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Artists Meret Oppenheim
Meret Oppenheim Photo

Meret Oppenheim

Swiss Painter and Sculptor

Born: October 6, 1913 - Berlin-Charlottenburg, Germany

Died: November 15, 1985 - Berne, Switzerland

Meret Oppenheim Timeline

Quotes

"Every idea is born with its form. I make reality of ideas as they come into my head."
Meret Oppenheim
"I love natural materials. But everything man makes is nature, even plastic, even the atomic bomb."
Meret Oppenheim
"It's the artists who do the dreaming for society."
Meret Oppenheim
"Woman is a sandwich covered in white marble. Who covers a soup spoon in precious fur? Little Meret. Who has outdone us all? Little Meret."
Max Ernst

"Freedom is not given to you - you have to take it."

Meret Oppenheim Signature

Synopsis

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.

Key Ideas

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 Gustave 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.

Biography

Meret Oppenheim Photo

Childhood

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.

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Meret Oppenheim Biography Continues

Important Art by Meret Oppenheim

The below artworks are the most important by Meret Oppenheim - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Object in Fur (1936)
Artwork Images

Object in Fur (1936)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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, which had merely been to make something strange.

- Museum of Modern Art - New York

Ma Gouvernante (My Nurse) (1936)
Artwork Images

Ma Gouvernante (My Nurse) (1936)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

Stone Woman (1938)
Artwork Images

Stone Woman (1938)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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

More Meret Oppenheim Artwork and Analysis:

Spring Banquet/ Cannibal Feast (1959) Dream of the White Marble Tortoise Wearing Horseshoes (1975) Pair of Gloves (1985)


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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Meret Oppenheim
Interactive chart with Meret Oppenheim's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Paul KleePaul Klee
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
Alberto GiacomettiAlberto Giacometti

Personal Contacts

Man RayMan Ray
André BretonAndré Breton

Movements

ExpressionismExpressionism
DadaDada
SurrealismSurrealism

Influences on Artist
Meret Oppenheim
Meret Oppenheim
Years Worked: 1932-1985
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Louise BourgeoisLouise Bourgeois
Birgit JurgenssenBirgit Jurgenssen

Personal Contacts

Max ErnstMax Ernst
Man RayMan Ray

Movements

SurrealismSurrealism
Pop ArtPop Art
Feminist ArtFeminist Art

Useful Resources on Meret Oppenheim

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Meret Oppenheim - Defiance In The Face Of Freedom (1989)

By Bice Curiger

Meret Oppenheim: Beyond the Teacup (1996) Recomended resource

By Jacqueline Burckhardt

Meret Oppenheim: Book of Ideas: Early Drawings and Sketches for Fashion, Jewelry, and Designs (1996)

By Meyer-Thoss, Christiane

Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (2002) Recomended resource

By Whitney Chadwick

More Interesting Books about Meret Oppenheim
Archive of Oppenheim's papers and letters Recomended resource

Swiss National Library

Surreal Sparks (2013)

Tretyakov Gallery

Sculpture and Sexuality: The Erotic Objects of Meret Oppenheim Recomended resource

Women Surrealists: Sexuality, Fetish, Femininity and Female Surrealism
By Sabina Daniela Stent
2011

transcripts

Meret Oppenheim - Interview with Robert Belton

Surrealism and Women
By Mary Ann Caws, Gloria Gwen Raaberg
1984

Meret Oppenheim in her own words Recomended resource

Narrative of IMAGO (see Video)
2013

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Ruth Epstein
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