Swiss Painter and Sculptor
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.
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.
Important Art by Meret Oppenheim
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.
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.
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.