Meret Oppenheim - Biography and Legacy
Swiss Painter and Sculptor
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.