Salvador Dali, the world's most widely publicized surrealist artist, went to Paris in 1929 and revitalized surrealism with his scandalous film, The Andalusion Dog, and his realistically detailed dream-fantasy paintings full of slapstick and sexual innuendo. As a writer, Dali proposed two highly influential ideas. The first, the paranoiac-critical theory, revolutionized the expression and interpretation of simultaneous conscious and unconscious perceptions. The second involved a theory of ultra-modern sculpture by which ordinary objects were transformed into disconcerting furniture and clothing.Following the controversial World War I-period readymades of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, which presented mass-produced objects as poetic sculpture, surrealist objects embodied artists' responsibility to explore the irrational imagination. Such objects as lobster telephones by Dali and his colleagues, most of them unfortunately lost in the chaos of World War II, highlighted the group's exhibitions all over the world during the 1930s.The Dali telephone shown on the cover of this month's Arts magazine was recently acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and is one of ten commissioned around 1937 by the American-born art patron Edward James (1908-1984) for his fashionable homes in London and West Dean, Sussex. Because James worked closely with Syrie Maugham (1879-1955), the influential interior designer who championed all white decors, six of the Dali objects were fabricated in white, while the other four were created from black telephones and red replica lobsters.While an interpretation of Dali's object is neither possible nor desirable, it is worth pointing our that both lobsters and telephones figured extensively in his 1930's works. In 1933 Dali included people with lobsters on their heads in several pieces, extending a favorite device of providing the figures in his art with odd headwear (rocks, loaves of bread, shoes, chicken) presumably as curious symbols for mental states. Indeed, someone placing a call with one of Dali's lobster telephones would temporarily appear to wear a lobster hat. For his design for the cover of James's Minotaure magazine in 1936, Dali incorporated a lobster in the cutaway stomach area of a figure whose body amounts to another furniture object—in this case a chest of drawers. Identifying with the bottom-dwelling lobster, Dali dressed in a diver's suit for a farce lecture he delivered at the 1936 London International Exhibition of Surrealism-as if his artist's role obliged him to search the darkest and most silent depths of experience. Later that same year in New York, Dali exhibited a lobster telephone (now lost) as part of a window display at the Bonwit Teller department store. He entitled a similar object (also now lost) Aphrodisiac Telephone when he included it in the 1938 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris. At the World's Fair in New York in 1939, Dali again included lobsters as costume props for the live mermaids in his controversial Dream of Venus pavilion. During this time, Dali made no less than half a dozen hybrid still-life landscape paintings featuring telephone headpieces as modern oracles of disembodied verbal communication.Considering Dali's prolonged obsession with the lobster telephone, it is fitting that in his best-selling madcap autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942), he writes: "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 warn and disagreeably sticky to the touch, are not also put in silver buckets with crushed ice around them."Charles F. Stuckey is the Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings.The Institute's Dali telephone, a classic and imaginative example of the artist transforming a commonplace object into sculpture, can be viewed in Gallery 304.Related ImagesSalvador Dali created this piece more than 20 years after his Aphrodisiac Telephone.
The painting is on view in Gallery 207. Portrait of Juan de Pareja, the Assistant to Velasquez, 1960
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mrs. John Sargent Pillsbury, Sr. The photograph for this Time magazine (December 14, 1936) cover was taken by Man Ray at essentially the same time Dali was working on his lobster telephone.