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Watch out: High to add Dalí masterwork on Nov. 16

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

Enlarge photo

The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13".

The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13″.

Time to set your melting watches.

One of Salvador Dalí’s best-known surrealist masterworks, “The Persistence of Memory,” will be added to the High Museum of Art’s popular exhibit “Dali: The Late Work” on Nov. 16.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned that New York’s Museum of Modern Art will lend the Atlanta museum the iconic painting, which depicts melting timepieces and a swarm of ants, among other curious visual elements, set against a backdrop of the golden cliffs of Dali’s home in Spain’s Catalonia region. The High will make the announcement Tuesday.

In his autobiography “The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí,” the artist recounted painting “Persistence” after dinner one evening in 1931 while his wife, Gala, was out at a movie. Dalí was looking at a landscape he had started, trying to think of something fantastical to insert into it. His eyes fixed on some Camembert cheese that had begun to melt from the heat of a nearby radiator. As he considered the melting cheese, he got the idea to add soft watches to the painting and a gooey mass that is believed to represent his profile.

When his wife came home, Dalí cupped his hands over her eyes, the story goes, revealed the painting and asked what she thought. Gala responded that once people had seen it, they would never forget it. Thus Dalí had not only approval but his title, “The Persistence of Memory.”

But what does the painting mean? Scholars have debated that for nearly eight decades. Dalí being Dalí, he was only too happy to encourage confusion and debate.

“From 1931 onward he kept reinventing what the soft watches might symbolize,” “The Late Work” curator Elliott King said in an exclusive AJC interview, noting that every couple of years Dalí would say they were atomic or genetic or holographic, etc. “In the mid-1930s, he describes it as an allusion to Einstein’s theory of relativistic time, sort of the time-space continuum.

“That’s [the meaning] that’s probably the most consistent, anyway,” King added, “and then I think he’s snowballing from there.”

Whatever the meaning, the surprisingly small work — 9.5 by 13 inches — has captured the imagination of viewers almost from the moment it was finished. An American gallery owner purchased it in Paris for $250 and then exhibited it widely back home, providing the U.S. its first true upclose sampling of surrealism.

“”It has this strange quality about it,” King said. “Even a layperson can see that something’s askew that makes it attractive. I think that it went over very well because of Dalí’s ever-present technique that allows people to appreciate the detail. Though it’s very small, [viewers] realize that every ant has a highlight on his body and six legs.”

King said arrangements to borrow the work from MoMA took longer than other loans for “The Late Work.” But it also appears clear that the High wanted to give the exhibit, which focuses on Dalí’s lesser-known output starting in the 1940s, a chance to be judged on its own merits before adding a splashy painting from before that period.

The exhibit has garnered positive reviews in publications including The New York Times and the AJC and drawn large crowds. During Smithsonian magazine’s Museum Day on Saturday, when many guests took advantage of a free admission offer, the show drew a turn-away throng of more than 4,000.

The addition of “The Persistence of Memory” marks “another opportunity to rethink Dali’s importance,” King said, “in light of this extraordinary nexus in Atlanta.”

On view

“Dalí: The Late Work”

Through Jan. 9. $18; $15 students and seniors; $11 children 6-17; free for children 5 and younger and members. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4444, www.high.org .

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