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.
Museum of Modern Art, New York