Salvador Dalí produced two of the most hilarious objects spawned by the Surrealist movement, his Lobster telephone 1936 and Mae West lips sofa 1937. Both objects were commissioned from the artist by the English poet and collector Edward James (1907-1984), a wealthy and eccentric patron who had inherited a vast English estate and fortune at the age of five, and who has been aptly described as 'virtually a present-day adumbration of the mad Ludwig of Bavaria, capaciously rich and richly capricious, only a little less than Ludwig in wealth and eccentricity.' A leading supporter of the Surrealists, James financed the early issues of the great Surrealist magazine Minotaure, and was also an active patron of the Belgian artist René Magritte, whom he met through Dalí. James spent a small fortune on Dalí himself, and eventually owned between forty and fifty of his best works, all from the 1930s (his greatest period).
Inspired by Dalí, Edward James proceeded in the 1930s to turn his country manor into a fantasy palace filled with every kind of strange and exotic object. As well as placing three of Dalí's sofas in the shape of Mae West's lips into his living quarters, James asked Dalí to 'make-over' his telephones as well. Dali suggested that James fill his rooms with what he called 'The surrealist object - one that is absolutely useless from the practical and rational point of view, created wholly for the purpose of materialising in a fetishistic way, with the maximum of tangible reality, ideas and fantasies having a delirious character.' He then conceived a truly unforgettable object, his irresistibly playful lobster perched atop a phone, which was also called the Aphrodisiac telephone at the time, a title in keeping with Dalí's wicked sense of humour and desire to baffle his public completely.
Dalí's Lobster telephone was not 'absolutely useless', however, but was in fact a perfectly functioning telephone. Edward James purchased four Lobster telephones from Dalí, with which he replaced all the original phones in his country retreat. One of these (a partial reconstruction) is now in the collection of the Tate Gallery, London; the second is housed at the German Telephone Museum (Deutsches Postmuseum) in Frankfurt; the third is owned by the Edward James Foundation, London. The fourth original Lobster telephone (which is in the same perfect condition as it was in James' house) is now in the National Gallery of Australia.
adapted from Michael Desmond, NGA acquisition submission, August 1994, by Lucina Ward DW
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010