Surrealism began in the late 1910s or early 1920s as a form of literary art. The movement was officially consecrated in Paris, 1924 when the poet André Breton published his Manifesto of Surrealism. The next major step for visual surrealism came in 1927 when the Belgian artists René Magritte moved to Paris from Brussels and became one of the movements leading figures. Magritte was influenced by the works de Chirico produced from 1910 to 1920. The Belgian began painting explicitly erotic objects that were juxtaposed with their dreamlike surroundings. His work marked a rift between the old form of visual automatism nurtured by artists André Masson and Joan Miró and a new type of illusionistic Surrealism. The leading figures in this new style were Magritte, another Belgian Paul Delvaux, the French-American Yves Tanguy and, of course, Salvador Dalí.
Dalí's chief source of inspiration was the subconscious world of dreams. Dalí's work as a member of Paris' Surrealist movement only lasted for nine years, but it has become the most famous aspect of his life. It is the work of this era that has come to define the artist. Dalí and his contemporaries Bretón and Miró were all inspired by the films of Luis Buñuel. Dalí worked with Buñuel on the director's first film in 1929 titled 'Un Chien Andalou'. The short film was shot in black and white and features no dialogue. Instead, it combines music with some of the strangest and most disturbing images to be seen on film at that time. There is a shot of a man dragging bloody donkeys that are attached to a piano through a room, and there is also the splicing of an eyeball. These horrifying sequences make no sense at first but Buñuel sought to capture how nightmarish and beyond control dreams really are. Dalí certainly approved of the director's work because he returned two years later to collaborate with Buñuel again, this time on the film 'L'Age D'or'.
Like many other artists and painters, Dalí was inspired by the works of the old masters. He toured Italy and was enamoured with the classical and renaissance paintings that he came across. When he was exiled from the Surrealist movement after arguing with its founder, Dalí began painting his own takes of classical sacred scenes and utilised more traditional artistic subjects. While working in this new style in America, Dalí began to write his autobiographies which he called 'The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí' and 'Diary of a Genius'. These books were completed in 1942 and 1964 respectively.
The Painting of Mae West
Before the sofa was created, it was the centrepiece of a painting titled 'Face Mae West'. This painting was created by Dalí in 1935 and is considered to be one of his "comic" works. Mae West was one of America's first international sex symbols. She was extremely popular for her hourglass figure and beautiful features. However, the actress had more than her looks. She was said to be a charismatic person, full of sensuality and charm. A talented actress, Mae West also possessed a fierce sense of determination. West played the role of muse for many artists. Dalí admired her, even going so far as to call her an 'erotic monument to his era'.
The Creation of the Mae West Lips Sofa
The painting soon came to the attention of British arts patron Edward James. James was a poet who was known for his love of the surrealist movement. Dalí was sponsored by James for the entirety of 1938 and provided additional practical help, supporting the Spanish painter for another two years. When James saw the painting of Mae West, he wanted to make the image into reality. James was particularly enamoured with the sofa styled after the actress' lips. Dalí's first creation was a divan sofa shaped exactly like the painting but wrapped in pink satin. James felt that this made the piece 'too showy'. Dalí's next two attempts to create physical versions of the sofa met with greater approval. These were created in London in 1938 by the decorators Green & Abbott utilising red and green felt alongside a black fringe. Both sofas were intended for Monkton House in West Sussex. Originally a classical Edwin Lutyens mansion, James had reimagined the mansion's interior into a personal surrealist fantasy.
In total, five of the Mae West Lips Sofas were commissioned by James. Unfortunately, the subsequent spin-offs were never properly counted. Later, in 1970, the sofas had become a popular icon and were revised by the Italian firm Studio 65. They collaborated with Gufram to create a polyurethane riff. After another two years passed, Dalí worked with the Catalan architect Oscar Tusquets no another example of his famous sofa, again utilising polyurethane. However, this final version would not be produced until 2004 when it was created by BD Barcelona. Two of the sofas remained at Monkton House until Edward James died in 1984. By this time the sofas had been preyed upon by moths and damaged by lamps, general wear and tear, and constant use. Despite this, the sofas are extremely valuable.
In 2016, Edward James' heirs attempted to sell one of the sofas, and then in 2017, the second was also put up for auction. The first was sold successfully and the second featured a winning bid of £480,281. However, since this was the last of its kind and the buyer wished to transport it to another country, its export was blocked. The United Kingdom has the right to block the export of any item that is considered to be a national treasure, even when it is privately owned. However, this ban only lasts for one year. During this time, British institutions are invited to purchase the blocked item by matching its original sale price. The intent is to keep important national treasures within the UK while ensuring that sellers do not lose any money. The sofa was successfully purchased by the V&A museum for the asking price of £480,000. Currently, the sofa is in storage and is not available for public viewings.
Description: A red sofa made from felted wool in the shape of a woman's lips. The base is decorated with a black fringe and green felted appliques.
Place of Origin: Designed and made in London
Designed: 1937 to 1938
Artist / Manufacturer: Salvador Dalí, artist (1904 to 1989)
Edward James, artist and commissioner (1907 to 1984)
Green and Abbott, manufacturer
Dimensions: Height: 79 cm
Width: 202 cm
Depth: 92 cm
Materials: Wool, horsehair, wood and metal.