Salvador Dalí<br/>
<em>Mae West Lips Sofa</em> 1937-38 (1938)<br/>
Purchased with funds donated by Paula Fox AO and Fox Family Foundation, Mavourneen Cowen, Tim Fairfax AC & Gina Fairfax AC, The Betsy and Ollie Polasek Endowment, King Family Foundation, John and Jenny Fast, and Ralph Ward-Ambler AM and Barbara Ward-Ambler, donors to the 2023 NGV Foundation Annual Dinner and 2023 NGV Annual Appeal in memory of Robert J. Wylde, 2023<br/>
© Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí. VEGAP/Copyright Agency, 2023

Salvador Dalí: Mae West’s lips


Through the 2023 NGV Annual Appeal and with the help of the community, the NGV hopes to acquire the last of Dalí’s five iconic sculptures, Mae West Lips Sofa, manufactured in 1937–38. Here, Dr Ted Gott explores the origins of the series.

Salvador Dalí first travelled to the United States in 1934, and from that point onwards he was to remain fascinated by American culture, and by Hollywood in particular. It is not surprising that he was also drawn to the American actor Mae West – by 1935 West was the highest paid female actor in the United States, and was widely known, as was the innuendo of her film and stage work, which appealed greatly to Dali’s Surrealist sensibility.

In 1934–35, Dalí created a gouache composition over a photograph of Mae West cut from a commercial magazine, which he titled Mae West’s Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment, now held in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The work imagined an entire room modelled from the actress’s facial features, in which her platinum blonde hair was hung over a curtain rod to provide drapes framing the room, her eyes were formed by two framed pictures, her nose became a fireplace, and her lips formed a two-tone sofa (the seat in bright red, matching the star’s lipstick, with gold fringing). This was a classic example of a new manner of seeing that Dalí called his ‘paranoiac-critical method’, and which he defined as the ‘representation of an object which, without the slightest figurative or anatomical modification, would at the same time be the representation of another absolutely different object’.

Mae West was already an international celebrity by 1928. In 1926 she wrote, produced, directed and starred in a play, Sex, which was performed more than 370 times on Broadway before being closed on obscenity grounds by the New York Police Department. Her next play, The Drag in 1927, was a provocative study of contemporary homosexuality that never made it to Broadway, being shut down by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, after out-of-town seasons in Connecticut and New Jersey. These controversies ensured that Mae West performed to packed houses in the following years, even if her plays received lacklustre reviews. In 1932 West made her first film for Hollywood, starring alongside George Raft, who famously commented that: ‘She stole everything but the cameras’. West’s comedic talent, and clever use of sexual innuendo tested the boundaries of censorship rules, and saw her films become hits around the world.

Salvador Dal&iacute; (left) with Edward James, c. 1935<br/>
&copy; Salvador Dal&iacute;, Fundaci&oacute; Gala &ndash; Salvador Dal&iacute;, DACS 2020<br/>
&copy; Fundaci&oacute; Gala-Salvador Dal&iacute;. VEGAP/Copyright Agency, 2023

Edward James was a wealthy British poet who inherited his fortune from his parents, as well as their country estate at West Dean in West Sussex. He converted one of the buildings on this property, Monkton House, designed for his parents by Sir Edward Luytens in 1902–03, into a private Surrealist pleasure retreat, filling it with his collection of Surrealist art. James was a notable patron of both Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, and also supported the Surrealist magazine Minotaure. James was Dalí’s principal patron in the years 1937–38.

In 1936 Dalí stayed at James’s London residence in Wimpole Street, and during this time two of the Surrealist movement’s greatest ‘objects’ or sculptures, were conceived. It is thought that while eating lobsters with James, Dalí threw aside an empty lobster shell, which landed on a telephone, bringing to life the now legendary Lobster telephone.

Salvador Dal&iacute; <em>Mae West Lips Sofa</em> 1937&ndash;38 (1938) pictured in the dining room at Monkton House, West Dean, West Sussex.<br/>
&copy; Alamy Stock Photo<br/>
&copy; Fundaci&oacute; Gala-Salvador Dal&iacute;. VEGAP/Copyright Agency, 2023

Around this same time Dalí and James brought dramatically to life the central part of Dalí’s work, Mae West’s Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment, specifically the actress’s lips in the form of a sumptuous red sofa. James funded the production of five Mae West Lips Sofas designed by Dalí to be manufactured in three variant designs. Three of these, a pair in red wool and a single in pink satin, were produced for James’s London home. The sofas made for James’s London residence are now held in the collections of the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Brighton; the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; and the Edward James Foundation, West Dean, West Sussex. A separate pair, also in red wool but with elaborate black woven fringing emulating the epaulettes worn by matadors and featuring three green felt appliqué shapes, suggestive of caterpillar larvae, were produced by the interior designers Green & Abbott for the dining room at Monkton House. James placed the pair on either side of the fireplace, emulating the composition of Dali’s Mae West’s Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment. Both of these sofas remained in place at Monkton House until 2016. One of the pair of sofas is now held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Its companion is the exciting subject of the 2023 NGV Annual Appeal. This work is the last of Dalí’s five iconic sculptures, Mae West Lips Sofa, manufactured in 1937–38, to remain in a private collection. With the support of our community, this iconic sculpture will join the NGV Collection for the enjoyment of generations to come.

Dr Ted Gott is NGV Senior Curator, International Art

This article was first published in NGV Magazine, issue 40, May–June 2023.

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