Summary of Meret Oppenheim
Meret Oppenheim's notebook from high school math class contains the following equation: "X= an Orange Rabbit". André Breton (the pope of Surrealism) loved this so much he published the whole notebook. With the looks of a Hollywood film star, and the brain of a mad scientist, Oppenheim managed to persuade the Surrealists to allow her to join their circle (which until then was strictly no-girls-allowed). Her fetishistic sculptures, fashioned from teacups, fur, high heels and other feminine domestic objects, address the themes of food, sex, death, cannibalism and bondage, always with a mischievous twist. Her famous fur-lined teacup was instantly embraced by the Surrealists as the quintessential expression of their movement.
- Of all the Surrealists, she took Breton's call "to hound the mad beast of function" most literally. Her sculptures repurpose household objects intended to serve one function and suggest another, usually outrageous, function for which they might be used.
- Oppenheim was the only Surrealist who had any authority on psychoanalysis. Born into a family of Swiss analysts, Oppenheim was steeped in psychoanalytic theory and followed the teachings of Carl Gustav Jung. Throughout her life, she kept a dream diary that served as a wellspring for her creativity.
- Oppenheim's work with the fashion industry helped break down the barriers between fine art and fashion. The line of Surrealist gloves she designed for the high-end clothier Elsa Schiaparelli (who went on to collaborate with Salvador Dalí) were especially cutting-edge, and continue to be widely imitated.
- Although Oppenheim is normally aligned with Surrealism, her daring use of found objects is straight-up Dada. She is a key transitional figure, linking the two movements.
- At a time when the only acceptable role for a woman in the art world was mistress or muse, Oppenheim made it as an artist. She broke the glass ceiling of Surrealism and beat it at its own game, harnessing the power of fantasies about dominance and submission (prevalent themes in Surrealist art) in an effort to destroy them.
Progression of Art
This fur-covered teacup, saucer, and spoon, covered in Chinese gazelle pelt, is an unsettling hybrid: civilization meets wild animal. Viewed by many as the definitive surrealist object, the idea apparently arose from a conversation at a Paris café, where Picasso and his girlfriend Dora Maar were admiring Oppenheim's fur-covered bracelet. This provoked discussion about what else might be fur-covered. Both tea and fur were (then as now) a mark of civilization, sipped and worn by refined ladies. The combination, however, is distinctively uncivilized.
André Breton immediately saw the object as evidence of a fur fetish, and retitled the work Dejeuner en Fourrure (Breakfast in Fur) for his 1936 Exposition Surréaliste d'objet. Audiences of the time recognized the title as a reference to Sacher-Masoch's erotic, masochistic novel Venus in Fur (1870), which greatly increased the scandalous effect of the work. Oppenheim later insisted that the sado-masochistic reference was not in line with her original intention.
Museum of Modern Art - New York
Ma Gouvernante (My Nurse)
While the sexual references in Déjeuner en Fourrure are subtle, this kicks it up a notch. Dinner is served - and it is a pair of white high heels. Displayed sole-up, on a silver platter, and trussed like an oven-ready chicken, they are white (i.e. pure), but scuffed (i.e. dirty). Our reflection bounces back to us from the rim of the silver tray, implicating us in a bizarre cannibalistic ritual.
The symbolism unfolds before us like the plot of a sinister novel. The artist has encapsulated nearly every imaginable sexual fetish. Bondage is perhaps the most obvious, but of course, there is the foot fetish. The oval form of the tray and deep crevice between the shoes is vaguely vaginal (and, especially in a dining context, hints at oral sex). The white shoes and their scuffed appearance might reference the Madonna/whore complex. Oppenheim knew her Freud backwards and forwards. Her references are intentional. But what do they mean?
If the sexual content and its sinister undertones are disturbing now, the following story gives us a glimpse into what it looked like to people in 1936. A female spectator flew into a rage and smashed the original work when it first appeared at an exhibition in Paris (1936). This is a second version, made by Oppenheim, shortly after the original was destroyed.
Moderna Museet - Stockholm, Sweden
A configuration of smooth stones descends into the water, where it takes the shape of a woman. The figure could be small or large - there is no indication of scale. The composition is spare but full of contrasts: solid vs liquid; animal vs mineral; hard vs soft; wet vs dry. Created at a moment of crisis (a debilitating depression that prevented the artist from working) it is a poignant metaphor for professional and emotional paralysis: "the only really positive thing" she later wrote, "is the feet, which represent a connection to the unconscious." While she continued to work steadily, it took her many years to re-emerge publicly as an artist.
Oil on cardboard - Private Collection
Spring Banquet / Cannibal Feast
On opening day of the 1959 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (EROS) in Paris, Oppenheim exhibited a compelling and horrifying tableau. It featured a live woman (later replaced by a mannequin) garnished with fish, fruit and nuts. Oppenheim set the table with cutlery, inviting the spectator to a cannibal feast. The idea for the public exhibition originated in a private event. The artist held a "fertility feast" in Bern earlier that year and invited three couples to feast on fruits, nuts and shellfish, presented on the body of a naked female model. The artist, then in mid-career, saw it as a lavish celebration of life, love and mortality. Hearing of it, André Breton, her life-long supporter, begged her to restage it for his forthcoming exhibition on the theme of eroticism and voyeurism. This shift in context and theme significantly altered the work's reception. Breton called it Cannibal Feast, renaming it in a manner that emphasized the violence of the act. Understandably, spectators were shocked and horrified, and Oppenheim even admitted that this version strayed far from her original intention; "Instead of a simple spring festival, it was yet another woman taken for male pleasure." Today it continues to be re-enacted, less controversially, but always with the intent to provoke a mixture of pleasure and discomfort.
Dream of the White Marble Tortoise Wearing Horseshoes
This collage shows a turtle with a hard white shell mounted above a fireplace. From his head spins a billowing cloud of white, embedded with fine threads. The image came from Oppenheim's dream on August 15, 1960, featuring "a helmeted turtle with white marble horseshoes: a magnificent sculpture upright, seen from the bottom of the chimney." For Jung, who studied cultural symbols in an effort to understand their universal meaning, the turtle was a symbol of transcendence. At home on land and sea, the turtle unites the conscious and unconscious, realms, appearing in many creation myths across cultures about the origin of the world. In a poem from 1980, ("Self-Portrait from 50,000 BCE to X") Oppenheim references the turtle and its role in cosmic creation, noting: "all thoughts that have ever been thought roll around the Earth in a colossal sphere of ideas. The Earth explodes, the sphere is shattered, and the thoughts spread across the universe, here they live on in distant stars."
Collage on Paper - Kunstmuzeum, Luzerne, Switzerland
Pair of Gloves
Working from sketches made in the early 1930s in Paris, Oppenheim screen printed fine red veins onto grey goat-skin suede and signed them inside with black ink. Hands and gloves were a key Surrealist motif, and of particular interest to Oppenheim, who produced a series of gloves in the 1930s. In his Surrealist Manifesto of 1928, André Breton declared: Surrealism will "glove your hand." Like fur coats and teacups, gloves were among the items that were a mark of civilization among fashionable women. As she noticed, they were intended to hide our true animal nature. These gloves seem to reverse the process, turning the inside out. Here, what would normally be invisible is visible. Produced in the last year of her life, these have a haunting delicacy typical of the artist's psychic depth, suggesting the vulnerability of old age, and fragility of life itself.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Biography of Meret Oppenheim
Oppenheim grew up in Switzerland in a progressive, intellectual family. Her grandmother was active in the Swiss women's rights movement, and her aunt encouraged her to collect prints by Paul Klee, an important early influence on the young artist. Oppenheim's father was a psychoanalyst. At his recommendation, she recorded her dreams (which, according to psychoanalytic theory, provide insight into the unconscious) as a teenager and continued this practice for the rest of her life. The Surrealist 'pope' André Breton, an early champion of her work, later published some of these early writings in Le Cahier d'une Écolière (1957). Her dream images inspired her earliest paintings in 1931, among them Wurgeengel (an angel strangling an infant) and Suicides' Institute (a boy receives instruction on how to hang himself). By her late teens, Oppenheim was beginning to find life in Switzerland a little confining, and consulted her grandmother about whether or not to attend art school in Paris. Her grandmother conducted a Tarot card reading that predicted Oppenheim's life would be full of struggle, but ultimately deeply fulfilling from a creative standpoint. Oppenheim later remembered that that was the permission she needed to make the "conscious decision to be free" and move to Paris.
Oppenheim enrolled in art classes at the Paris Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and quickly ascended in Surrealist circles, befriending Picasso, Giacometti and Arp, artists twice her age. She exhibited with them at the Salon des Surindépendants. In 1933, she exhibited her first sculpture, the bronze Giacometti's Ear (1933), a turning point in Oppenheim's career and a breakthrough for the Surrealists, who so far had not allowed women to participate as artists. In turn, she served as muse and model.
Among the artists for whom she posed was Man Ray. His famous Erotique Voilée (1933), featuring Oppenheim completely nude and covered in ink in a series of elegant poses with a printing press, illustrates the trap in which Oppenheim was caught. Blinded by her beauty, her mentors saw her as a beautiful female body meant to be admired alongside other objects. As muse and model, Oppenheim's primary function was to inspire the artist, as opposed to making work herself.
At the beginning of her career, Oppenheim modestly described herself as a "picture maker." In drawings, oils, collages, models and sculptures she explored the usual Surrealist themes: death, dreams, nature, and sex.
In the late 1930s, she began working with the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, an exciting collaboration that presented clothing that addressed themes of identity and personal transformation. Each pair of gloves was based on a different theme: painted fingernails, claws, or bones (x-ray style). The most widely imitated is the one with red nails, which inspired countless knock-offs.
Her role as an artist and muse brought notoriety with exhibitions in the capitals of Europe and in New York City. Her fame created insecurity, and in 1937 she abruptly ended a blazing affair with Max Ernst, leaving him in "a highly shaken mental state" according to his love letters, evidently causing them both great pain. The reason she later gave was that she realized that this romantic entanglement would end her career.
Subsequently, the depression from which she had previously suffered returned. She consulted Carl Jung but he did not diagnose her with neurosis. In 1937 she returned to Switzerland. Her final iconic piece of this era, Table with Bird Legs (1939), was exhibited at the Exhibition of Fantastic Furniture.
Oppenheim's middle years were turbulent. Low self-esteem and debilitating depression prevented her from making work for a period for 18 months in 1937. She went back to art school in Basel and began working through the depression and insecurity she felt in a male-dominated art world by making art about it. In Stone Woman (1938), a female body is half in the water and half out of the water, and literally turning into stone, or vice-versa, depending on how you look at it. It was a key transitional moment. Oppenheim did not exhibit during this period, but experimented privately with sculptures, paintings, and even daring fashion: hats shaped like the jaws of snarling dogs, for example, and slashed open lingerie were some of her earliest and best efforts - these also strongly reflect the artist's frame of mind at this point in her career.
Her personal life started to improve in 1945, when she met and married the businessman, Wolfgang La Roche. Although he was externally conventional, La Roche had a unconventional mind that delighted her. In 1954 her depression lifted altogether. She later recalled the flash of insight that let her regain pleasure in making pictures: she finally understood that "a creative body of work is only possible with an absolutely stable sense of confidence." She was ready to publicly reemerge.
For the rest of her life Oppenheim applied her vibrant ideas and technical skill to painting, material art, collage, sculpture, costume and theatre. In 1956, she designed the costumes and sets for Picasso's play Le Désir attrapé par la queue (Desire Caught by the Tail). In 1959 she held one of the most-copied events in modern art. It was a private performance named Spring Banquet. Invitees feasted on a naked woman's body in a celebration of fertility and nature. Breton persuaded her to repeat it at EROS (Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme) in Paris, as Cannibal Feast. The change of name perverted her original meaning and led to fierce criticism that she had exploited a woman as an edible object.
In 1967, a Stockholm Moderna Museet retrospective drew her work to the attention of a new generation and she mocked her iconic images in Eichhörnchen (1969) (a beer mug with a fur handle), and Souvenir du Dejeuner en Fourrure (an embroidered mixed media composition featuring an image of the earlier work)(1972). With Roberto Lupo and Annamaria Boetti she resurrected the Surrealist game of artistic roulette, Cadavres Exquis, where multiple artists create a work by folding a piece of paper and adding images until a whole is unfolded.
Oppenheim put considerable thought into how she wanted to be remembered. She preserved her correspondence with a view to it being published (noting, for example, on certain envelopes of love letters that they could only be published after all persons involved had died). She was also in the habit of destroying her own work.
Although in dialogue with Feminism, she would have nothing to do with women-only exhibitions, feeling that this only perpetuated the problem, and using the term "ghetto," explaining: "there is no difference between man and woman: there is only artist or poet. Sex plays no role whatsoever. That is why I refuse to participate in exhibitions of woman only." In later interviews she emphasized, "women are not goddesses, not fairies, not sphinxes. All these are the projections of men." Having addressed these fantasies directly in her work, and participated in others' fantasies about her, Oppenheim saw this as the chief task of the female artist: "to prove via one's lifestyle that one no longer regards as valid the taboos that have been used to keep women in a state of subjugation for thousands of years. Freedom is not given; one has to take it."
She also rejected the label of Surrealist, commenting in 1984: "I believe what Breton wrote about poetry and art in his first manifesto in 1924 were some of the most beautiful words ever to have been written on the subject. By contrast, I feel quite sick when I think of all the things making reference to Surrealism today."
On her 36th birthday she had recorded a dream in which a skeleton had shown her an hourglass revealing that her life was half empty. Like the early Tarot reading that her life would be full of struggle and creativity, the prediction had come true - She died in 1985, aged 72.
The Legacy of Meret Oppenheim
Given how little of her work was actually exhibited during her lifetime and how much of it was lost, Oppenheim's impact on future generations is all the more remarkable. Her wryly subversive Surrealist designs for Elsa Schiaparelli sparked endless imitations and spin-offs, from Tokio Kumagai's edible shoes to Lady Gaga's Meat Dress. She also inspired numerous works by Feminist artists of the 1960s and 70s.
Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, (essentially a dinner table featuring vaginas on plates), now on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, lifts ideas from Oppenheim and presents them on a grander scale. It is almost impossible to imagine Louise Bourgeois and later Eva Hesse's grotesque, yet alluring sculptures based on body parts without Oppenheim's earlier forays into this arena. Oppenheim's exploration of the body and landscape in works such as Stone Woman, or the body and food in Naked Banquet made impressions on Land Art, Earthworks, and Performance artists, especially Ana Mendieta, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, and Marina Abramovic, experimental artists who incorporated their own bodies into their work.