Meret Oppenheim
Biography of German-Swiss Surrealist Sculptor.
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Object (1936) - Also known as
Fur-Covered Cup, Saucer, Spoon.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
One of the most famous works of
avant-garde art.

Meret Oppenheim (1913-85)

The German-Swiss sculptor, painter and designer Meret Oppenheim, was associated with Surrealism and Dada. She was also a photographer and close friend of Man Ray in the 1930s. Her most celebrated work- Object /Fur-Covered Cup, Saucer and Spoon (1936, Museum of Modern Art, New York) made her one of the best known surrealist artists. and one of the iconic 20th century sculptors. It was initially displayed at two major 1936 art shows: the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among her later works of sculpture are: Cannibal Feast (1959, private collection), Spiral (1971, Montagne Ste Genevieve, Paris), and the Waisenhausplatz Fountain (1983, Berne). In addition to her unique contribution to modern art, Oppenheim was known for her beauty, uninhibited behaviour, creativity and independence.

EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
See: History of Sculpture.

MODERNIST SCULPTURE
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)
Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967)
Naum Gabo (1890-1977)
Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973)
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Henry Moore (1898-1986)
Louise Nevelson (1899-1988)
Jean Dubuffet (1901-85)
Barbara Hepworth (1903-75)

MODERN PLASTIC ARTISTS
For a list of sculptors like
Meret Oppenheim, see:
Modern Artists.

BEST SCULPTURE
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BEST ARTISTS
See: Greatest Sculptors.

Early Life

Oppenheim was born in Berlin in 1913, and spent her childhood between Switzerland and southern Germany. She came from a colourful background, her father was a doctor interested in the works of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung; her aunt was married to the Nazi Herman Hesse; and her grandmother was an artist who studied painting but later became a well known writer of novels and childrens stories. At 16 Oppenheim visited an exhibition of art created by the Bauhaus Design School, held at the Basel Kunsthalle, which stimulated her interest in Surrealism.

Neue Sachlichkeit

She left school at 17, and was introduced to some of the artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity movement). This was an art movement which grew out of Germany in the 1920s, and was in direct opposition to German expressionism. Artists who were at some time affiliated with the movement included Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Karl Hubbuch, Christian Schad, Rudolf Schlichter and Georg Scholz. Oppenheim initially began making pen and ink drawings, and experimented with watercolour. She created many expressive caricatures, not unlike Paul Klee's early etchings.

 

Paris Surrealism

In 1932, Oppenheim arrived in Paris and enrolled briefly at the Academic de la Grande Chaumiere. Soon bored by the rigours of academic life, she started spending her days in galleries and cafes, hearing about the popular art movement known as Surrealism. It was in Cafe du Dome in 1933 that she met fellow Swiss artist Giacometti, and through him Jean Arp, Kurt Seligmann, Max Ernst and Sophie Taeuber. Arp and Giacometti became her first mentors, and Ernst and Man Ray became close friends. Giacometti encouraged Oppenheim to create her first Surrealist object; she did so, and called it Giacometti's Ear (1933). She was invited to exhibit with him and Arp at the Salon des Surindependents in 1933. After this, she frequently went to Surrealist meetings, and became closely identified with the movement. In 1933, she had her first solo exhibition at the Galerie Schulthess, Basel.

Surrealism and Feminism

It was often felt in the Surrealist group that Oppenheim acted as a muse, a view she disagreed with. She said 'I didn't say much at the time, and that was a good thing, because I didn't understand much French.' She rather viewed herself as a listener, a role she shared with other female Surrealists in the group including Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning. Oppenheim found the Surrealist circle a suitable forum to assert her own freedom. In 1933 she wrote on the side of a drawing: 'Finally! Freedom! The harpoons are flying. The rainbow is in the streets.' Surrealism helped her escape the trap of traditional roles for women; she ascertained that she never wanted to marry. In a speech in 1974, accepting an Art award from the City of Basel, she referred to the difficulties faced by a woman who has decided to live as an artist: 'It starts with what seem like external things. People are used to the idea that male artists live just as they please - and the bourgeoisie looks the other way. But let a woman do the same, and all eyes are upon her.'

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate modernist surrealist sculptors like Meret Oppenheim, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Man Ray: The Famous Portrait Photo

Known for her beauty, and free spirit, Oppenheim would sometimes take dangerous 'walks' on the ledges of high buildings, and concoct Surrealist food in her studio. In today’s terms Oppenheim would have been an 'A List' celebrity - but unfortunately it did little for her plastic art. In fact, it was almost a hindrance and stopped history taking her work too seriously. Although there is no doubt that she displayed flashes of significant artistic talent, there is no real evidence of artistic development. She was herself often conflicted and uncertain about her life as an artist. However, because of the way she lived her life and realised her creative freedom, she was admired by other female artists. In 1933 Man Ray took an infamous nude photo of the artist, a portrait he named Erotique-voile. Man Ray photographed her in front of a printing press in the studio of the cubist painter Louis Marcoussis. The photo was published in the magazine Minotaure, and scandal followed. Breton followed the publication with an essay in which he stated beauty was equated with a convulsion. Although Oppenheim enjoyed the notoriety her photo brought, she always categorically refused to allow the portrait to be included in any exhibit of her works. She was still resisting inclusion as late as 1984, a year before her death.

"Object" - The Fur Lined Teacup

One day, when Oppenheim wore a fur-covered bracelet, Picasso remarked that one could cover anything with fur, to which she replied, "Even this cup and saucer." Soon after, when Andre Breton, the Surrealist leader, asked her to participate in a Surrealist exhibition dedicated to ordinary objects, Oppenheim went to a department store and bought a teacup, saucer and spoon. She covered the items with the fur of a Chinese gazelle. In doing so, she said she wanted to transform items typically associated with feminine decorum into sensuous tableware. It also provoked the viewer into imagining what it would be like to drink out of a fur-lined cup. The teacup was exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in 1937 and was chosen by visitors as the quintessential Surrealist symbol. This individual work bought Oppenheim huge fame, and she was still only 22 years old. Some say it may have hindered her subsequent development as an artist. She attended art school in order to try and live up to her new found fame. However her next 17 years were dogged by constant battles with depression.

Mature Years

In 1937 Oppenheim returned to Switzerland, and this period marked an artistic crisis in her life. She only worked in bursts and destroyed most of what she produced. She took part in an exhibition of fantastic furniture in Galerie Rene Drouin in Paris in 1939, along with Max Ernst and Leonor Fini. During the 1940s, she created very little, only beginning to work seriously again in the 1950s. When she came out the other end of her crisis, she remarked 'Nobody gives you freedom, you have to take it'. In 1956, with Surrealism and Dada links still intact, Oppenheim designed costumes and sets for Picasso’s play Le Desir Attrape par la Queue in Berne. In 1959 she created Cannibal Feast, a controversial object which was exhibited at the last International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris. The sculpture involved performance art - that of a live nude woman lying on a table covered with food. It was criticised for depicting women as objects of consumption. Oppenheim insisted, as a staunch feminist, that it was meant to represent fertility. In 1983 Oppenheim designed another controversial item: Tour-fontaine in Berne (Waisenhausplatz). This is a tall concrete column wrapped in grass, over a small water course. Her sculpture Spiral (1971) was erected on the Montagne Ste Geneviève in Paris in 1985. In the last twenty years of her life, Oppenheim created an abundance of paintings, drawings, sculpture, jewellery and clothes designs.

Oppenheim died in 1985. A major retrospective of her work was held at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1967. Sculptures by her can be seen in several of the world's best art museums, including MoMA New York.

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