One of the most famous of all twentieth-century sculptures, Salvador Dalís Lobster Telephone (1938) has been acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland, and is set to go on display this week at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
This iconic sculpture is one of the most instantly recognisable masterpieces of Surrealism, the art movement that emerged in Paris in the 1920s, which explored the world of dreams and the subconscious mind. It consists of an ordinary, working telephone, upon which rests a plaster lobster, specially made to fit directly over the receiver.
The Surrealists loved the idea of unrelated objects coming together to create a new kind of reality, which subverted the rational and tapped into the subconscious. The bizarre combination of a phone and a lobster is at once absurd, repellent, fascinating and menacing, yet it is nevertheless a fully functioning phone.
Lobster Telephone was made in 1938 for Edward James (1907-1984), Dalís main patron in the 1930s. Eleven of the plaster lobster receivers were made to fit to telephones at Jamess house in Wimpole Street, central London and at his country house, Monkton, in West Sussex. Four of the lobsters were painted red, and seven were painted white. The Lobster Telephones are now almost all in museum collections around the world: the Tate in London has a red version on a black telephone.
This white version remained with the Edward James Foundation, in West Sussex. It was recently sold at auction and would have left Britain, but in view of its artistic and historical importance, it was subject to an export license deferral. Issued on behalf of the Secretary of State, this allows UK museums the chance to match the auction price. Thanks to the Henry and Sula Walton Fund, which was established to help the National Galleries acquire major works of modern art, and a grant from Art Fund, the work was saved and goes on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh for the first time today.
Edward James was born in 1907 at his familys summer house, Greywalls, in Gullane, near North Berwick in East Lothian. His family was immensely wealthy, owning a vast estate at West Dean, near Chichester in West Sussex. Edward came into his inheritance in his twenties and used much of it to support the arts: he is best known as the patron of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte in the 1930s. He met Dalí in 1934 and the two became close friends. Dalí visited James in London on several occasions and James bought many of the artists greatest work, straight off the easel, hanging them at his houses in London and West Sussex.
From the mid-1930s, James had both residences redesigned and given Surrealist makeovers. Dalí designed furnishings including the celebrated Mae West Lips sofas, which were shaped in the form of the Hollywood actresss lips, tall lampstands in the form of stacked champagne glasses, and the famous Lobster Telephones.
The idea for the Lobster Telephone dates back to a drawing Dalí made in 1935. The plaster lobsters were commissioned by James from the London design firm Green & Abbott (which also fabricated the Mae West sofas) in the summer of 1938. Dalí and James visited Sigmund Freud in Hampstead in July and this may have given them the idea of actually making the objects. Cast in plaster, hollowed out underneath, and with a hole in the tail to take the telephone flex, they fit perfectly over the standard receivers of the period. The Surrealists love of the irrational was instantly and brilliantly embodied in a household object in daily use.
The Lobster Telephone is the most iconic of all Surrealist Object Sculptures: these became a craze in the 1930s, with Man Ray, Miró, Magritte, Giacometti and Roland Penrose among the many who made them. Instead of making a traditional sculpture by modelling with clay or carving in marble, the Surrealist artists took pre-existing objects, put them together, or changed them slightly, and then exhibited them. It was like 3D collage. From a practical point of view, it allowed artists with no training in sculpture to produce sculptural objects. From an artistic point of view, it enabled artists to produce bizarre objects which instantly challenged conventional notions of reality and normality.
The National Galleries of Scotland has one of the worlds greatest collections of Surrealist art, including major paintings by René Magritte, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Toyen, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington and others, and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti. However, until now there has been no major Object Sculpture in the collection: they were quickly assembled for exhibition at the time, and were often simply discarded - so they are rare.
Although Edward James amassed an unrivalled collection of Surrealist art, much of it was sold off in the 1970s and 1980s. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Arts summer exhibition of 2016, Surreal Encounters, was partly based on Edward Jamess collection, which is now dispersed across the globe, and included the red version of Lobster Telephone, lent by the Edward James Foundation.
Lobster Telephone was acquired for the sum of £853,000, supported by the Henry and Sula Walton Fund (£753,000), and Art Fund (£100,000). Henry Walton was a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh and Sula Walton (née Wolff) was an internationally renowned child psychiatrist. They were passionate devotees of the arts and left their art collection to the National Galleries of Scotland. They also established an independent, charitable fund, designed to help the Galleries acquire major works of modern art. Thus far, the Walton Fund has assisted in the purchase of works by Pablo Picasso, Jenny Saville, Toyen and Leonora Carrington works which would otherwise have been beyond the Galleries reach.
Speaking of the acquisition, Simon Groom, Director of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Galleries of Scotland said: This major acquisition cements our position as one of the worlds greatest collections of Surrealist art. Object sculptures where the artist takes an existing, manufactured object and transforms it with a slight addition or alteration were popular among the Surrealists, but are now incredibly rare. They turned convention upside-down, saying that anything could be art, and that art and life were not separate. Dalí created something incredibly rich, imaginative and funny with the most economical of means. Before this acquisition we had nothing of this kind. This type of work had a huge impact on later artists, including Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Were immensely grateful to the Walton Fund and the Art Fund for their help in acquiring the work: both funds also helped enormously with the purchase of Leonora Carringtons Portrait of Max Ernst, c.1939, in the summer. It has been an amazing year for the growth of our Surrealist collection.
Stephen Deuchar, Director, Art Fund, said: Dalís Lobster Telephone is amongst the most famous of all Surrealist objects, typifying the spirit of the movement in its witty, subversive eccentricity. Art Fund is proud to help the National Galleries of Scotland add this important work of art to their internationally renowned Surrealism collection.