Just over 21 years after he had completed his groundbreaking oil painting and Surrealist masterpiece The Persistence Of Memory, Salvador Dalí painted a lesser-known recreation of the work called The Disintegration Of The Persistence Of Memory. The oil painting was created between 1952 and 1954 and was originally titled The Chromosome Of A Highly-Coloured Fish’s Eye Starting The Harmonious Disintegration Of The Persistence Of Memory when it first went on display at the Carstairs Gallery in New York, before being shortened to its current name.

The original work, The Persistence Of Memory, was created in 1931 and is one of the most recognisable and most frequently referenced paintings in Dalí’s oeuvre. Dalí was inspired to create the painting after watching a block of Camembert cheese melt on his kitchen table whilst observing the slow passage of time – the melting pocket watches epitomised his theories of ‘softness’ and ‘hardness’ in art which was central to his creative thinking at the time, and the work is filled with often debated symbolism. While some have suggested that the work is a Surrealist meditation on the cosmos, Dalí himself refuted this and his scientific phase and obsession with the work of Albert Einstein didn’t really begin until the atomic detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 14 years later.

So why did Dalí return to this subject matter in 1952 and how did The Disintegration Of The Persistence Of Memory differ from the original? Well, following the nuclear explosions in Japan in August of 1945 Dalí developed a significant interest in nuclear physics and the scientific and social ramifications of nuclear technology, eventually describing the atom as his “favourite food for thought”. In a way The Disintegration Of The Persistence Of Memory marks Dalí’s loss of interest in Surrealism as quantum mechanics and the philosophical issues associated with it began to dominate his work. The impact of this new source of atomic inspiration can be seen in works like the Madonna Of Port Lligat from 1949, Christ Of Saint John Of The Cross from 1951 and the 1952 work Galatea Of The Spheres.

In The Disintegration Of The Persistence Of Memory the original landscape of the painting has been flooded with water and disintegration of the landscape and the objects contained within it are occurring above and below the water’s surface. Much of the ground surface is broken up into bricks that float independently from one another, akin to atomic structure, and as the painting recedes to the background, horn or missile-like objects seem to be being propelled into the distance. The olive tree and the melting watches from the original work are now fractured, reinforcing the themes of quantum structure, atomic power and destructive nuclear forces. The most notable addition to the work is a fish, which Dalí often used as symbol of life, but which in the painting has horns/missiles speeding towards it.

While the impact of quantum mechanics in Dalí’s work would continue throughout his career, The Disintegration Of The Persistence Of Memory is one of the artist’s more obvious uses of atomic symbolism, both in the imagery he used and in the theme that he chose to change.