Surrealism in the Blood: Meret Oppenheim

Controversial, dreamlike, ironic and fetishist

By La Galleria Nazionale

Südlicher garten (1960) by Meret OppenheimLa Galleria Nazionale

Surrealism in the blood

A fur-coated coffee cup. Le déjeneur en fourrure established Meret Oppenheim as an artist in 1936.An act of poetry, an ambiguous and unsettling artistic creation that completely frees itself from reason to bring out the absurd, the fantastic.

The work, considered a symbol of the Surrealist movement, actually conditioned the artist throughout her life, and she was often forced to defend her artistic autonomy.

Childhood in Switzerland

Meret Oppenheim was born in Berlin on 6th October 1913. Oppenheim's childhood was deeply influenced by the figure of her maternal grandmother, Lisa Wenger-Ruutz, an artist and writer, best known as an illustrator of one of the most famous Swiss children's books, "Joggeli söll go Birli schüttle. "

Her grandparents' house in Carona, in the canton of Ticino, was frequented by many artists and writers, including Hermann Hesse, which made it an extremely stimulating environment for little Meret.

"She had a spirit that never converted to the movement: she was a woman with Surrealism in her blood". (Jacqueline Burckhardt)

The encounter with Giacometti and Arp

She abandoned her study of German literature for painting in 1931.She moved to Paris with her friend Irène Zurkinden to study art.

The Swiss sculptors Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp visited Meret's studio in 1933 and impressed by the young woman's work, they invited her to exhibit with the Surrealists at the Salon des Surindépendants.

Meret spent a lot of time in Alberto Giacometti's atelier, observing him at work. It was there where she produced one of her first best-known works in 1933: the sketch L'Oreille de Giacometti (Giacometti's ear) – later made into a bronze in 1959.

A restless woman

Unconventional by nature, Meret Oppenheim rejected the concept – we would say today – of "gender", and the division of roles between the sexes. Her androgynous, sensual image is immortalised in Man Ray's portrait, Erotique Voilée (1933).

In 1936, Meret embarked on a tormented relationship with Max Ernst. The romance was broken off by the artist herself shortly after, for fear that the presence of the great painter could stifle her artistic inspiration.

Speaking of her, Ernst said: "That woman is a sandwich stuffed with marble.You have to be careful not to break your teeth when you bite into her".

Breakfast in fur

The turning point came in 1936, when Oppenheim devised the fur-covered cup and christened it Breakfast in fur.

The name of the work comes from a conversation between the young artist, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar in a Parisian café. Admiring Oppenheim's fur bracelets, Picasso observed that it was possible to cover practically anything with fur. She replied: "This cup, too, and this saucer".

The work was immediately acquired by MoMA in New York, becoming one of the most iconic works of the whole Surrealist movement.

Feminine identity

Strongly influenced by the principles of Freudian psychoanalysis, Oppenheim's work often addressed controversial, dreamlike, ironic and fetishist themes together with the analysis of female identity.

In the work Ma gouvernante, a pair of white pumps is placed on a silver plate, tied together, ready to be served as a roast: a strongly symbolic image of the constraints and roles assigned to women by society.

Crisis and rebirth

With the advent of Nazi-fascism in the late 1930s, Oppenheim returned to Basel, Switzerland. She became involved with anti-fascist movements and participated in various exhibitions.

A period of profound personal crisis began, with frequent depressive episodes that led her to create works in which the female figure is represented in shattered stone.

The long period of crisis ended in the late 1950s, with a decisive detachment – liberation – from the Surrealist movement.

In 1959, she staged the disruptive performance "Banchetto di Primavera", where the meal was served on the naked body of a woman.

In the Seventies she was a living icon. In fact, many curators began to take an interest in her work and the artist took part in numerous collective exhibitions, as well as major solo exhibitions.

Meret Oppenheim died on 15 November 1985, in the midst of her new artistic life, on the day she was to present her book Caroline, dedicated to German poet Karoline von Günderode (1780-1806), who had committed suicide for love – now kept at the MoMA in New York.

"Every work of art has its own form".
(Meret Oppenheim)

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