We are grateful to Dr Sharon-Michi Kusunoki for her assistance in cataloguing this work.
An icon of Surrealism and one of the most instantly recognisable works of the 20th Century, Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone (white aphrodisiac) was created in collaboration with the artist’s friend and patron Edward James. Having first met in 1934, the pair became great friends and, two years later, when Dalí was visiting James in his London home, they conceived of an elaborate Surrealist interior project that would transform the everyday into an eclectic, imaginary environment. Furthering the idea of a Surrealist object, a concept Dalí had proposed in 1931, they collaborated on a range of highly theatrical, surreal interior schemes, objects and pieces of furniture, transforming the rooms of James’s country home, Monkton, into fantastical surrealist visions: a sofa became a pair of scarlet red lips inspired by a photograph of screen siren, Mae West, a pair of lamps was created from a tower of golden Champagne glasses, and in Lobster Telephone, a phone has metamorphosed into a lobster. With these surreal objects, assemblages and paranoiac-critical interiors, Dalí significantly expanded the artistic possibilities of Surrealism, pushing this groundbreaking movement into an experimental new dimension.
Initially conceived in 1936, Lobster Telephone is one of eleven objects of this type that James commissioned from the decorating company, Green & Abbott, London. Though it is not known exactly when this project started, a letter from Green & Abbott to James dated 18th July 1938 states that the ‘telephone lobsters’ would be ‘varnished and hard…by Thursday’ (Letter Green & Abbott to Edward James, 18th July 1938). James oversaw the production of these objects, suggesting the colour schemes and deciding on the numbers. Of the eleven, seven, like the present work, were entirely white; the remaining four consisted of black telephones with a red lobster. Other examples from this iconic series now reside in museums across the world, including the Tate Gallery, London, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam and Minnesota Museum of Art, Minneapolis.
Consisting of a white telephone with a white plaster lobster shell encasing the receiver, the idea for the Lobster Telephone was inspired by an event that took place while Dalí and his lover, Gala were staying with James in London at his home, 35, Wimpole Street, in 1936. James recalled that he, Dalí and some other friends were sitting on the bed in James’s room eating lobster. When they finished, they threw the shells off the side of the bed, one of which landed on top of the telephone. In addition to this, earlier in the year, as Sharon-Michi Kusunoki has written, James had visited a wealthy aristocrat in her home. Receiving guests at her bedside, with an ice bucket of lobster by her side, she heard her telephone ringing. She reached to answer it, but instead of retrieving the receiver, she picked up the lobster by mistake. It was this humorously incongruous juxtaposition of a phone and a lobster that sparked James’s imagination, prompting him to suggest to Dalí the creation of a ‘lobster telephone’ (S-M. Kusunoki in D. Ades, Dalí: The Centenary Retrospective, exh. cat., Venice & Philadelphia, 2004-5, p. 286).
An artist who revelled in the surreal and surprising effects that juxtapositions of everyday objects and scenarios could create, Dalí was likewise captivated by the combination of a lobster and a telephone. In 1935 he had executed a drawing entitled New York Dream – Man finds lobster in place of phone. A year later, he created the first Lobster Telephone – an earlier, slightly different version of the present work and those that James commissioned – which was later exhibited at the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris. As he wrote in his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, ‘I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone; I do not understand why champagne is always chilled and why on the other hand telephones, which are habitually so frightfully warm and disagreeably sticky to the touch, are not also put in silver buckets with crushed ice around them’. He continued with a vivid, fantastical list of other types of surreal telephonic juxtapositions, ‘Telephone frappé, mint-coloured telephone, aphrodisiac telephone, lobster-telephone, telephone sheathed in sable for the boudoirs of sirens with fingernails protected with ermine, Edgar Allen Poe telephones with a dead rat concealed within, Boecklin telephones installed inside a cypress tree…telephones on the leash which would walk about, screwed to the back of a living turtle…telephones…telephones…telephones…’ (S. Dalí, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, trans. H. M. Chevalier, New York, 1942, p. 271).
One of his best-known motifs, the lobster was an object that Dalí was particularly drawn to. Intrigued by contrasts of form, Dalí was fascinated by the structure of this prehistoric looking crustacean: the hard shell that enclosed the soft, delicate flesh within. Along with its opulent association as a food, it was above all the aphrodisiac power and erotic associations of lobster that made it a compelling subject for Dalí. In Lobster Telephone, the sexual connotations of the lobster are emphasised by the placement of the lobster itself: the tail, and by extension its sexual organs, are directly covering the mouthpiece of the receiver. Dalí continued this disconcerting erotic juxtaposition a few years later in 1939 when he completed an ambitious project, The Dream of Venus, for a pavilion in the World’s Fair in New York. An elaborate, three-dimensional environment, this installation was funded and overseen by James who ensured it was constructed in accordance with Dalí’s ideas. Part of this Surrealist experience involved nude women adorned with costumes of seafood and live lobsters placed over their genitalia. This idea had also been taken up by fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli who collaborated with Dalí in 1937 to create an evening dress that featured a printed lobster down the front of the skirt, the tail strategically placed over the wearer’s crotch.