Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) was most known for her Surrealist objects, most notably her Furlined Teacup, which she created when she was only 22 years old.
Meret Oppenheim was born in 1913 near Basel, Switzerland. Perhaps her parents knew that she was to lead a creative and unorthodox life as they named her after Meretlein, the "little Meret" of a book by the Swiss-German novelist and poet Gottfried Keller. In this book Keller wrote of a little girl who was thought to bewitch all by her unconventional habits. Like her namesake, Oppenheim was also a free spirit who never felt confined by social norms.
Oppenheim grew up in Switzerland and in South Germany. Her family was quite accustomed to creative and artistic activities: her aunt, Ruth Werner, was at one time married to Hermann Hesse and her grandmother, Lise Wenger, was a writer and painter. Always receptive to new ideas, Grandmother Wenger stimulated young Meret's imagination with her drawings and stories and later encouraged and supported her choice of an artistic career.
Begins Career in Paris
Although she was an avid reader, Oppenheim felt stifled by the routine and never finished high school. In 1932, when she was nearly 18, she moved to Paris. There she enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and lived in Montparnasse. In this famed artist's quarter of Paris Oppenheim met Alberto Giacometti, Kurt Seligmann, Sophie Taeuber, Hans Arp, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst and became a model for the photographer Man Ray. Max Ernst, who shared similar artistic views, soon became a close friend.
In the fall of 1933 Arp and Giacometti asked her to exhibit with them at the Surrealist exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants. She consented and exhibited paintings for the first three years. In 1936 Oppenheim began making sculpture, producing at this time the object for which she is perhaps most known, Fur-lined Teacup, Saucer, and Spoon (Déjeuner en fourure—Lunch in fur), now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Although this work has since come to symbolize for many the Surrealist concept of "fortuitous juxtaposition," it was created by Oppenheim as the result of a conversation she had with Picasso and Dora Maar. One day, over a cup of tea at the Café de Flore, Picasso, observing the bracelet she had fashioned by wrapping wire with fur, joked that practically anything could be covered with fur. This observation led all three to point to objects that could be wrapped and Oppenheim pointed to her teacup. Several weeks later, Andre Breton asked her to contribute to the forthcoming Surrealist exhibition and, after a trip to the local discount supermarket, Oppenheim produced her now famous object.
Yet the strangely juxtaposed fur and cup was not the only object created by Oppenheim to cause a furor at this Surrealist show. Ma Gouvernante, My Nurse, mein Kindermadchen, was also on view. Again, Oppenheim joined images that led to new and unexpected associations. In this work, white linen pumps are bound together with string, the heels adorned with chef's "boots" or cuffs, and then placed on a platter so that they look like a pair of lamb chops. The cuffs and white shoes remind us of the uniform and head-dress of the nanny, and the sculpture can be read on one level as a defiance of authority and the civilizing rule of the governess. Yet at the same time Oppenheim plays on the double meaning of the images as the shoes, paired, can also recall a woman's "chops," or legs. Oppenheim's "getting back" at her nanny apparently hit its mark, as the original was destroyed at the gallery by a woman "in a fit of rage" and was lost until 1967, when Oppenheim made a replica.
The last piece Oppenheim exhibited in Paris before the war was the Table with Bird's Feet. This work points to the organic base of much of her work, as she often linked natural images, such as a bird, to typical, functional man-made objects, such as a table. In 1959 she reinterpreted this theme in a different way. For a spring feast given for a group of friends, she served the banquet on the nude body of one of the participants. Although she chose here a woman as a symbol of nurturance, she emphasized that "it was not just men, not a naked woman for men only, but a fertility rite for women and men. A different Easter." Oppenheim repeated this event in December 1959 at Breton's request as a celebration of Eros for the opening of the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at the Cordier Gallery in Paris.
Twenty Years of Depression
Oppenheim was forced to leave Paris in 1937. The war and Hitler's anti-Semitism caused her father, of Jewish descent, to give up his medical practice in Germany and return to Switzerland. As a result, he was unable to contribute to Oppenheim's support. After an unsuccessful attempt at jewelry and fashion design, Oppenheim returned to Basel. She studied art restoration for two years and thereafter made her living restoring paintings.
With her return to Switzerland, Oppenheim virtually disappeared from public view for almost 20 years. She had experienced depressions in Paris, and with her return to Basel these depressions became a permanent state. She later described the 1940s and early 1950s as a period of "crisis like many artists go through," but for many years she was unable to produce any art. Gradually, in the mid-1950s, she began working again. In 1956 she had her first Paris one-person show. In 1958 she compiled an autobiographical chronicle consisting of photographs, mementos, and commentary. She also made the model for her first large scale sculpture, Green Spectator. Although completed in 1959, Green Spectator was based on sketches made in 1933. This method of using ideas and sketches from earlier periods of her life became a regular working procedure and can be seen as her way of integrating past and present time.
In her juxtaposition of natural and organic forms and her use of archetypal images and dream and memory, Oppenheim was often associated with Surrealism and this movement's method of using the unconscious to retrieve universal themes. Indeed, as she once stated, "Artists, poets keep the passage to the unconscious open…. The unconscious is the only place from which help and advice can come to us." Yet despite these close ties, Oppenheim's works always emphasize an intuitive interpretation of Surrealist themes. Thus she chose organic, primitive creatures such as serpents, fish, butterflies, or caterpillars as her primary subject matter, often giving new meanings to these images. The serpent, for example, frequently appears in Oppenheim's paintings and sculpture, but in a fashion quite different from Freud or Christian tradition. In her 1972 painting The Secret of Vegetation, for example, Oppenheim resurrects the ancient, pre-Christian view of the snake as a divine aspect of nature; that is, as a creative and constructive force rather than a destructive one, as a natural element that joins together spirit and matter. In Old Snake Nature the serpent takes on a more three-dimensional presence as it is portrayed with its head peering out of a sack of coal. Again Oppenheim describes the snake as it was understood in ancient cultures—as part of and growing out of the material of nature from which it had been formed.
Oppenheim's work should not be interpreted, however, as advancing a feminist or matrilineal view of creative activity. Rather, like Carl Jung, Oppenheim sought to portray through her work the idea of balance—a balance of the male and female elements, the intellect with the emotive, the intuitive with the objective.
Oppenheim lived a long and creative life, dying in 1985 at the age of 72. She remained active until the time of her death, writing, lecturing, and making art.
Further Reading on Meret Oppenheim
The most useful reference on Meret Oppenheim remains a catalogue from an exhibition of her work: Meret Oppenheim, Museum der Stadt Solothurn (1974). Another good source is Meret Oppenheim, Moderna Museet Stockholm (1967).