One formula for a memorable Surrealist artwork goes like this: take a familiar everyday object and change one of its elements so that it’s no longer useful but instead fantastic or absurd. There’s the telephone that Salvador Dalí transfigured in 1938 by affixing a plaster lobster to a handset cradled atop a rotary dial. There’s Man Ray’s Gift (1921), for which the artist glued tacks to the soleplate of an iron. And there’s the impossible monocle concocted by Marcel Mariën, suited only for a noseless cyclops, since it sports two earpieces that flank a single lens. You’re supposed to imagine yourself using these things, and then catch a case of the giggles or heebie-jeebies.
Meret Oppenheim’s furred sculpture Object is widely considered the Surrealist object par excellence. Her retrospective, “Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition,” opens March 25 at the Menil Collection in Houston—it debuted last year at the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland and travels next fall to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Made famous after appearing in the landmark exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” at MoMA the year Object was made, 1936, when Oppenheim was just twenty-three, the familiar assemblage, comprising a teacup, saucer, and spoon, all clad in fur, was conceived one day while Oppenheim was enjoying tea at a Parisian café, where she was joined by Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar. Having gotten her start making ostensibly functional things, Oppenheim was wearing a bracelet she designed for the Italian company Schiaparelli, a thick metal bangle coated in ocelot fur. The three friends joked, as the story goes, that just about anything could be covered in fur, “even,” Oppenheim suggested, “this cup!” She called the waiter over: “Garçon, more fur!” Reflecting on the work decades later, the artist pointed out that it made some sense, after all, to use a fur coat to keep her beverage warm.
A few months after that generative café rendezvous, when André Breton invited Oppenheim to contribute work to his “Exposition surréaliste d’objets” at Galerie Charles Ratton, she thought back to the episode and knew just what to make. She bought a teacup set from a department store, and then proceeded to line it with some Chinese gazelle fur she had lying around. Object—originally titled Le Déjeuner en fourrure (The Luncheon in Fur)—made its debut in Breton’s exhibition adjacent to Marcel Duchamp’s bare Bottle Rack (1914), a tiered metal structure with sprockets meant to hold drying glass bottles. Duchamp’s contribution was not Surrealist per se, but Breton wanted to pay homage to the man who, as the beloved inventor of the readymade, made everyday objects an artistic medium in their own right. Breton thought the aim of the Surrealist object—a form of “little non-sculptural construction,” as he called it in a lecture in 1935—ought to enable the systematic derangement of all the senses. “We must not hesitate,” he said, “to bewilder sensation,” referring to an influential quote by poet Arthur Rimbaud. Imagine, if you will, tea on fur, wet fur on lips.
OBJECT COULD NOT FEATURE in the retrospective in Bern or Houston because it’s too fragile to travel from MoMA’s collection. Quite possibly, Oppenheim, who resented becoming something of a one-hit wonder, would have liked it this way. The exhibition surveys instead the rest of her wide-ranging output—her paintings, assemblages, and design work in a variety of forms from furniture to accessories. Throughout her life, Oppenheim wanted to keep her art and design practices separate. She often did the latter to make a living. And it can be hard to get the art world to take functional things seriously. Reviewing Oppenheim’s first solo show, at Galerie Schulthess in Basel in 1936, one critic complained that “where the object begins, art ends.” Nevertheless, the two practices informed each other deeply. An X-ray self-portrait from 1964 suggests that she saw her jewelry as a part of her identity. In the picture, she wears two rings, giant hoop earrings, and a necklace, defying conventional advice from lab technicians. Her bijouterie shows up in a deep, dark black in the image, and these are the only details that keep her skull from anonymity.
A gold ring Oppenheim made in 1936 holds not a gem but a sugar cube that can be taken out when it’s time for tea. She also sewed lingerie embroidered with tantalizing instructions (like “les fesses peuvent être très maquillées ou etoffe-voile coloré,” which translates to “make-up or colored tulle can be applied to the buttocks”), and mocked up glasses with lenses tinted in one small square area. This was before the advent of transition lenses, and Oppenheim was suggesting that a wearer could choose to shade her pupils or not—depending on where she chose to look. All such creations are prime Oppenheim, partly practical yet primarily absurd.
Oppenheim’s intimate knowledge of useful things is integral to what makes her strain of Surrealism distinct. The objects are her finest works, among them My Nurse (1936–37), a pair of high-heeled shoes trussed and displayed upside-down on a metal platter in a way that looks uncannily like a chicken ready for roasting, and a later work, Eichhörnchen (Squirrel), 1969, a glass of amber beer with fake foam and a fuzzy squirrel-like tail.
Oppenheim spent the bulk of her career rebelling against the success of Object, not wanting to become, as she once put it, “the artist who lines things.” And in all matters, she took a playful approach to formulas. When she was just sixteen, she penned a fantastic formula in her high school math notebook that proved provocative enough for Breton to publish later, in 1957, in the journal Le Surrealisme même. She rearranged an algebraic equation, x = √(e-b)(a-f), in a convoluted fashion, plotting the variables as points on a contour drawing of a rabbit. She was trying to prove that x = Hare, and the logic she laid out is as hard to dispute as it is to ascertain. If one accepts her set of rules and conditionals, perhaps there is some order to be found. In any case, Oppenheim always seemed to wield logic against itself in a manner that proves its limits and its absurdity, showing how easy it is to bend, twist, and extrapolate.
WHEN WORLD WAR II BROKE OUT in 1939, Oppenheim found it difficult to make art of any kind. The objects went on a full-fledged hiatus; silly, speculative designs seemed out of place. She tried painting but often wound up destroying her canvases, or else reworked them to no end, stacking up piles of rejects. Born in Berlin and raised in Switzerland, she found herself anguishing over the fate of her Jewish family members who still resided in Germany. All the while, her concern with the limits of reason, her sense of the senselessness of the world, ceased to be amusing and became deeply depressing instead.
On a more practical level, her father became unable to continue his medical practice in Bavaria, which meant he could no longer send her money for rent. Therefore, she had to focus on designing clothes and jewelry instead, to make a living. She had moved to Basel in 1937 to study painting, and when the country took a neutral position in the war, Switzerland turned out to be a great place to stay put. Still, she was only a few miles from the German border, and the atrocities of war were seldom far from her mind.
She had only just begun painting when war was declared. Two of her interwar pictures from 1938 depict a woman trapped. Stone Woman shows feminine legs washed ashore like a beached whale, giant rocks either crushing or replacing her torso. He Rocks His Wife is a painting of two armadillos, one of them—the wife—curled up in a ball and rolling on her back while her partner prods her. They were well-received in their time, which made the ever-contrarian Oppenheim want to do something entirely different. She loathed feeling pigeon-holed or predictable. Soon, she called those paintings “romantic-anecdotal-illustrative.” For her, to figure out a work’s formula was reason to then dismiss or even debunk it.
Sixteen years later, in 1954, she opened up a studio in Bern and her crisis ended abruptly: “painting works again,” she wrote. She moved to Bern full-time from Basel in 1967 and stayed until her death in 1985. In Bern, she primarily painted, and the works are somewhat all over the place. Writers, curators, and art historians tend to cast Oppenheim’s highly varied and voluminous painting output as evidence of her freedom to experiment. Her motto, after all, was: “You have to take freedom. No one will give it to you.” But what Swiss art historian Bice Curiger called in Oppenheim’s 1989 catalogue raisonné an “obvious indifference to style” can at times read as the artist’s struggle to find her voice in the medium of painting. A Berlin-born Jew who stayed in Europe, she experienced the war’s effects acutely.
Eventually, on canvas, she became wholly untethered from the need to refer to reality. Soon, she began dabbling in full-fledged abstractions, with works bearing no resemblance at all to her assemblages extrapolating from the logic of functional things. These canvases were often loosely inspired by nature or dreams. One oblong work on wood from 1959—a chunky, cream-colored geometric shape against a dark brown backdrop—is easy to mistake as humorless if you miss its title, Die Termiten-Königin (The Termite Queen). A reviewer of an Oppenheim show in Paris in 1956 called the works “neither abstract nor Surrealistic enough,” and while Oppenheim was probably pleased to have eschewed easy categorization, it’s true that the blank canvas often seemed a little too open-ended in her hands.
Responding to the assumptions buried in ordinary things was a more productive prompt for her, and in 1956—hallelujah—the objects came back. That year, Oppenheim was hired to make the costumes and masks for a production of Picasso’s play How to Catch Wishes by the Tail, and perhaps the collaboration brought up fond Object-related memories. That year, she made Le Couple, a personified pair of brown leather lace-up boots with soles arranged in a pigeon-toed fashion, their tips sutured together. They’re kissing, permanently, but absent any ankles, the boots droop in a somewhat lifeless way. This is no representation of a budding romance or young love—these two have seen some things, and their leather has grown buttery soft with age. The work is surprisingly endearing, given that it’s really just two old shoes.
OPPENHEIM’S SURREALIST REBOOT didn’t last long. She decided in 1959 that she no longer wanted to be a part of the group, which had grown diffuse, its members now flung across the globe. But she went out with a bang. For a work called Spring Banquet in the spring of that year, she served a feast for a small party in Bern, placing the food atop the body of a nude woman. Utensils were verboten. Breton asked her to stage it again later that year in Paris for the “Exposition inteRnatiOnal du Surréalisme” (EROS). Oppenheim agreed, but from then on, she turned her attention to abstract painting, which remained her primary—though never sole—preoccupation in the 1960s and ’70s.
Oppenheim saw abstraction as a different language for moving past the limits of reason, a tool for reaching deep into the unconscious. Summer Star (1963) is a rusty circle eclipsed by a white square against a powder-blue backdrop. The Secret of Nature (1972) is, similarly, a landscape made up of geometric shapes—this time, quadrilaterals in a springy shade of green float like confetti or falling gingko leaves. Carl Jung played a formative role in her thinking, and not through his texts alone: he was also her analyst, as well as a friend of her father. Especially motivated by Jung’s belief that everyone has a masculine and a feminine side, she would repeatedly paraphrase him by insisting that “the mind is androgynous!” This was an idea she cited when declining invitations to participate in the women’s art movement that began to gain traction in the ’60s and ’70s. Oppenheim wanted nothing to do with it: it was yet another classification, another form of confinement, that she fiercely resisted. She explicitly refused to be categorized among “Surrealist women,” even in art historian Whitney Chadwick’s important 1985 book on the subject, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement.
Predictably unpredictable, Oppenheim was never content to work in one mode. Her obsession with breaking down logic applied even—and especially—to patterns of her own practice. On just a few occasions during her abstract period, she pivoted instead to merging painting and sculpture into assemblages, and the results are striking. For Octavia (1969), she created a female form extrapolated from the shape of a handsaw. First, she copied the tool’s shape in wood, then arranged it next to the original saw so as to mirror its form. Then, painting on top of both, she endowed the duplicated handle portion, featuring a pupil peering out from the hole, with dramatic cat-eye eyeliner. She also painted the sharp blades with bright colors that give them the look of gentle feathers.
Riffing on the logic of the object’s form rather than its function seems to have been her prompt. And in that, it differs in key yet subtle ways from that formative teacup she made thirty years earlier. For Octavia, Oppenheim did what she did best—looked at an everyday object, and saw it both for what it was and as something else. She acknowledged it and then responded, never too seriously—and in so doing, unlocked the fantastic potential buried in the banal.
This article appears under the title “X=Hare” in the April 2022 issue, pp. 58–63.