Monday, March 14, 2016

The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory"

I have some fond memories that persist; memories of Christmas and Easter Vacations from school and the things I did that were transformational, profoundly so, when I was away from the tyranny of the classroom and free to be off on my own exploring the world.

For some reason, from an early age I was simply entranced by Visual Art. And so, as I entered my teenage years and investigated Manhattan and the marvelous things to be found there, I made it a ritual to spend at least one day of each of those week-long school vacations at an art museum, most often the Museum of Modern Art. Back then, a 16 year old boy from  a relatively poor suburban family, could afford the bus and subway fare and museum fee, as well as a trip to the corner cart for a budget dirty water hot dog and soda and get back home to share his day's adventures with family; intact and far better for the experience. And so, I got to know close up, the likes of Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhole and Louise Nevelson and their peers and contemporaries. Salvador Dali, though, just blew me away. While I admired artists in general, and grew to want to be one myself, Dali was something more,  in a category by himself. He seemed to me to be part wizard, part mad scientist, and part movie star all rolled into one cool being. And truth be told, while I have come under the spell of many another wizard since, he has never lost his appeal to me. Could I have found anyone better to draw a bit of youthful inspiration from? Perhaps, I suppose, but Dali, for better or worse, was a spiritual infatuation that took hold of me back then and I don't regret it now.

Very fortunately for me, one of the Dali paintings the museum always had on display was The Persistence of Memory. How many times did I stand in front of this small work, feeling excited and tingly because it is so beautiful, so mysterious, and so subtly outrageous?  This painting has always seemed to me to conjure up a stillness, a quietness, and a sense of extreme spookiness, a sense that one shouldn't be seeing what it clearly shows us, kind of like seeing a ghost while being incapable of uttering a sound about seeing it. This, in the presence of dozens and dozens of others with whom I stood shoulder to shoulder peering at small pieces of canvas stretched on wooden frames and hung at eye level on walls a couple of feet in front of us.

The video above is from a series that calls itself "Art History in a Hurry" and, I suppose, if I were back in the classroom (I was a public school Visual Arts teacher for a good many years) I'd make use of this series and of this video in particular, which gives some of the skinny about this painting:

"The Persistence of Memory is the most famous painting of Spanish Artist, Salvador Dali (gives the correct, Spanish, pronunciation of his name with the stress on the final syllable of Dali)... This iconic painter is known for the bizarre, often disconcerting images in his work, as well as for his larger than life personality... inspired by dreams and visions, the Surrealist movement was based on the free association of mental images and unconscious thoughts and explored illogic... " and on and it goes on for 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Would it help me explain to my students just what it was I saw in this painting years ago when I spent so much time in front of it?

What's My Line? Salvador Dalí (1957)

Here's another video, one that literally kidnaps me and transports me (I have to admit willingly, although it could easily do so without my compliance) to a point in time a number of years before my teenage forays into the world of Art. I was what?.. 8?.. 9? then. But I certainly remember this show. Sure, TV was Black & White, offering flickering, cathode ray tube generated, low definition images, but it was still new and exciting. Programming? Well, I think this show was typical. It was basically a guessing game that appealed to millions and millions of Americans in a big way. The game was played by very charming, very articulate and sophisticated players and the 'twist' was that they sat just a few feet from the 'guest', whose identity they were supposed to guess from the questions they posed. I remember sitting with my parents as they watched this, totally engrossed in the show's hyper-simple proceedings. Above all, I remember that there was a 'sense' about this show as the game unfolded that something important was happening.


And something important WAS happening in this segment of "What's My Line?", I mean between the 30 second commercials for Geritol, Ipana toothpaste, and the new Ford Fairlane.  This wasn't just any person of interest trying to stump the panel of experts who were doing their best to figure out who he was by asking about his "line", his field of work. THIS was Dali, one of the most creative and influential 20th Century artists; a Surrealist who had dissected reality and reassembled it to reveal aspects of man's relationship to it that he had never imagined previously. But here he was... just another guest, the focus of the same silly game, and in the end, found out by questions about things like his famous mustache. In this clip, Dali, genius who devised ways to subvert The Rational, becomes a commodity for viewer consumption, a kinsman to toothpaste and automobile advertisements. And it all happened in the fleeting instant of a half hour, prime time game show staged and aired and watched and forgotten some 60 years ago.

But launch this video and as TV hosts of the time used to say while smiling into the camera, announcing to studio and home audience, alike, that the interlude of 30 second commercial spots was over for the moment, and that the real show was about to resume: "... Aaaaaaaaaaaand we're back!" And we are. We're back in 1957! Eisenhower is President! The Chevy Impala has tail fins! The Hula Hoop won't be invented, let alone 'sweep the nation' for another year, yet! 

No need for Surrealism, time IS a fluid, malleable phenomenon. Never mind the clock on your phone, the age spots on the back of your hand.... simply point your cursor and left click your mouse. YouTube will transport you, do whatever it is that it does so well to swap out realities and take our now selves back in time. The persistence of memory! 

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