Monday, 7 October 2013

Meret Oppenheim; the 31 Women number twenty-one. Her birthday is 6 October.

Swiss artist, 1913 – 1985 painter, sculptor, designer, poet

Meret Oppenheim in a still from
 IMAGO
There is a famous work of Surrealist art called Le Déjeuner en Fourrure (Dinner in Fur), which consists of a teacup, saucer and spoon covered with gazelle fur. This is Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim's most widely known work and has been an icon of high Surrealism since 1936, to the constant dismay of its creator who regarded it as of minor importance. This creation pursued her all her life, although she later disassociated herself from Surrealism.

Dejuner en Fourrure was loaned to Peggy Guggenheim for the Exhibition of 31 Women in 1943.  Méret Oppenheim had no say in the matter, she was on the other side of the Atlantic, in her native Switzerland. She never agreed to participate in any exclusively female exhibition and even refused to condone the reproduction of her work in books about women artists. This wasn't because she felt that the battle for women's liberation was unnecessary. Méret was a feminist and the granddaughter of suffragette Lisa Wenger-Rutz, who'd been active in the Swiss League for Women's Rights and encouraged radical thinking in her daughters and granddaughters.


Méret said in a letter to her sister Kristen, when she was asked to take part in an all woman exhibition in Los Angeles, that she was concerned about the possible ghettoisation of art by women. She strongly believed that the creation of art had nothing to do with one's gender, but was a product of both the male and female sides of the artist's psyche.

Meret Oppenheim’s oeuvre is immensely varied, due to her penchant for experimentation. Although when pressed she called herself a painter, she seldom treated painting as any more important than other creative techniques. She absolutely considered art to be an act of creation with a naturally inspired spiritual element, not merely self expression. Her drawings are exceptionally confident, free and expressive. She crossed the boundaries between styles and genres, between fine art and design and between two and three dimensions, to create a body of work that might be abstract, surreal, symbolist, conceptual and/or expressionist, defying easy classification with confidence and élan.

Meret Elisabeth Oppenheim was born on 6 October 1913 in Charlottenberg, Berlin. Her father Erich Alphons Oppenheim was a German doctor, but in 1914 he was called up into the German Army. For safety, her Swiss mother Eva Wenger moved with her children back to her own parents’ home in Switzerland.



Home became a fairly mobile concept for the Oppenheim children, moving often between Southern Germany and Switzerland and Meret attended six different schools, including one of the first Rudolph Steiner schools in Basle. However it was always her grandparents’ house, in the Swiss village of Carona, surrounded by forest and mountains, that was Meret’s refuge. 

Her grandparents were vitally important in encouraging her creatrivity and her rejection of convention. Meret began taking a sketchbook to church, for use during long, dull sermons. Their home was visited by writers and artists including author Herman Hesse, who in 1924 married Meret’s aunt, artist and singer Ruth Wenger. Also significant for Meret were the visits to the house of Zurich Dada artists including Emmy Hemmings and Hugo Ball.

Though he was dubious about art as a career for his daughter, Meret’s artistic development was influenced by her father. His enthusiasm for Jungian philosophy and analysis led his daughter, in her early teens, to began a dream diary which she kept up at intervals for the rest of her life, dreams often forming the foundation for her paintings. Her interest in symbolism, much of it of her own creation, can be also traced to her father’s enthusiasm for Jung. She had her first consultation with Jung when in her teens and he influenced her spiritual thinking and search for independence.

Another early influence was Paul Klee, whose work she saw in a Bauhaus exhibition when she was sixteen. In protest against having to learn algebra, Meret drew an equation reading X= hare (a cartoon of a dispirited hare, representing herself). Years later she gave her notebook, including this equation, to surrealist supremo Andre Breton, who was interested in the innocent thought processes of children and later published it as Cahier d’une Ecoliere in the surrealist magazine La Surréalisme Même.

Her rejection of formal education led to Meret's parents agreement that they would help her become an artist. Apart from Klee, it is hard to trace the direct influence of other artists in Oppenheim’s work even at a young age, she was an original and at the time had the self belief to evolve her own ideas, disregarding the dictates of style and technique. In early 1932, with full parental support, she moved to Paris to study art.

Meret enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, but she was not an enthusiastic student and became disillusioned by the academic teaching. She had already mastered the drawn line and was not interested in rehearsing realist painting techniques. She drew and wrote in her room and began working with ideas she would return to much later, including The Green Spectator, a work which came from her strong attachment to the natural world, she gained spiritual strength from the idea of nature as a neutral observer of the human condition. Natural themes dominate her oeuvre, the influence coming from deep in her childhood when her grandmother took her into the forest and onto the hillsides, teaching her the names of the wildlife and plants. Her purely surrealist pieces, whilst iconic, occupy only a small area in her fifty year career.

Meret often sat in the Café du Dôme, a popular haunt with artists and intellectuals from its opening in 1898. Here she met sculptor Alberto Giacometti, another Swiss émigré and former Grande Chaumière student. She visited his studio and through Giacometti, she met Sophie Taeuber, who was also Swiss, and her husband Hans Arp. This was a gentle introduction into the circle of the Surrealists. She would meet the big guns later, with less positive consequences, but for now with these charming, liberated friends, she never felt the urge to return to the Académy, one could say that her art school training was postponed by Surrealism.

In May 1933 Meret Oppenheim exhibited with the Surrealists at the Salon des Surindependents. She was only 19, the youngest artist to formally exhibit with the them at the time, though they did sometimes exhibit children’s art. She began working with Man Ray in late 1933 helping in his photographic experiments. More famously she posed nude for a sequence of photographs, some of which were published in the magazine Minotaure, making her own image a Surrealist icon before she even dreamt of furry teacups. She refused to allow these photographs to be included in any later exhibition of her work, they were irrelevant to her own artistic trajectory.

Her relationship with Man Ray was not very serious, however she then did something that seemed almost obligatory for the women attached to the surrealists, when she fell in love with Max Ernst, though she soon had the sense to drop him. Oppenheim participated in all the Surrealist’s exhibitions for the next five years. She befriended other surrealist women particularly photographer Dora Maar and painter Leonor Fini, who would be involved in the 31 Women exhibition. Meret remained close to Fini for many years, exchanging letters and designs when they were unable to meet.
In 1936 Meret began producing fashion accessories and jewellery for designer Elsa Schiaparelli. She needed the money, her father, as a doctor of Jewish descent had lost his living in Germany and moved to Switzerland, where he was not allowed to practice medicine because he was German. The family would continue to have financial difficulties for some years and were no longer able to support Meret’s independent life in Paris. Her jewellery designs led to the creation of Le Dejeuner en Fourrure, though this is supposed to have originated in a discussion at a the Café Flore between her, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar. Meret had covered a bracelet with fur and Picasso is said to have suggested that anything could be covered with fur.

Oppenheim’s fur covered teacup was a hit at the 1936 Exposition Surrealist d’Objects at the Charles Ratton Gallery in Paris and also at the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts the following year. She made other sexually charged objects including Ma Gouvernante, a pair of high-heeled shoes, trussed on a plate like a chicken. Meret denied the titillating aspects of her early surrealist objects and even their importance.

The shallowness of celebrity as a surrealist femme-enfant upset her, she became depressed and in 1939 returned to Switzerland. She attended the School of Commercial Arts in Basle for two years, immersing herself in the academic disciplines of colour theory, life drawing, portraiture and perspective, trying to find what she felt was missing, but she took another decade to  rediscover her own artistic direction. She said of this bleak period in her life, “I dreamed mostly of winter, nothing was alive.” (Quoted in 'Imago'.)

This image shows how important the vital world of nature was for Oppenheim, as opposed to the artificial world of the surrealists. In 1949 she married film maker/producer Wolfgang la Roche, who had been a supportive friend since 1945. Though they later separated, she said of her marriage that it was a healing experience. By 1954 she felt fully re-vitalised and confident again in her creativity and, although she remained in contact with surrealist friends and continued to exhibit with them, she no longer regarded herself as a surrealist.

She lived mainly in Switzerland, though in the 1960’s she had a Parisian apartment where she created frescoes dedicated to the work of two poets, depicting the contrasts she saw in their poetry, Bettina Brentano for light beyond death and Karoline von Günderode for the light of life. These spiritual concerns show how far she had progressed from the games of the surrealists. Despite having some rejection of her work in ultra-conservative Switzerland, from 1953 she exhibited there extensively and in Germany, France and Italy.

In 1964 Meret Oppenheim was photographed with Le Dejeuner en Fourrure, holding the cup in her hand as if to drink from it, but her expression says, ‘Well don't expect enthusiasm. It's not me who wants this wretched photograph!’ 

Meret Oppenheim's later output remained as varied as her earlier work. Whilst she continued to paint and make small objects she also created larger sculpture, including several designs for fountains. The fountain had featured in her drawings and poetry from the 1930’s, but it was not until this stage in her career that she had the fame and access to funding which made their execution possible.


One was commissioned and erected in Waisenhausplatz, Berne in 1983, despite objections from certain locals. This is a tall,  romantically rocky tower with water trickling down it, atop the tower is a small circular temple, below this the tower structure is partially engulfed in natural rock, with moss and grasses growing from it. Oppenheim wanted the tower-fountain to be a natural presence in a car-dominated square. It is radically different to other fountains in the city, which are very traditional with heroic or folksy figures, hence opposition of some local conservative elements to her unusual tower.

Meret Oppenheim was a spiritual artist, though not a religious one. In the 1960s she began a number of celestial paintings concerned with stars and planets, rather than angels. Her planetary landscapes and skies are simplified, beautiful and above all mysterious.  A major project in her later life was the conversion of her family villa, the Casa Costanza, into a very personal work of art. This extended well beyond interior decoration, incorporating her own designs for furnishings, as well as her imagery and poetry, though her ideas stopped short off turning the house into either an installation or a museum. For years it remained a comfortable home and a personal statement from the artist to her family and frends, some of whom contributed to the accumulated art-works.

Meret Oppenheim died of a heart attack late in 1985, she was only seventy. She had predicted her death at that age in a dream thirty five years earlier. The 1990 film, IMAGO, made by her friends Pamela Robertson-Pearce & Anselm Spoerri, used her own words, from her letters and poems, spoken by the British actress Glenda Jackson, as well as her images and photographs, to paint a portrait of a unique artist.

Despite her opposition to all women exhibitions, her work has been included in a number, including the 2009 elles@centrepompidou in Paris, a ground breaking re-assessment of the Musee d’Art Moderne’s collection focussed on women as representatives of all modern art movements.  Even  now, 25 years after her death, the furry teacup continues to haunt Meret Oppenheim’s reputation. It remains the star of the MoMA surrealist collection in New York and is one of the most reproduced images of surrealist art.
Meret Oppenheim had sixty solo exhibitions during her lifetime alone and though the full scope of her work is still unrecognised beyond Switzerland and Germany she never shared the fate of fellow Swiss artist Sonja Sekula (another of the 31), whose depression defeated her so that she became a forgotten artist. Oppenheim conquered her illness and the European art world has gained huge respect for Meret Oppenheim, artist.

Today, whilst the ideas of many of the older Surrealists are consigned to the past, Meret Oppenheim’s work is an influential force behind the work of many younger artists including Swiss performance artist Manon, installation artist Daniele Buetti, and artist, curator and publisher Suzanne Baumann, who was Oppenheim’s assistant for some years. Beyond Switzerland, Oppenheim’s reach, if not her eye can be seen in the work of Sarah Lucas, Mariann Grunder, Eva Hesse, Tracy Emin and many more.


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Sources include:
Whitney Chadwick,  Women Artists & the Surrealist Movement  
Bice Curiger, 1989 Meret Oppenheim; Defiance in the Face of Freedom MIT Press
Bice Curiger & Jacqueline Buckhardt, 1996 Meret Oppenheim;Beyond the Teacup (Exhibition at Guggenheim NY) great illustrations
Ursula Krinzinger & Ebersberger, Ewa (Ed) 1997 Meret Oppenheim; A Different Retrospective, pub. Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna & Edition Stemmle, Zurich - catalogue for exhibition that  toured Arnhem Holland, Uppsala Sweden & Helsinki, Finland
Pamela Robertson-Pearce  and Anselm Spoerri, 1989-90 IMAGO: Meret Oppenheim a film

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Comments, corrections and further information, especially about Meret Oppenheim's artworks, are very welcome.
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You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.

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