Meret Oppenheim: More than a Surrealist ‘Object’

‘Object’, the fur-covered cup and saucer created when Meret Oppenheim was only 22 years old, has undeniably become the artist’s defining work, a fact that Oppenheim openly resents. A new exhibition in Washington, D.C, explores some the Surrealist artist’s lesser known works, from sculpture to poetry, through the themes of sexuality, politics and reality. We take a look at the importance of Oppenheim’s career beyond ‘Object’.

Imagine a black telephone, of the old style, with a round number dial on the front and the receiver sitting on the top. Stuck to the foot of the base is a sticker that reads ‘Bell Telephone’, and sitting on the top, perched on the receiver, is a life-sized plaster sculpture of a lobster, brightly painted in oranges and reds.

Next, a painting of a man, smartly dressed and wearing a bowler hat, positioned in front of a backdrop of a calm, grey ocean scene. He stands tall and erect, his body facing towards to the viewer, hands by his side. For all intents and purposes he is an average man, apart, of course, from the fact that his face is obscured by a large, green, floating apple.

And finally a teacup, saucer and spoon, averagely sized, averagely shaped. Distinctive only for the light brown, slightly flecked fur that covers the entire ensemble, tufting out of the inside of the cup and winding round the handle of the spoon, inviting yet grotesque. Welcome to the exciting, if not slightly confusing, world of Surrealism.

The works described above, Dali’s ‘Lobster Telephone’, Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man’, and Oppenheim’s ‘Object’, are three of the most infamous creations to emerge from the artistic movement that gained popularity during the 1920s. Centred around post-First World War Paris, the Surrealists developed their artistic foundations from the anti-war reactions of dada, rejecting constructs of normality in what they saw to be a modern world defined by irrationality and nonsense.

Surrealism has subsequently become somewhat notorious, with its own big names and iconic images; even the artist’s oneiric ideology is widely known. As with many of the movements of artistic expression that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, Surrealism has academically and culturally been presented as somewhat of a boys’ club. This, however, is not quite true, and the p importance of the women who contributed to the movement’s success is slowly being celebrated in a wider discourse. One such woman is Meret Oppenheim, her 1936 ‘Object’ (more colloquially known as Oppenheim’s cup and saucer) is arguably one of the defining sculptures of the Surrealist movement, and without a doubt one of the more controversial.

Born in Germany in 1913 to a German father and Swiss mother, Oppenheim spent her youth in neutral Switzerland before moving to Paris in the early 1930s. There she was involved with the Surrealists, most notably Andre Breton and Man Ray, with whom she worked with for many years. She had her first solo exhibition under the Surrealists in 1936 and ‘Object’ was voted to be the ‘quintessential Surrealist object’ by the visitors of the 1936-7 exhibition Dada, Surrealism held in New York’s MOMA. This was not, however, her only work, and the quantity, quality and diversity of her art is only really beginning to be acknowledged, as interest in the role of women artists in the early 20th Century grows. This was highlighted by Oppenheim’s first major retrospective, which was held posthumously in 2013 at the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum in her city of birth, Berlin.

As such, despite Oppenheim’s involvement in the Surrealist movement, and the importance of her work and that of women like her into a central art historical discourse, Oppenheim should not simply be viewed as a Surrealist. The worth of her art lies not only in the creation of the iconic ‘Object’ but in her exploration of themes such as sexuality, politics and reality through ever-changing and developing artistic forms. That a single object, a single movement even, could encapsulate a career spanning over 50 years is a myth that a new collection of Oppenheim’s work, held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C, is trying to dispel. The exhibition, entitled Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships, takes focus away from the provocative ‘Object’ and explores other elements of the artist’s long and impressive career.

‘I was attracted to the mysterious quality of her art, her inventiveness and her poetic imagination,’ explains Krystyna Wasserman, Curator of Book Arts. ‘We are presenting lesser-known works by Oppenheim, which illuminate the artist’s personal life, her artistic and intellectual friendships, and the landscape of her dreams’

One of the key works in the exhibition is the 1985 ‘Gloves’. Comprising hand-stitched goat suede gloves, each just over 8 inches in length, the work is part of the limited edition creation of 150 pairs of such gloves presented by Oppenheim in the year of her death. The gloves are housed in a Deluxe Edition of ‘Parkett’ Magazine, No. 4, the contemporary art publication in which the prints for her design of ‘Gloves’ were originally published. The screenprint on the suede depicts red veins, a contrast with the off-white of the suede which gives the illusion of turning the hands of those destined to wear the delicate objects inside out.

The influence of Surrealism is clear in Oppenheim’s art, even in her later works, and her involvement in the group is integral to the way the movement should be presented in an academic context. However, it is her diversity of interests, mediums and approaches that make Oppenheim such an interesting and successful artist, and one which, through exhibitions such as that at the NMWA, is being rightfully celebrated.

Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships is running from 26th April to 14th September at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. There are also an accompanying Lecture/Film Celebrating Meret Oppenheim on Thursday April 24th and a Gallery Talk on the artist on Wednesday June 4th, both free of charge, although booking may be necessary. For more information please visit the NMWA site.

By Sami Goss