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Introduction

Lobster Telephone (1938) is a sculpture in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. It was created by artist Salvador Dalí and poet Edward James, and is made from a plaster lobster and a functioning Bakelite telephone. It is one of several versions of Lobster Telephone made by Dalí and James. (Edward James used some of them as telephones in his house!) As well as white versions such as this one, polychrome versions of the sculpture were also made, with black telephones and orange lobsters.

Lobster Telephone

Lobster Telephone

National Galleries of Scotland

About Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí is perhaps the best-known artist associated with the Surrealist movement, largely because of his showmanship and talent for self-publicity. Born in Spain, he moved to Paris in 1926 and joined the Surrealists in 1929, after dabbling with Cubism and various other styles. His artistic output of the late 1920s and 1930s exemplified Surrealist interests and ideas – especially their fascination with dreams.

Read: Salvador Dalí biography on Art UK

About Edward James

Edward James was an English poet and art collector. He supported many Surrealist artists in their careers including René Magritte, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington as well as Dalí.

Watch: Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous for more information about Edward James

Activity: first impressions

Look at this photograph of Lobster Telephone with your students.

Lobster Telephone

Lobster Telephone

National Galleries of Scotland

Discuss the sculpture as a class.

  • What do you think of the sculpture?
  • What two objects can you see?
  • When do you think the sculpture was made? Could it be contemporary?
  • What art movement do you think it might be associated with?

It may help in gathering first impressions, to task your students with thinking of five words in response to the sculpture. They could write these down and then share them with the rest of the group. (The words should be honest, immediate responses and could include responses such as 'weird' or 'rubbish'!)

Activity: watch and discuss

Watch this video with your class. It shows a group of students from The Royal High School in Edinburgh discussing and finding out about Lobster Telephone.

What did we discover?

Discuss with your students what they have learnt about the sculpture from the video. These prompts might help:

  • who made it? What do you know about Salvador Dalí?
  • when was it made?
  • what is it made from?
  • what art movement were the artists associated with? What do you know about Surrealism?
  • does finding out more about the sculpture change what you think of it?

Activity: Salvador Dalí fact-file

Task your students with creating a Salvador Dalí fact-file. This activity would work well as an individual research or homework project. The fact-file should include brief facts about Dalí such as:

  • key dates in his career
  • his relationship with the Surrealist movement
  • the type of art he made and examples of his artworks
  • it could also include fun or unlikely facts about Dalí

Research links for students:

Who is Salvador Dalí?

Salvador Dalí Foundation: timeline

Watch: Salvador Dalí in 60 seconds

 

What do you think? Ideas and objects

Student contemplating 'Lobster Telephone' in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Student contemplating 'Lobster Telephone' in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

The students who visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art raised some interesting points about Lobster Telephone.

'I think the most important thing is that he thought of the idea, and the object and the animal to put on the phone.'

In the video, the curator explained that although Salvador Dalí and Edward James are listed as the artists behind the sculpture, they did not actually make it. The sculpture was Dalí's idea – he had exhibited a live lobster on a telephone at a Surrealist exhibition in Paris in 1936. Edward James (with Dalí's permission) had the plaster lobster made by local tradesmen to fit onto an existing, functioning telephone.

When existing, manufactured objects or objects from nature are used in artworks these are often referred to as found objects.

Discuss with your students:

  • does it matter that Salvador Dalí and Edward James didn't actually make the sculpture?
  • what is more important the idea or the object?

Questions guidance and development ideas

  • In discussing this you could perhaps use the analogy of fashion, where a designer designs clothes and puts their name to them, but doesn't actually make the clothing.
  • You could also look at the approach of contemporary artists, such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, who often commission craftsmen or fabricators to make their work.
  • Conceptual Art emphasises the idea over the object. In this Art UK video, students discuss ideas vs. objects in relation to a sculpture by Martin Creed: Sculpture in focus: Work No. 88 by Martin Creed

 

What do you think? Lobster Telephone then and now

The students in the video wondered whether Lobster Telephone would have been more shocking in the 1930s –when it was first exhibited – than it is now.

'It would have been quite outrageous for the time because you wouldn't have had this sort of thing around.'
'I think it's still a bit shocking because even though the phone is a bit old fashioned now, its strange to see a lobster on top of any phone!'

 Ask your students what they think.

  • Do you think the sculpture looks shocking?
  • Do you think it would have been shocking to people in the 1930s? Why?
  • What sort of sculptures do you think people saw in art galleries in the 1930s?
  • Do you think, in the twenty-first century, we are more used to the idea of the surreal than people might have been in the 1930s?
  • Can you think of any contemporary artworks that might have shocked people when they were first exhibited?

Questions guidance:

Was it shocking in the 1930s?

In the 1930s many of the sculptures on display in museums are likely to have been more traditional classically inspired sculptures. But artists including Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were experimenting with abstraction, and their sculptures would have looked radical to art gallery visitors. Their sculptures were generally made using traditional sculpture techniques such as carving and casting, and traditional materials such as bronze and stone.

  • Ask your students if they think Lobster Telephone, with its functioning telephone and jokey subject matter, would have looked more out-of-place in a gallery than these abstract sculptures?

Contemporary shockers!

Contemporary artworks that caused controversy when they were first exhibited, include Tracey Emin's My Bed (1998) and Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided (1993 & 2007).

  • Ask your students how they would react if they saw this Damien Hirst sculpture in a gallery.

Surrealism and popular culture

Surrealism has had a huge influence on popular culture, so the imagery included in Lobster Telephone is probably more familiar to us now. You could discuss with your students the use of surreal imagery in contemporary advertisements, video games, comic book films and pop videos.

Activity: write a review of Lobster Telephone

Task your students with writing a review of Lobster Telephone, imagining that they are a journalist or art critic in the 1930s seeing the sculpture for the first time. (This should be seen as a creative writing activity – students can imaginatively respond to the task and it doesn't necessarily have to be historically accurate!)

  • How do you react when you see the sculpture? (Do you laugh? Are you angry? Are you shocked or confused?...)
  • What other sculptures are in the gallery? (Students could imagine what other sculptures might be on display, and compare them with Lobster Telephone. These could be more traditional sculptures, other Surrealist sculptures or abstract sculptures.)
  • How are other visitors reacting?

Explore other sculptures made in the 1930s for comparison

Explore the 1930s room at Tate Britain

What can we learn about Surrealist art from Lobster Telephone?

Lobster Telephone is made from two very different objects. By putting them together Dalí and James have created a strange and rather perplexing sculpture. As the students in the video said:

'Which end do you talk into?'
'It’s like you’re having a conversation with the lobster!'

The sculpture reflects some of the main ideas and interests of Surrealism.

 

About Surrealism

Surrealism was an art and literary movement founded in Paris in the 1920s. The Surrealists were influenced by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who believed that our minds are divided into two parts – the conscious and the unconscious. Our conscious minds are rational and are what we use to make decisions every day. Our unconscious minds are where our memories are stored and fuel our irrational thoughts, dreams and fantasies.

Made for young audiences, this video provides a brief (and fun) introduction to some of the key facts and main ideas of Surrealism.

For older students, these videos provide a more in-depth introduction to Surrealism:

National Galleries of Scotland: What is Surrealism?

Tate: Unlock Art – Exploring Surrealism with Peter Capaldi

There are two main types of Surrealist art: 

  • artworks that use dreamlike imagery
  • art made using automatism – a group of techniques used by the Surrealists to enable the outpouring of unconscious thought, typically using arbitrary methods that allowed chance to play a key role


Lobster Telephone combines both these types of Surrealism:

  • it looks like something you might see in a dream (or a nightmare!)
  • and it looks as if it was made by chance – with two random objects placed together. (In fact, a chance episode might have sparked the inspiration for Lobster TelephoneThere is a story that Surrealist artists were eating lobster at the home of Edward James when a lobster shell flew off one of the plates and landed on the telephone. 'Hah – there’s a Surrealist artwork' they exclaimed!)

 

 

Activity: explore more Surrealist sculptures

Transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary!

By presenting familiar objects in unexpected ways Surrealist artists created artworks that look weird and unsettling. This unsettling effect, caused by ordinary things made to look extraordinary, was described by Sigmund Freud as 'The Uncanny'.

Discuss these Surrealist sculptures with your students. All include found objects that have been transformed to create artworks.

If helpful, use these nudge questions to get the discussion going:

  • what objects can you see in each of the artworks?
  • how have the artists changed the objects?
  • what is the effect? what do the sculptures make you think and feel?

Activity: Make a sculpture inspired by 'Lobster Telephone'

Inspired by the pairing of a lobster and a telephone, task your students with making their own Surrealist sculpture by pairing two unlikely things. 

Lobster Telephone

Lobster Telephone

National Galleries of Scotland

Starting points: weird pairings

Use the Surrealists' interest in chance to inspire the sculptures.

  • Write the names of animals, birds and insects on bits of paper and put them in a bag.
  • Now write the names of objects on bits of paper and put them into another bag. (Try and choose ordinary domestic objects, such as a toothbrush, a shoe, a toy car, or objects found in nature such as sticks or shells.)
  • Invite each student to take out one piece of paper from each box. Share and enjoy the results!

Surrealism-inspired activity, weird pairings

Surrealism-inspired activity, weird pairings

Planning the sculpture

Students could start planning their sculpture by drawing or collaging photographs of their object and animal pairings together. This doesn't have to be done in a straightforward way:

  • they could juxtapose bits of the object and animal
  • or design an abstract sculpture inspired by the shapes and features of their animal and object
  • they could also use traditional drawing and collage technqiues or digital image-editing tools

Dalí and James made use of the shape of the lobster to suggest the telephone receiver. Are there any features of their animals that students could make use of in relation to their objects?

Sculpture ideas

Students should now have some sketches and plans for their sculpture. Here are some ideas for materials and approach:

  • use clay, air-drying clay or plasticine to make sculptures, modelling the combined animal and object
  • for that authentic Surrealist look, students could combine a real, existing object (if it's something that is handy, portable and not too precious!) with an animal, or part of an animal made from clay or craft materials using construction techniques
  • you could also have a go with your class at casting an object in plaster (if it's not too big!), and combine this with a modelled animal

Sculpture technqiue tips

Use these resources for sculpture ideas and tips:

Art UK Home School: create a wire hybrid creature

Art UK Home School: make your own pet from junk

CultureStreet: make a clay sculpture

CultureStreet: casting with plaster

Extension activities

Found objects in art

'Found object' is the term used to describe objects used in artworks that originally had another function or purpose, for example, the telephone used in Lobster Telephone is a found object. Found objects can be manufactured, or they might be objects from nature (such as stones, shells or bones). Sometimes they are used without making any changes to them, or an artist may decide to alter an object or use it alongside other materials.

Explore women Surrealist artists

The role of women in Surrealism was often seen by the male Surrealist artists as muse or model. But many of the great Surrealist artists were women. Explore women Surrealists with your students. You could task them with choosing an artist and researching them, as an individual or homework project. Use these links for ideas.

Art UK story: Six women artists of British Surrealism
Art UK story: More than muses: the women at the centre of Surrealism

Eileen Agar
Artist biography and artworks on Art UK
Tate Kids article: Who is Eileen Agar?

Claude Cahun
Artist biography and artworks on Tate's website
The Art Story: Claude Cahun

Leonora Carrington
Artist biography and artworks on Art UK
TateShots video: Leonora Carrington: Britain's lost Surrealist

Ithell Colquhoun
Artist biography and artworks on Art UK
Art UK story: The magic surrealism of Ithell Colquhoun

Dorothea Tanning
Artist biography and artworks on Art UK
Tate Look Closer: Learn about 100 years of Dorothea Tanning


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