Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985) is undoubtedly one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century. She painted and drew, worked with sculpture, created design and fashion objects, wrote poetry, designed stage sets and jewellery, and worked as a photographer and model. While she is currently regarded by many as a prominent example of (French) Surrealism, she eludes stylistic classification and cannot be reduced to any predictable lines of artistic development. Oppenheim resisted dominant …
Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985) is undoubtedly one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century.
She painted and drew, worked with sculpture, created design and fashion objects, wrote poetry, designed stage sets and jewellery, and worked as a photographer and model.
While she is currently regarded by many as a prominent example of (French) Surrealism, she eludes stylistic classification and cannot be reduced to any predictable lines of artistic development. Oppenheim resisted dominant opinions, genre boundaries, and fixed ideas about artistic creation.
Experimentation was front and centre for her: curiosity, the joy of the unknown and the new. She would have found it unthinkable to create serial works, use recurring tropes, limit herself, or to repeat the same thing time and again. Engaging with gender issues as well as the associated social and artistic ideas were also key to her practice; as a woman artist in a field (now as ever) dominated by men, her own gender was not only a motif in her artistic expression, but also in her own personal and political activities. Her critical, emancipatory, and non-conformist attitude made her a role model and figure of identification for many subsequent artists, then and now.
Meret Oppenheim arrived in Paris in 1932. She quickly became part of the contemporary art scene in the French capital, regularly participating in exhibitions with Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, André Breton, and Max Ernst. It was during this time that Man Ray created his famous nude photo series Erotique-voilée—which shows a 20-year-old Oppenheim stood behind a piece of heavy machinery, ‘dressed’ in no more than black printer’s ink.
Oppenheim’s early artistic work concentrated largely on scrawl-like drawings, enigmatic paintings, uncanny objects, collages, and designs for jewellery and other fashion accessories. It was in 1936 that her perhaps best-known and iconically Surrealist work, Le Déjeuner en fourrure, was created: a cup, a saucer, and a small spoon covered in fur. After its first presentation at Galerie Cahiers d’Art, the object was included in the groundbreaking ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’ exhibition at MoMA (1936–37) before being purchased for the museum by its then director, Alfred Barr.
For the now world-famous young artist, this was followed by a prolonged crisis of creativity and identity. She felt too neutered as a mere muse—reduced to her objet trouvé. She moved to a studio in Bern, where she found a new climate that was highly fruitful for her artistic work.
Although she broke with the Parisian Surrealists, many ideas that were central to the early twentieth century remained immanent in her work. Bridging genres and combining materials—drawings, paintings, sketches, designs, fashion and jewellery, furniture and textiles—her works are fantastical and fanciful, poetic and ironic, humorous and earnest. It’s always a game: combinations of colour and form, various materials, sensations and alienation. Her works are at times possessed of a geometric clarity, at others of a lyrical abstraction.
Starting in the late 60s, Meret Oppenheim began to be rediscovered internationally via solo and group exhibitions. In 1967 Moderna Museet in Stockholm showed her first retrospective. Her questioning of gender roles, which in Paris was still seen as a patriarchally determined femininity, culminated in a comprehensive theory of androgyny, set explicitly against a ‘feminine’ art: ‘In the spiritual realm there is no difference between men and women, the difference exists only in the animalistic—for the spirit is androgynous.’ It is this attitude that later made her a guiding light for generations of artists.