Meret Oppenheim was an artist, muse, and model with an extensive oeuvre. She painted, wrote poems, and created bizarre objects which made her famous. She was active as an artist for more than 50 years, during which she worked with many different materials and experimented with various art forms. Inspired by the Surrealist movement, Meret Oppenheim’s works often discuss themes like the unconscious, dreams, and sexuality. The artist often used pieces of fur, food, and everyday objects when creating her works.
Meret Oppenheim’s Take on Surrealism
The German-born Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim was born in Berlin in 1913. At the beginning of World War I, Oppenheim’s family moved to Switzerland. Due to her father’s occupation as a psychoanalyst, Oppenheim started recording her dreams as a teenager. Several of her works were inspired by this practice. Her grandmother was an illustrator and author, so she and Oppenheim’s father encouraged her to become an artist. She studied art at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel and moved to Paris in 1932.
In Paris, she met the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti who introduced her to significant members of the Surrealist movement such as André Breton, Man Ray, and Jean Arp. Oppenheim became a member of the Surrealist group and participated in several Surrealist exhibitions. She also modeled for Man Ray, who described her as one of the most uninhibited women he ever met. Here are 5 of Meret Oppenheim’s most iconic works.
1. The Infamous Fur-Covered Cup Called Object, 1936
During an interview in 1978, Meret Oppenheim asked the interviewer to refrain from asking her a question about how she got the idea for her fur-covered cup. The question, which she heard so many times before, bored her. The story of how the teacup came into existence is, however, almost as famous as the work itself. Oppenheim was having a conversation with Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at the Café Flore in Paris. At the time, Oppenheim was wearing a fur-covered bracelet she designed for the Italian company Schiaparelli.
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Picasso and Maar noticed the bracelet and made a remark about how almost anything could be covered with fur. Oppenheim said that even her cup and saucer could be covered with fur and when her tea got cold, she jokingly asked the waiter for more fur for her cup. After this conversation, Oppenheim bought a teacup, a saucer, and a spoon at a department store and covered the objects with Chinese gazelle fur. The artist found the contrast between the material of the fur and the porcelain amusing.
The work was exhibited at the first Surrealist exhibition at the MoMA in New York. It is now considered one of the most iconic Surrealist pieces. André Breton titled the object Luncheon in Fur as an allusion to Edouard Manet’s painting Luncheon on the Grass and the novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
2. My Nurse, 1936/1967
The work Ma gouvernante or My Nurse is another well-known surrealist object created by Meret Oppenheim. Just like her fur-covered Object, My Nurse also includes everyday items presented in an unfamiliar way. The piece consists of two white high-heeled shoes decorated with paper frills, tied-up, and served on a platter like roasted chicken.
According to historian Elisabeth Mansén, the work was inspired by the alluring sweetness of Meret Oppenheim’s governess. The tied-up shoes evoke images of a woman’s tied-up legs that are served to the viewer for consumption. The imagery of serving a woman for dinner or at least displaying dinner on her body reemerges in Oppenheim’s later work Spring Feast. Bondage, sexuality, the fetishization of feet and shoes, as well as the social and physical restraint of women, are all visible themes here. The shoes Oppenheim used for the work belonged to the wife of Max Ernst, Marie-Berthe Aurenche. Oppenheim had a short affair with Ernst and when his wife saw her shoes at a gallery, she destroyed the work.
3. Stone Woman, 1938
After her overwhelming success with the fur-covered cup, Meret Oppenheim withdrew from the Surrealist group in 1937. She was suffering from depression and she lost the pleasure she once felt while making art. She felt constrained by her early works and did not want to be remembered as the artist who lines things throughout her entire career.
In 1937, she went to Basel to study art conservation and restoration. She suddenly rediscovered her passion for art in 1954. Oppenheim however started painting in the meantime, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Her work Stone Woman is an example of this phase of her career. The painting depicts female legs underwater. Large stones replace the figure’s upper body parts. Stones, body, and water are mentioned in Oppenheim’s last published poem titled Self-portrait from 50.000 BC to X. In the poem, she described how her feet stood on stones rounded by many steps in a craggy cave and how her belly was bathed by a warm ocean current.
4. Spring Feast, 1959
When Meret Oppenheim rediscovered her passion for art in 1954, she rented a studio in Bern. She started writing and making costumes for Picasso’s play Desire Caught by the Tail which was produced by Daniel Spoerri. In 1959, she came up with a performance called Spring Feast. The piece consisted of a naked woman covered with food lying on a long table. Oppenheim created this banquet for a small group of close friends. They were not allowed to use utensils and had to eat with their bare hands. As the name of the piece suggests, Spring Feast took place during springtime.
André Breton asked Oppenheim to recreate Spring Feast for the 1959-1960 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Paris to which Oppenheim agreed. The piece, which also became known under the name Cannibal Feast, was criticized for its objectifying depiction of women. Similar to her work My Nurse, the name suggested that the nude woman was offered to the viewers as an object to be consumed, whether that meant visually, sexually, or literally as food. Oppenheim was obviously not very happy with this interpretation since she intended the work to be about the things that nature offers in spring. After the incident, Oppenheim stopped exhibiting with the Surrealists. Instead, she focused mainly on abstract paintings as well as other forms of expression.
5. Meret Oppenheim’s Gloves, 1985
While Meret Oppenheim was still a student, she received a commission from the Parisian avant-garde fashion house Elsa Schiaparelli to design gloves and jewelry. She was interested in fashion and artworks that could also serve as accessories. Her fur-covered bracelet, which inspired her famous fur-lined cup, was also made for the house of Schiaparelli.
Oppenheim’s veiny blue gloves were made in 1985 inspired by the original design from 1936. The artist finally made them for a special issue of Parkett Magazine the same year that she died at the age of 72. The gloves were actually sold with the issue.
The gloves show a body part that the wearer usually wants to hide: the veins. In this work, however, the veins represent a crucial feature. The hand-stitched gloves were made of goat suede. Oppenheim also created other clothing designs and gloves throughout her career. Another famous and iconic example is her work Fur Gloves With Wooden Fingers, which shows fur-covered hands with the fingernails exposed and painted with red nail polish.
Meret Oppenheim’s Legacy
Since the Surrealist group seems like a very male-dominated environment, Meret Oppenheim is often regarded as an important female voice in the movement. When she received the City of Basel Art Prize in 1975, she gave a noteworthy speech in which she extensively discussed the roles of female artists. According to Oppenheim, male artists can lead their lives however they want to because society is accustomed to it, but female artists do not enjoy the same freedoms. She urged women to live lives that defy the taboos through which women have been oppressed for centuries and demonstrate that these taboos are no longer valid. She famously said: Nobody will give you freedom; you have to take it. She had her first retrospective in 1967 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. One of the latest exhibitions dedicated to her work opened at the MoMA in October 2022. Titled Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition, the exhibition was inspired by the artist’s original ideas about exhibiting her pieces.