Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Forgotten Artist File: Meret Oppenheim

As I begin my series that focuses on lesser known and forgotten artists, my first choice is an artist who is remembered and talked about today, but really only for one artwork.  It’s not uncommon for artists to be associated with one or two well-know pieces.  It’s hard to discuss Salvador Dali, for example, without mentioning The Persistence of Memory.  Pablo Picasso is remembered for epic paintings like Guernica.  But, even if you don’t know very much about either of those artists, you’ve probably seen a couple of other pieces besides their most famous works.  Such is not the case with Surrealist Meret Oppenheim.  If you’ve seen any of her works, chances are it’s this one:
The piece is entitled Object (Luncheon in Fur) and was created in 1936.  It’s a simple sculpture consisting of a teacup, saucer, and spoon that have been covered in the fur of a Chinese gazelle (not rabbit fur, as I was told years ago).  It’s a sculpture that’s been reproduced endlessly in art history texts.  It is the most commonly cited example of Surrealist sculpture, and also one of the few works by a female Surreal artist that gets reproduced and discussed regularly today (there were many important female artists who were practicing Surrealists, and they have unfortunately been written out of most art history texts.  Perhaps it’s a topic for another post). 

Object epitomizes the ideas of the Surrealists.  A teacup is a common, everyday item.  Perhaps something we use every day.  When covered in fur (a material we probably don’t want to put in our mouths) it’s removed from its common use and becomes foreign.  The juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar stirs the unconscious and causes uneasiness in the viewer.  The Surrealists wanted to conjure primal desires and drives, things we hide from others (and maybe even ourselves) but are there nonetheless, simmering in our subconscious.  Our primitive ancestors hunted their food, and bit into fur-covered flesh.  Now we are more civilized and drink from china teacups.  It doesn’t mean that our primitive urges have completely disappeared, though.  It is these kinds of base emotions and primal urges that people see in Object, and that has lead to its continued dissection and discussion.  Unfortunately, it’s the only Oppenheim piece that receives such scrutiny.

Meret Oppenheim was born in Berlin 1913.  While still a girl, her parents moved the family to Switzerland.  She travelled to Paris as a young woman to study art in 1932 and was introduced to the Surrealists by Alberto Giacommetti a short time later.  She formed close associations with the Surrealists as well as other artists living in Paris, and it was a meeting with Picasso that spurred the creation of Object.  While visiting with Picasso and his lover Dora Maar in a cafĂ©, Picasso noticed Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelet and remarked that anything could be covered with fur.  As the story goes, Oppenheim almost immediately conceived of Object and rushed to buy a teacup and saucer at a Paris department store.  The piece became famous immediately after Oppenheim finished it.  It was exhibited to great fanfare in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937, and visitors chose it as the quintessential Surrealist symbol.  This adulation was a double edged-sword.  On the one hand, the sculpture thrust Oppenheim into the international spotlight, but it also created an enormous shadow that she spent the rest of her life trying to escape.

After bursting onto the world stage, Object took on a life quite separate from its creator.  The piece was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, where it remains on near-permanent display.  Countless people have viewed this strange little object, and I’d argue that it still has the same power to affect us that it did 70 years ago.  The materials used to create it are still common, and their combination still seems foreign.  It remains a strong and memorable piece amongst MoMA’s extensive Surrealist holdings.  It gained notoriety absent from the rest of Oppenheim’s oeuvre, and Oppenheim herself is almost a footnote in art history, known for this one piece and really nothing else.

Exhibition poster for a show
in Berne, 1968
In reality, Oppenheim continued to create work, both sculptural and two-dimensional.  She returned to Switzerland in 1937 and worked for years to shake off the gigantic reputation of Object.  She created the piece when she was only 24, and grew to resent the fact that to most people, it represented her entire career.  Oppenheim went on to have a lengthy and respected career that lasted until her death in 1985.  She showed her work mostly in Europe (predominantly Switzerland, France, and Germany) but had a few exhibitions in the United States as well.  In addition to her sculptures and paintings, she also experimented with fashion design and public art.  She was much loved in her adopted country of Switzerland and in 1975 was awarded the Art Award of the city of Basel.

Finding reproductions of her work is a little difficult.  There are some images available online (although the majority of images available are various reproductions of Object).  My local library had a few books, but unfortunately, most of the photos in both of these books are black and white.  Below are some images of her works that I had never seen before.
Beginning of Spring, 1961

The Cocoon (It's Alive), 1971

Greyish Blue Cloud, 1980

Three Murderers in the Woods, 1936

I close with an image of this fountain designed by Oppenheim for the city of Berne, Switzerland.  It consists of a tower surrounded by water pipes.  Moss and small plants grow on the pipes, and the appearance of the fountain changes according to the season.  This piece was constructed in 1983, shortly before Oppenheim's death.  It is still there today, a lasting legacy to an artist who deserves to be remembered for more than one work of art.

Next week, I'll cover a different forgotten artist.  It might be someone you've never heard of before. 

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