefanie Saperstein, The Vision of Reality as a Paradox: Salvador Dali's Creative Process from
1927 to 1939
(Scripps Senior Theses, 2012).


Bhowmick, Sanjukta Das. “Painting as a Reflection of the Unconscious Self.” The Literary Herald Journal, Sept. 2016, tlhjournal.com/uploads/products/32.sanjukta-das-article.pdf.

Park West Gallery. “Answering the Absurd: 10 Questions with Artist Michael Cheval.” Park West Gallery, Park West Gallery, 11 Oct. 2019,

Salcman, Michael. “The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989).” Leatherby Libraries, 5 Dec. 2011, www-sciencedirect-com.libproxy.chapman.edu/science/article/pii/S1878875011009478?via%3Dihub.

Saperstein, Stefanie, "The Vision of Reality as a Paradox: Salvador Dali's Creative Process from 1927 to 1939" (2012). Scripps Senior Theses. 111.https://scholarship.claremont.edu/scripps_theses/111

Shanes, Eric. Salvador Dalí. Parkstone International, 2014. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=nlebk&AN=818701&site=eds-live.

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