I would love to visit New York again. While my only trip so far, in 2011, confirmed I would rather not live there – London is a beehive, but New York is a wasp’s nest – saying I visited the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park Zoo and FAO Schwartz (before it closed) is not bad at all.
We also had two art galleries in our sights: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. However, the only photographs I have of the Metropolitan Museum of Art were all taken from their roof garden, and the three I have from MoMA were for reference purposes: a portrait transmitted by RCA Photoradiogram in 1926, a print of Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel by those chains (from the SS Great Eastern), and Edward Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad,” which inspired the Bates House in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
The clearest picture of all from MoMA is one stuck in my mind, and like “House by the Railroad,” the painting was given anonymously: it was Salvador Dali’s 1931 painting “The Persistence of Memory,” presented to them in 1934. Apparently inspired by a Camembert melting in the sun, many examples of Dali’s surrealist imagery are present: melting watch faces representing the passage of time, ants representing death, a creature of some indiscernible type, a foreboding foreground shadow, the Catalan landscape, and so on. This artwork has been reproduced endlessly, and working melting clocks are now just something you can buy.
Regardless of the content of the picture, the memory that has persisted of “The Persistence of Memory” is just how SMALL it is: it is only 24 centimetres (9.5 inches) tall, and 33 cm (13 in) wide, making it a bit bigger than both A4 and Legal paper sizes. The oils are painted very finely, and having seen only photographs of the picture previously, I imagined the brush strokes would have been much larger. Dali must have had his eyes tested regularly.
I usually do not take pictures in art galleries – if I want to refer back to what I saw, I will buy a guidebook, or find the picture later online. However, what I will have taken from the visit is a sense of proportion, and a sense of colour: because so many pictures have been taken of it, “The Persistence of Memory” is available online in many different levels of quality, brightness and contrast, and even shape, depending on how the picture has been cropped. One of them must be right, because I cannot take an average of them.
I am not in favour of banning photography in art galleries, although you should consider flash photography and copyright before you walk in, but if you walk around a gallery with a camera permanently in front of you, taking snapshots of that time you saw an object, and it looked like “this” when you “saw” it, remember you were already there: you don’t need to look at the work later, you can look at it now. Just like a film is made to be shown in a cinema, art galleries provide the right conditions to contemplate ALL of an artwork, including its size.
There is only one legitimate copy of “The Persistence of Memory,” and it is a picture I did not realise existed until last week: Dali’s own “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” (1954), and on display at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. In this interpretation, the shadow has receded, and the landscape has been blown apart into straight-cut bricks, revealing a further surface underneath, and the unidentified creature has mutated. The painting is thought to mark the loss of Dali’s interest in surrealism, just at the point where other forms of art at the time, particularly Pop Art, become more about what is presented on the surface. As it happens, it is also about the same size as the first painting.