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Meret Oppenheim Artworks

Swiss Painter and Sculptor

Meret Oppenheim Photo
Movements and Styles: Surrealism, Surrealist Sculpture

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

Died: November 15, 1985 - Berne, Switzerland

Artworks 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)

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.

Ma Gouvernante (My Nurse) (1936)

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.

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Stone Woman (1938)

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.

Spring Banquet/ Cannibal Feast (1959)

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 (1975)

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."

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Pair of Gloves (1985)

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.

Related Artists and Major Works

Cut Piece (1964)

Artist: Yoko Ono (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

A landmark work, and one of the artist's best-known, Cut Piece was presented at the Sogetsu Art Center, the same Tokyo venue that had hosted her Bag Piece. Ono wore one of her best suits and knelt on the stage holding a pair of scissors. She invited audience members to cut pieces of her clothing off using the scissors. The artist remained still and silent until she was down to only her underwear. The process of witnessing clothes cut from the body elicited a range of responses from the audience. Themes of materialism, gender, class, and cultural identity were central to the work.

According to Ono, her original intention was to harness the Buddhist mentality (Buddha, born a wealthy prince, achieved enlightenment by giving up everything and sitting under a tree for seven years), with a feminist subtext: women too often need to give up everything. This performance was a demonstration of that reality. Ono's Cut Piece was the first performance piece to address the potential for sexual violence in public spectacle. It is also among the first examples of Performance Art.

The Dinner Party (1979)

The Dinner Party (1979)

Artist: Judy Chicago (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

The Dinner Party is a monumental installation celebrating forgotten achievements in female history. Chicago described it as, "as a reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of women, who, throughout history, have prepared the meals and set the table." The central form is a forty-eight-foot triangular table with symbolic places set for thirty-nine "guests of honor"—remarkable women from different stages in Western civilization. Each guest has her own runner, embroidered on one side with her name and on the other with imagery illustrating her achievement. Each place setting includes a glass plate, decorated with a butterfly or floral motif symbolizing the vulva. By incorporating elements of a contemporary social event with the status and appearance of a banquet, Chicago elevates her guests to the role of heroes, a traditionally male epithet. In essence, Chicago states, the work "takes us on a tour of Western civilization, a tour that bypasses what we have been taught to think of as the main road." The floor is inscribed with the names of 999 additional women worthy of recognition, while acknowledgment panels on the walls honor the 129 collaborators who worked with Chicago on the piece.

Regarded as an icon of 20th-century art, The Dinner Party is arguably the most significant and recognized piece of feminist art ever made, notable in its incorporation of collaborative working process, political symbolism, the sheer scale of the media response, and the unprecedented worldwide grassroots movement it prompted in reaction to the work's condemnation. The piece's lasting importance lies in its defiance of fine-art tradition by representing a feminine history suppressed by patriarchal society, as well as its celebration of the traditional "feminine" crafts: textile arts (weaving, embroidery, and sewing) and ceramic decoration. Featured in sixteen exhibitions in six different countries, The Dinner Party has been seen by millions of viewers.

Response to the work has been mixed. Many have praised the work, including art historian Susan Caldwell, who wrote that "it produces the sort of chill that comes only from beautiful works of strong conviction and conception." American curator and art critic Lucy Lippard said of the work, "My own initial experience was strongly emotional... The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings". Some critics, however, hold negative opinions of the work, with American art critic Hilton Kramer calling the work "vulgar" and "crass", and artist Cornelia Parker stating "we're all reduced to vaginas, which is a bit depressing. It's almost like the biggest piece of victim art you've ever seen. And it takes up so much space! I quite like the idea of trying to fit it in some tiny bin – not a very feminist gesture but I don't think the piece is either." The work has also been criticized for having a racial bias. Writer Esther Allen notes that the work excludes Latin American women like Frida Kahlo, and author Alice Walker notes that Sojourner Truth's plate is the only one that has three faces instead of a vagina, possibly, she proposes, because "white women feminists, no less than white women generally, cannot imagine that black women have vaginas".

Mannequin (1938)

Movement: Surrealism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Man Ray (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Mannequin depicts André Masson's mannequin at the Exposition International du Surrealisme, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, in Paris 1938. Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Maurice Henry, and others also designed these weird mannequins to fill a room with uncanny female forms that looked both monstrous and sexually alluring. Man Ray photographed them all as discreet characters, of which this is one example. He repeatedly photographed his assistant, artist Lee Miller, and many other women, both living and inanimate. Like Hans Bellmer, an artist peripherally associated with the group, Ray was obsessed with the female form as the perfect embodiment of male desire, and sought to capture it formally in fantastical ways. Man Ray also pioneered many photographic techniques, including rayographs, named after himself, that incorporate elements of chance and in which subjects appear to glow in dream-like silver auras.

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