Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Salvador Dalí - Mae West Lips Sofa

The Mae West Lips Sofa (1937) is a surrealist sofa by Salvador Dalí. The wood-and-satin sofa was shaped after the lips of actress Mae West, whom Dalí apparently found fascinating. It measures 86.5 x 183 x 81.5 cm (34 x 72 x 32 in).

Edward James, a rich British patron of the Surrealists in the 1930s, commissioned this piece from Dalí.

It is probably every patron's dream to collaborate with an artist on a great work of art. For Edward James, the wealthy and eccentric poet and collector, the dream came true when, together with Salvador Dali, he produced the "Mae West" lip sofa, one of the 20th century's most sensuous and iconic pieces of furniture.

The design was conceived in 1936 when Dali was in London for the International Surrealist Exhibition. Experiencing some financial difficulties, he signed an agreement with James whereby he would receive a wage in exchange for his total output for a year. The two also set about creating designs for surreal furniture. James was, at that time, redecorating Monkton House, a Lutyens dower house on his family's West Dean estate in Sussex, which he transformed into a mauve-walled extravaganza of surreal fantasy.

The lip sofa relates to Dali's paintings and drawings that were inspired by the Hollywood actress, Mae West. Face of Mae West, for instance, depicts her features as objects in a surrealist room, with her eyes as paintings, her nose as a fireplace and her lips as a sofa. Production took place in 1938, with James closely involved, choosing the fabrics and colours.

Only five sofas are known to have been made and he kept them all. Three are still owned by the Edward James Foundation in West Dean, and two were sold shortly before James's death in 1984. The Brighton Art Gallery and Museum bought one, while the other, which is to be sold by Christie's on Wednesday, was acquired by a private collector. 

  • The Lips Sofa was obviously inspired by Mae West designed from the inspiration of Dali’s paintings and drawings of the actress.
  • Edward James, the wealthy and eccentric poet and collector,  together with Salvador Dali, produced the “Mae West” lip sofa, one of the 20th century’s most sensuous and iconic pieces of furniture. In 1936 Dali was in London for the  International Surrealist Exhibition and it was then he conceived the idea for the Sofas. Dali like many artists experienced financial difficulties and hence he actually signed an agreement with Edward to exchange a years output for a wage. James with his considerable family wealth became a great benefactor to the arts and crafts movement and was a creative soul himself.
  • Production of the Sofa took place in 1938 with James deeply involved in specifying and choosing the fabrics and colours. This resonated with his passion and interest which survives to this day post the world war he witnessed in the Henry James Foundation and West Dean College, a charitable foundation for ensuring the survival of the skills and artisan trades which he feared might be erradicated and wiped out by the outcome of the war.
  • The two extreme individuals set about designing a series of pieces of  surreal furniture, and hence the connection to Monkton House a Lutyens (the architect) designed Dower House on the Jame’s family estate in West Dean  in West Susex. Bizarrely this English country house was transformed into a mauve-walled extravaganza of surreal fantasy.
  • Possibly such a creative relationship was less than likely to yield a profitable ongoing concern, just 5 sofas were produced, with 3 remaining in the ownership of the Henry Foundation. What an intriguing connection to art history in the 20th century!
Amanda Moore

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