Students looking at 'Lobster Telephone' in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
About this resource
What is Lobster Telephone and what does it tell us about Surrealism?
Focusing on Salvador Dalí and Edward James's sculpture Lobster Telephone (1938) in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, this resource provides an introduction to Surrealism. Through videos, discussion, and practical activities, students will:
explore Lobster Telephone and the context within which it was made
find out about Surrealism, and Surrealist ideas and techniques
have a go at creating a sculpture inspired by Lobster Telephone
These lesson ideas can be used together, or individual components could be integrated into your own scheme of work. The resource includes group activities and suggestions for individual study. It is devised for Level 3/Key Stage 3 students, but may also suit Level 4/Key Stage 4.
Art and design - Evaluate and analyse creative works - Actively engage in the creative process of art - Know about great artists and understand the historical and cultural development of their art forms - Produce creative work, explore ideas
Art and design – I have experimented with a range of media and technologies to create images and objects, using my understanding of their properties (EXA 3-02a) – Through observing and recording, I can create material that shows accuracy of representation (EXA 3-04a) – I can respond to the work of artists and designers by discussing my thoughts and feelings. I can give and accept constructive comment on my own and others' work (EXA 3-07a)
Art and design - Students use their knowledge about the work of other artists to enrich and inform their work through analysis and evaluation - Students use a variety of processes - Students evaluate their work through discussion - Students explore, experiment with and apply the visual, tactile and sensory language of art
Exploring the expressive arts is essential to developing artistic skills and knowledge and it enables learners to become curious and creative individuals.
Progression step 4:
I can explore and experiment with my own and others’ creative ideas, demonstrating increasingly complex technical control, innovation, independent thinking and originality to develop my work with confidence, being able to explain my reasons behind choices made and evaluate their effectiveness on my creative work
I can explore creative work, understanding the personal, social, cultural and historical context, including the conventions of the period in which it was created.
I can investigate and understand how meaning is communicated through the ideas of other artists and performers.
Responding and reflecting, both as artist and audience, is a fundamental part of learning in the expressive arts.
Progression step 4:
I can effectively evaluate my own creative work and that of others showing increasing confidence to recognise and articulate strengths, and to demonstrate resilience and determination to improve.
I can apply knowledge and understanding of context when evaluating my own creative work and creative work by other people and from other places and times.
I can evaluate the effectiveness of a wide range of artistic techniques in producing meaning.
Creating combines skills and knowledge, drawing on the senses, inspiration and imagination.
Progression step 4:
I can use my experimentation and investigation to manipulate creative work with purpose and intent when communicating my ideas.
I can apply specialised technical skills in my creative work.
I can draw upon my experiences and knowledge to inform and develop strategies to overcome creative challenges with imagination and resilience.
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.
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.
Look at this photograph of Lobster Telephone with your students.
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
This video shows a group of students responding to and learning about Lobster Telephone. Watch it as a class and then discuss what you have found out about the sculpture. These prompts might help:
who made it? What do you know about Salvador Dalí?
when was it made?
what is it made from?
which 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?
What do you think? Ideas and objects
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?
Teachers' notes 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.
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, it's strange to see a lobster on top of any phone!'
Ask your students what they think. Use these prompts if helpful.
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?
Are we are more used to the idea of the surreal in the twenty-first century, 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?
Teachers' notes: was Lobster Telephone 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. (Although their sculptures were generally made using traditional sculpture techniques such as carving and casting, and traditional materials such as bronze and stone.)
Discuss with your students whether Lobster Telephone, with its functioning telephone and jokey subject matter, would have looked more out-of-place in a gallery than these abstract sculptures.
Discuss with 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.
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.)
What can we learn about Surrealist art from 'Lobster Telephone'?
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.
Watch and discuss
The videos below provide more information about Surrealism.
Choose one of the videos to watch as a class. (Video suggestions are included for different age groups).
Then discuss with your students how you think Lobster Telephone reflects the main ideas of Surrealism.
An introduction to Surrealism for younger learners
Made for young audiences, this video provides a brief (and fun) introduction to Surrealism.
For older students, use these video links to provide a more in-depth introduction to Surrealism:
These are some of the ways Lobster Telephone reflects the main ideas and interests of Surrealism.
It looks like something you might see in a dream (or nightmare!)
It looks as if it was made by chance – with two random objects placed together. (Automatism was a key concept of Surrealism. Surrealist artists used various techniques to enable the outpouring of unconscious thought, typically using arbitrary methods that allowed chance to play a key role.)
It is a familiar object but altered to make it appear strange and unsettling. (Reflecting Sigmund Freud's theories about 'the uncanny'.)
Activity: explore more Surrealist sculptures
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?
Man Ray (1890–1976)
The Cloak of Secrecy 1940
Conroy Maddox (1912–2005)
Fish Basket c.1965
Eileen Agar (1899–1991)
Indestructible Object 1923
Man Ray (1890–1976)
Only Egg 1936–1937
Paul Nash (1889–1946)
Pincushion to Serve as Fetish 1965
Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012)
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.
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!
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 techniques 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?
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, using 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
'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.
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.