The Mancunion

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The Persistence of Memory

Laura Joyce gives an insight into the relevance of surrealism, and how Salvador Dali’s friendship with Walt Disney saved his beloved animated studios


My first encounter with surrealism came in the form of the Pink Elephants on Parade scene in Walt Disney’s Dumbo, and I’ll be completely honest; it terrified me. Granted, I was only five, but the excerpt etched itself into my brain and became almost a fascination with what I would later learn to be the Surrealist Movement.

Created way back in 1941, Dumbo was only Walt Disney’s fourth animated feature film, and at the time of production, a lot was riding on that little elephant and his over-sized ears.

Following Fantasia and Pinocchio’s box-office failures, Walt Disney Studios was in deep financial trouble. If you look closely at Dumbo, the majority of the backgrounds are still images painted from water-colour – a means to save a nickel here and there.

Ever the ‘imagineer’, Disney took inspiration from his friend Salvador Dali, and the Surrealist Movement which was wildly popular in the 1930’s. So, naturally a baby elephant and his unlikely mouse friend getting wasted on champagne and hallucinating about brightly-coloured, shape-shifting pachyderms was the obvious solution to saving Disney, right?

Well, it was a hit, and Disney went on to produce Bambi the very next year, and continues to thrill audiences no end to this day.

Walt Disney’s nephew Roy Disney, and former senior executive of Walt Disney Studios recalled his uncle’s relationship with Dali. Beginning with Dali’s fascination with what he described as “three great, American surrealists”. These came in the form of Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, and The Marx Brothers.

Roy once said of their friendship, “I believe they influenced one another. Disney films can be seen as being incredibly surreal, and I imagine that is why Dalí was attracted to them. But also I think they worked well together because, above all, they were both incredible optimists. Dalí’s paintings can make you feel optimistic, and so do the Disney films.”

So, what is it about surrealists and their work that is so encapsulating? For me, Dali in particular is the epitome of surrealism. He ate, lived and breathed it. Surrealism was a part of his very being.

Salvador Dali was born 11 May 1904 in Catalonia, Spain. His parents had previously lost a son nine months earlier whom they had also named Salvador.

From the age of five, Dali was told by his parents that he was the reincarnation of his brother, leading him to struggle with his very existence from a young age. From troubled beginnings, it seems that young Salvador longed to escape the confusion of his reality.

At age ten, Dali was already painting – much to the dismay of his academic father. He studied under some of the most prestigious teachers of that age, though Dali did not see it that way. He faced expulsion from Madrid’s Royal Academy of Art not once, but twice, over his arrogant mind-set that he knew more of art than his learned teachers.

Dali’s personality played a huge role in his artworks. By those who knew him, he will often be remembered for his arrogance and his greed, but rather oxymoronically, for his paranoia and anxiety too.

One painting which particularly embodies the more human side of Salvador Dali is The Persistence of Memory (1931). Many will recognise the use of Dali’s famous ‘melting clocks’ in the image, but there are less people who know the true meaning which lies behind this incredible artwork.

The human-like figure at the centre of the image is a representation of the artist himself, and was used across many of his works. Dali would refer to this strangely-shaped human as the ‘monster’.

This ‘monster’s’ single visible eye is closed, suggesting the figure may be in a dream-like state – with the clocks boasting a fierce reminder of time continuing to pass even as we lay unconscious through the night.

The clocks play with the concept of hardness versus softness, and have many times been associated with Dali’s suspected worries of impotency. They also insinuate an impending sense of time running out. This was known to be a worry of Dali’s as he and his beloved wife Gala continued to fail to conceive.

Despite the strange and disconnected portrayal of Dali’s inner-most fears, there is something so relatable about this piece that evokes a bitter realism through the warped window of surrealism.

So, surely this relatability shown in just one of a vast array of works created by Dali (amongst the innumerable by surrealists in general) is a huge indicator as to why surrealism became influential on main-stream culture, and continues to inspire new and evolving artwork, film, and theatre to this day.

Dali’s genius has even found its way here, to Manchester.

Walk Manchester is a guided walking tour by trained green badge guide John Alker in the centre of Manchester. The scheme offers many tours, including an Art Walk which explores the city’s sculptures and architecture, and investigates some of the heavily influential artists – including Dali – and their impacts on the art we find in Manchester.

Castle Galleries, situated on Deansgate also offers a range of miniature sculptures from The Salvador Dali Collection to purchase.

Salvador Dali created the most bizarre home you can imagine. He turned everyday objects into artworks, including his famous love-seat shaped like human lips. Of course, to create this was not enough; he had to form a room layout which from the top of the staircase looked like a human face. With curtains for hair, and wall paintings for eyes, Dali truly lived within his surrealism.

Dali’s madness is clearly infectious; from his famous gravity-defying moustache to his creation of the infamous Lobster Telephone. It seems only natural that he was laid to rest in the crypt at his magnificent home in his home town of Figueres, Spain.

His home has since been transformed into a museum filled with many of his magnificent works (and the room made to look like a face still stands).

All of this is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this creative genius. It is obvious to me that Dali and his fantastic array of works have defied the constant ticking of time, and will persist in our memories for years to come.