Meret Oppenheim (*1913 in Berlin-Charlottenburg, †1985 in Basel)—named after the character Meretlein in Gottfried Keller’s novel Green Henry—spent most of her youth in Switzerland. In 1932, at the age of 18, she left school and moved to Paris to become a painter, and studied sporadically at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In 1937 she returned to Switzerland, where she attended the Allgemeine Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel for two years. Joined the Gruppe 33 and the Künstlervereinigung Allianz. Rented a studio in Bern in 1954. Participated in many exhibitions, including the Surrealists’ shows in the 1930s; first solo show at the Galerie Marguerite Schulthess in Basel in 1936; first large retrospective in Stockholm; posthumous retrospectives in New York, Chicago, and Bern. Invited to the documenta 7 in 1982. On her 72nd birthday on October 6, 1985, about five weeks before her death, the artist said, “I’ll die with the first snow”—at the age of 36 she had dreamed of a half-empty hourglass.

Tracker of Dreams

“It’s the artists who do the dreaming for society.” (Meret Oppenheim)

In 1936, a teacup, complete with saucer and spoon and covered in the fur of a Chinese gazelle, was the foundation for the early fame of Meret Oppenheim, who was just 23 years old at the time. Only four years previously, Oppenheim and her friend, the painter Irène Zurkinden, had left Basel for the art metropolis of Paris. There, she met artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Hans and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Max Ernst (with whom she had a brief, yearlong relationship), and joined the scandalous circle of Surrealists—“a bunch of bastards,” as the artist later summarized. In 1933 Giacometti and Hans Arp invited the German-Swiss artist to take part in the Surrealists’ sixth Salon des Surindépendants, and introduced her to André Breton, who exhibited the “fur cup” in 1936 in his Exposition surréaliste d'objets at the Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris.

That same year Déjeuner en fourrure (Breakfast in Fur) was acquired by Alfred Barr, Jr., for the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Oppenheim was quickly catapulted into the front ranks of those drawing attention from the art world. For a long time this distorted the view of the continuously searching, creatively experimental artist’s work, “Because,” as Oppenheim herself observed, “I was forever associated with that fur cup—not a bad object, I think, but at the same time, I made other objects that were just as good.” (Oppenheim’s Eichhörnchen [Little Squirrel]—a beer mug with a fur handle, made in 1969—was a masculine, ironic counterpart to her “fur cup.”)

The myth surrounding her was also nurtured through Man Ray’s famous 1933 photo series, Érotique voile in which a nude Oppenheim posed behind a copper plate printing press in Louis Marcoussis’ studio. Yet, Oppenheim strove to be seen as more than just a Surrealist muse. In her other best-known work, Ma gouvernante – my nurse – mein Kindermädchen (also 1936), she rattled the chains of the traditional roles ascribed to women. A pair of white pumps with paper frills covering the heels are tied together and presented on a silver tray, creating, according to Bice Curiger, “a strong, yet natural connection … of a roasted goose, a maid’s cap, and a bound woman.”

From then on, trying to prove that the life of an artist was a viable lifestyle for a woman, Oppenheim took on the special status of the “female artist.” In the process she developed an increasingly combative attitude, which she also expressed in one of her oft-quoted speeches, given when she was awarded the city of Basel’s art prize in 1975: “If someone is speaking his own new language, which no one else understands yet, then sometimes he has to wait for a long time to hear an echo. It is even more difficult for a female artist … Artists are expected to lead the kind of life that suits them—and his fellow citizens turn a blind eye to that. But if a woman does the same thing, then the eye pops open. One has to accept this and many other things. Yes, I’d even go so far as to say that, as a woman, one is obliged to prove via one’s lifestyle that one no longer regards as valid the taboos that have been used to keep women in a state of subjugation for thousands of years. Freedom is not given; one has to take it.”

This speech anticipated the central thesis of the gender discourse that began about a decade later, and this turned the artist into a role model for the younger generation. Oppenheim, however, categorically rejected gender differences in art, as she was deeply convinced that there is no such thing as “women’s art”: “The spirit is androgynous,” or “Art has no gender characteristics. There are only the basics.”

Before all of that, however, she endured a long artistic crisis after her return to Switzerland in 1937—a crisis that lasted until 1954. “It seemed to me as if the burden of thousands of years of discrimination against women was laid upon my shoulders … manifesting in me as a suffocating sense of inferiority,” the artist once said. Her paralysis was expressed, for instance, in her oil painting, Steinfrau (Stone woman, 1938)—a work that is key to understanding the artist’s inactivity. Her works on Genevieve of Brabant, from an 8th-century legend, are evidence of her intensive exploration of the theme of the powerless woman, especially given her own personal situation.

“The crisis went away almost on its own. It was an internal process that was suddenly over, from one second to the next. I couldn’t sleep that night, because I knew that, from then on, everything would be different.” After that, the artist rediscovered her creative powers, beginning in her own studio in Bern in 1954. Oppenheim’s oeuvre is tremendously rich; she explored the various genres with imagination and the desire to experiment, creating objects, sculptures, drawings, oil paintings, assemblages, collages, clothing, jewelry, furniture, and poetry. By using diverse techniques and materials, many of them natural, she avoided any attempts to pigeonhole her work. Her multifaceted work is frequently associated with the “discontinuity of the image manifested,” as Jean-Christophe Ammann put it. However, her oeuvre contains major themes dealing with such oppositions as nature and culture, man and woman, human and animal, reality and imagination.

The artist discovered many of her visual ideas inside herself. “Meret Oppenheim was able to transform the power of her internal visual vocabulary into visible, imagistic space,” states the Austrian media artist VALERIE EXPORT. The artist, who liked to reinvent herself through role-playing and self-portraits, identified her sources of inspiration as her private myths and dreams, and her love for nature, as well as the great influence of literature and the writings of the Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, C. G. Jung. Even as a teenager, Oppenheim wrote down her dreams, and collected them throughout her lifetime. One impressive example of the influence on her work is Oppenheim’s mysterious gouache, Der Traum von der weißen Marmorschildkröte mit Hufeisen an den Füßen (Dream of the white marble tortoise wearing horseshoes, 1975), which the artist based on one of her earlier dreams. Her posthumously published Träume. Aufzeichnungen 1928–1985 (Dreams: recordings 1928–1985) leads to the roots of her continually astonishing visual universe.

Despite the immense spectrum of its styles and forms, the multimedia artist’s oeuvre has not received the international attention it so richly deserves. October 6, 2013, is Oppenheim’s 100th birthday, and on this particular occasion, everyone who loves her work hopes that more light will be shed on her consequential role in 20th-century art and her influence upon ensuing generations of artists in their fight to lead a life of freedom and self-determination.

Photo: Meret Oppenheim giving her speech at the awards ceremony for the City of Basel’s art prize, University of Basel, January 16, 1975, detail

April 5, 2013 Stefanie Gommel

Veröffentlicht am: 05.04.2013