Museum  November 18, 2022  Howard Halle

Inside Meret Oppenheim’s Whimsical and Witty MoMA Exhibition

The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Meret Oppenheim. Object (Objet). 1936. Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon. Cup 4 3/8″ (10.9 cm) in diameter; saucer 9 3/8″ (23.7 cm) in diameter; spoon 8″ (20.2 cm) long, overall height 2 7/8″ (7.3 cm).

It’s a recent development in art history to include women in numbers that, if not entirely commensurate with their place in society, are certainly far greater than previously. Even within the annals of Modernism, female artists were usually confined to a few representative examples, the subject of this MoMA exhibition, Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985) being one. Moreover, Oppenheim’s reputation is largely based on a single piece: A teacup, saucer, and spoon covered with fur titled, Object (1936).

Famous artists are often linked to a signature effort but it’s doubtful that most people know Oppenheim pursued her practice for over 50 years. This survey reveals that she did, but it also raises the question of whether she was a one-hit-wonder. The answer is no, but Object was a tough act to follow.

 The origin of Object, or “Fur Lined Teacup,” has become the stuff of lore. The story goes that Oppenheim was in a café with Picasso, and his lover, Dora Maar, when he asked after a fur-trimmed bracelet Oppenheim was wearing. Noticing her tea had grown cold, she purportedly replied, “Almost anything can be covered in fur!” before calling over the waiter and asking him for “more fur” as a warm-up. True or not, Oppenheim’s response was characteristic of a certain strain of whimsy that lives within much of her art.

MoMA, Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Installation view of Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from October 30, 2022 – March 4, 2023. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Oppenheim was twenty-two years old at the time, having come to Paris four years earlier. She was glamorous and beautiful, which undoubtedly aided her entrée into the Parisian Avant-grade. More crucially, she attracted the attention of André Breton, who inducted her into the male-only Surrealist circle. Indeed, Breton had been so struck by a note in her high-school math notebook (“X = an Orange Rabbit”) that he published it in its entirety.

The same year Object was created, it was included in the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibit at MoMA and became an immediate sensation. It entered The Modern’s collection, effectively becoming synonymous with Surrealism in the public mind.

MoMA, Hermann and Margrit Rupf Foundation. Kunstmuseum Bern.

Meret Oppenheim. X-Ray of M.O.’s Skull (Röntgenaufnahme des Schädels M.O.). 1964/1981. Gelatin silver print. 15 15/16 x 12 in. (40.5 x 30.5 cm). Edition 6/20. 

Meret Oppenheim was born in Berlin in 1913. She moved with the rest of her family to Basel, Switzerland when her father, a doctor, was conscripted into the army at the outbreak of World War I. While she had some art instruction, she was largely self-taught, though she did pursue formal training once she moved back to Basel in 1937 as the prospect of war loomed over Europe again. 

The show begins with Oppenheim’s efforts in bookending the creation of Object. The earliest comprise works of watercolors, gouaches, and ink studies that were done prior to her Parisian sojourn; works that Oppenheim herself described as being Surrealist “before the letter,” since she made them when she knew nothing of the movement. They range from artless dreamscapes to spindly, sometimes mordant, doodles like Suicides Institute (1931), which pictures a literal necktie party of figures hanging themselves along an assembly line of nooses.

Stylistically, Oppenheim never stayed in one place for too long, as evinced not only by these works on paper but also by a nearby assortment of paintings, including several biomorphic abstractions owing a debt to Jean Arp, one of the first artists who embraced Oppenheim in Paris.

The same gallery contains examples of Oppenheim’s ventures into fashion design, which she sold to couturiers like Elsa Schiaparelli. The bangle Picasso admired came out of these endeavors, and thus, Object did, too.

Object itself is a small and fragile thing belying its iconic heft. It goes to the core of Surrealism’s dissociative view of the world by transforming an otherwise unobtrusive item into something disconcerting yet plausible. That is Object’s point, despite the many erotic implications ascribed to it, which Oppenheim herself roundly rejected.

MoMA, Private collection.

Meret Oppenheim. Stone Woman (Steinfrau). 1938. Oil on cardboard. 23 ¼ x 19 5/16 in. (59 x 49 cm.).

At the end of the 1930s, with war starting in earnest, Oppenheim found herself stranded in Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, her art took a somber turn with narrative paintings featuring allegorical figures in dark landscapes. War and Peace (1943), for instance, depicts lights strung across a crepuscular meadow like power lines. In the foreground, a shepherd sits with his wooly charge, as both watch a turbulent sky in the distance like lambs of God awaiting slaughter.

The painting is a survivor of an eighteen-year period of artist’s block when Oppenheim destroyed much of her work— “a crisis of self-confidence” as she put it, in which the “whole patriarchal world fell on my neck.” This statement, however, didn’t make her a feminist so much as it did a woman with eyes in her head.

By 1954, though, Oppenheim had gotten herself back on track, and it’s remarkable to consider that most of her productivity lay ahead. The rooms covering her final decades are chockablock with paintings, sculptures, and assemblages that include a sunset scene with recumbent diamonds floating above a skyline, and a return to fur with a beer mug sprouting a squirrel’s tail.

Among the last works here is a series of drawings representing her exhibition plan for a 1983 retrospective of her work. A summa, as well as a curatorial map, the images, illuminate Oppenheim’s achievements beyond the seemingly insurmountable success of Object, as does this show: It affirms that Oppenheim’s career was a wonder that far exceeded a single hit.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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