Méret Oppenheim

Méret Oppenheim
Negative of X-Ray of Meret Oppenheim’s Skull, 1964
Born Meret Elisabeth Oppenheim
(1913-10-06)6 October 1913
Berlin, German Empire
Died 15 November 1985(1985-11-15) (aged 72)
Basel, Switzerland
Education Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Basel School of Arts and Crafts
Known for Painting, Sculpture, Poetry
Notable work Object: Breakfast in Fur (1936)
My Nurse (1936)
Giacometti's Ear (1933)
Movement Surrealism
Awards Art Award of the City of Basel

Meret Elisabeth Oppenheim (6 October 1913 15 November 1985) was a German-born Swiss Surrealist artist and photographer. Oppenheim was a member of the Surrealist movement along with André Breton, Luis Buñuel, Max Ernst, and other writers and visual artists. Besides creating art objects, Oppenheim also famously appeared as a model for photographs by Man Ray, most notably a series of nude shots of her interacting with a printing press.[1]

Early life

Meret Oppenheim[2] was born on 6 October 1913 in Berlin. Oppenheim is named after Meretlein, a wild child who lives in the woods, from the novel Green Henry by Gottfried Keller.[3][4] Oppenheim had two siblings, a sister named Kristin (born 1915) and a brother named Burkhard (born 1919).[5] Her father, a German-Jewish[6] doctor, was conscripted into the army at the outbreak of war in 1914.[5] Consequently, Oppenheim and her mother, who was Swiss,[6] moved to live with Oppenheim's maternal grandparents in Delémont, Switzerland.[7] In Switzerland, Oppenheim was exposed to a plethora of art and artists from a young age. Oppenheim was also inspired by her aunt, Ruth Wenger, especially by Wenger's devotion to art and her modern lifestyle.[7] During the late 1920s, Oppenheim was further exposed to different artworks connected to Modernism, Expressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.[8]

By 1928, Oppenheim was introduced to the writings of Carl Jung through her father and was inspired to record her dreams.[9] Her dreams would serve as important sources for much of her art throughout her life.[10] The work of Paul Klee, the focus of a retrospective at the Kunshalle Basel in 1929, provided another strong influence on Oppenheim, arousing her to the possibilities of abstraction.

In May 1932, at the age of 18, Oppenheim moved to Paris and sporadically attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière.[11] In 1933, Oppenheim met Hans Arp and Alberto Giacometti. After visiting her studio and seeing her work, Arp and Giacometti invited her to participate in the Surrealist exhibition in the “Salon des Surindépendants,” [11] held in Paris between 27 October and 26 November.[12] Oppenheim later met André Breton and began to participate in meetings at the Café de la Place Blanche with the Surrealist circle. Shortly after she began to attend meetings regularly with Breton and other acquaintances, Oppenheim’s circle was joined by other Surrealist artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Man Ray.[13] The conceptual approach favored by Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Francis Picabia became important to her work.[14]


In 1936, Oppenheim had her first solo exhibition in Basel, Switzerland, at the Galerie Schulthess.[15] She continued to contribute to Surrealist exhibitions until 1960. Many of her pieces consisted of everyday objects arranged to allude to female sexuality and feminine exploitation by the opposite sex. Oppenheim’s paintings focused on the same themes. Her abundant strength of character and her self-assurance informed each work she created, conveying a certain comfortable confrontation with life and death.[16] Her originality and audacity established her as a leading figure in the Surrealist movement.

Méret Oppenheim's first one-woman exhibition in the Galerie Schulthess, Basel (1936) featured surrealist objects. In 1937, Oppenheim returned to Basel and this marked the start of her artistic block. She struggled after she met success and worried about her development as an artist. Méret Oppenheim usually worked in spontaneous bursts and at times destroyed her work. Oppenheim took a hiatus from her artistic career in 1939 after an exhibition at the Galerie René Drouin started by Rene Drouin in Paris. In the exhibition she was featured alongside many artists, including Leonor Fini and Max Ernst. She did not share any art with the public again until the 1950s. Oppenheim then reverted to her "original style" and based her new artworks on old sketches and earlier works and creations.[17]

Méret Oppenheim's best known artwork is Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure) [Object (Breakfast in Fur)] (1936). Oppenheim's Object consists of a teacup, saucer and spoon that she covered with fur from a Chinese gazelle. The fur represents an affluent woman; the cup, hollow yet round, can evoke female genitalia; the spoon, with its phallic shape, further eroticizes the hairy object.[18] Originally spurred by a conversation Oppenheim had with Pablo Picasso and his lover Dora Maar in café Deux Magots about a fur bracelet she was wearing, Oppenheim created Object to liberate the saucer, spoon, and teacup from their original functions as consumer objects.[19] Viewers are thus able to feel emotions of joy and wonder when observing Object while also questioning the functionality of each of its components. The artwork’s title, developed by Breton, was inspired by both Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Fur and Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe.[20] During the same year of its creation, Object was purchased by Alfred Barr for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was included in the museum's first Surrealist exhibition titled Fantastic Art: Dada and Surrealism.[21] Oppenheim was willing to sell her artwork for one thousand francs, but Barr only offered her $50 and she accepted. This was the first Surrealist artwork that the museum acquired, and Oppenheim became known as the First Lady of MoMA.[22]

Oppenheim’s Object would be one of the main forces that led to her lengthy artistic crisis due to its spiking increase in popularity after being displayed by Barr in New York. Although it brought Oppenheim a large amount of fame, Object reinforced the public’s belief that Oppenheim only practiced Surrealism which she found hindered her freedom of artistic expression and exploration of other artistic styles.[23] In fact, Object became so widely known that many misconceptions about Oppenheim and her art were created because of it.[23] For example, many incorrectly believed that Oppenheim mainly created objects in fur.[23] Being known as the artist of Object, Oppenheim was bounded to Surrealism from public expectation, a connection she was trying to avoid. Decades later, in 1972, she artistically commented on its dominance of her career by producing a number of "souvenirs" of Le Déjeuner en fourrure.[24]

Throughout her life, Oppenheim has been willing to pose for photographers.[18] Her most popular photo-shoot with Man Ray deeply depicts her personal stance on femininity. Contrary to the discretion about the gender of Le Déjeuner 's creator, the photographs provided an unmistakable monument to her femininity and a testimony to her unwillingness to expose it.[18]

In 1937, Oppenheim returned to Basel, training as an art conservator in order to ensure her financial stability. This marked the beginning of a creative crisis that lasted until 1954. Although she maintained some contact with her friends in Paris, she created very little and destroyed or failed to finish much of what she created.[14]

In 1956, Oppenheim designed the costumes and masks for Daniel Spoerri’s production of Picasso’s play Le Désir attrapé par la queue in Berne. She and artist Lilly Keller were cast as the curtains. Three years later, in 1959, she organized a Spring Banquet (Le Festin) in Bern for a few friends at which food was served on the body of a naked woman. With Oppenheim's permission, Andre Breton restaged the performance later that year at the opening of the Exposition inteRnatiOnale du Surrealisme (EROS), at the Galerie Cordier in Paris. Outside its original intimate setting, the performance was overly provocative and Oppenheim felt her original intention for the work was lost.[25]

In the 1960s, Oppenheim's home base of Bern became much more important as an art center. She continued to live and work there, as well as at a second home in Carona, Switzerland (1968), and maintained a studio in Paris starting in 1972. She was an important figure in feminist debates in the early 1970s, although she refused to identify as a feminist.

In 1983 Oppenheim designed The Spiral Column (Spiralsaule), unofficially known as "Meret Oppenheim Fountain," on the Waisenhausplatz in Bern. A tall concrete column wrapped with a garland of grass over a small watercourse, the fountain provoked a petition for its removal. In 1985 City of Paris commissioned Spiral (Nature's Way) [Spirale (Gang de Natur) from Oppenheim for the Jardins de l'ancienne Ecole polytechnique on the Montagne Ste. Genevieve near the Pantheon. The work was based on a 1971 model and finished posthumously a few months after Oppenheim's death in 1986.[26]

List of works

  • Object (The Luncheon in Fur). 1936. fur covered cup and spoon. cup 4 ¾" diameter, saucer 9 ⅜", spoon 8". The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  • My Nurse. 1936. Metal, shoes and paper. 14 x 33 x 21 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm.[http://sis.modernamuseet.se/en/view/objects/asitem/search$0040/6/primaryMaker-asc?t:state:flow=8e81a573-d170-4fb7-9313-9b22e697f885]


In 1936, at the beginning of her career, Oppenheim was included in two important Surrealist exhibitions outside of Paris: The International Surrealist Exhibition, New Burlington Galleries, London and Fantastic Art Dada Surrealism, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 1943, Oppenheim's work was included in Peggy Guggenheim's show Exhibition by 31 Women at the Art of This Century gallery in New York.[27]

Oppenheim's first retrospective was hosted by Moderna Museet Stockholm in 1967. In Switzerland, her first retrospective was held at Museum der Stadt, Solothurn (1974) and traveled to Kunstmuseum Winterthur and Wilhelm-Lehmbruck Museum, Duisberg, Germany in 1975.

In 1996, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum mounted Oppenheim's first major museum show in the United States at a time when renewed interest in her work, particularly among young artists, had already begun in Europe.[28] In 2013, a comprehensive retrospective of Oppenheim's work opened at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, gathering the artist’s paintings, sketches, sculptures, masks, clothing, furniture, and jewelry. Lenders included singer David Bowie, the Swiss retail tycoon and art dealer Ursula Hauser, and the Dutch diamond magnate Sylvio Perlstein.[29]


Oppenheim received the Art Award of the City of Basel on January 16, 1975. In her acceptance speech, Oppenheim coined the phrase "Freedom is not given to you — you have to take it." [30] In 1982, three years before her death, she received the 1982 Berliner Kunstpreis.[31]


Oppenheim, who died in 1985, at 72, kept careful notes about which patrons and colleagues she liked and where her works ended up. She dictated which of her writings should be published and when, and there are puzzling gaps, since she destroyed some material. The archive and much artwork have been entrusted to institutions in Bern, including the Museum of Fine Arts and the National Library.[29]

Levy Galerie, founded in 1970 by Hamburg resident Thomas Levy, represents the estate of Meret Oppenheim, in close collaboration with the artist's family.


  1. Meret Oppenheim at manray-photo.com
  2. "Encyclopedia Britannica". Retrieved May 7, 2018.
  3. “Maureen P. Sherlock, “Mistaken Identities: Méret Oppenheim,” in ‘’The Artist Outsider: Creativity and the Boundaries of Culture, ed. by Michael D. Hall and Eugene W. Metcalf, 276-288 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1993), p. 281”
  4. Nancy Spector, “Meret Oppenheim: Performing Identities,” in ‘’Meret Oppenheim: Beyond the Teacup,’’ ed. by Jacqueline Burckhardt and Bice Curiger, 35-43 (New York: Independent Curators Incorporated, 1996), p. 37.
  5. 1 2 Bice Curiger, Meret Oppenheim: Defiance in the Face of Freedom (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989), p. 9
  6. 1 2 https://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2013/09/artwork-meret-oppenheim
  7. 1 2 "Curiger, Defiance, p.10"
  8. Caws, Mary Ann (1991). Surrealism and Women. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. p. 64. ISBN 0-262-53098-8.
  9. Mifflin, Margot (September 1986). "An Interview with Meret Oppenheim". Women Artist News. 11: 30–32.
  10. Eipeldauer, Brugger, Seivernich, eds. (2013). Meret Oppenheim: Retrospective. Hatje Cantz.
  11. 1 2 "Curiger, Defiance, p.267"
  12. Josef Helfenstein, "Against the Intolerability of Fame: Meret Oppenheim and Surrealism," in ‘‘Beyond the Teacup,’’ p. 24
  13. Burckhardt, Jacqueline; Curiger, Bice (1996). Capp, Robbie, ed. Meret Oppenheim: Beyond the Teacup. New York, NY: Independent Curators Incorporated. p. 24.
  14. 1 2 Meret Oppenheim: A Retrospective. Hatje Cantz. 2013.
  15. ‘’Beyond the Teacup,’’ p. 165
  16. Young, Lisa Jaye; Qualls, Larry (1997-01-01). "Nobody Will Give You Freedom You Have to Take It". Performing Arts Journal. 19 (1): 46–51. JSTOR 3245744.
  17. Whitney Chadwick, Grove Art Online
  18. 1 2 3 Riese Hubert, Renee (1993). Caws, ed. "From Dejeuner en fourrure to Caroline: Meret Oppenheim's Chronicle of Surrealism" Surrealism and Women. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 39.
  19. Eipeldauer, Heike (2013). "Meret Oppenheim's Masquerades". In Brugger, Ingried. Meret Oppenheim: Retrospective. Vienna, Austria: Hatje Cantz. p. 17. ISBN 978-3-7757-3511-7.
  20. Caws, Mary Ann (2011). "Meret Oppenheim's Fur Teacup". Gastronomica. 11: 25–28. JSTOR 10.1525/gfc.2011.11.3.25.
  21. "Meret Guy Oppenheim. Object. 1936". Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 11 July 2011.
  22. Matyris, Nina (February 9, 2016). "'Luncheon In Fur': The Surrealist Teacup That Stirred The Art World". npr.org. Retrieved March 28, 2017.
  23. 1 2 3 Burckhardt, Jacqueline; Curiger, Bice (1996). Capp, Robbie, ed. Meret Oppenheim: Beyond the Teacup. New York, NY: Independent Curators Incorporated. p. 29.
  24. and "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-04-06. Retrieved 2011-07-14.
  25. Meret Oppenheim Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  26. Meret Oppenheim: A Retropsective. Hatje Cantz. 2013.
  27. Butler, Cornelia H.; Schwartz, Alexandra (2010). Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art. p. 45. ISBN 9780870707711.
  28. Grace Glueck (June 28, 1996), After a Furry Teacup, What Then? New York Times.
  29. 1 2 Eve M. Kahn (August 8, 2013), Meret Oppenheim’s Works at Martin-Gropius-Bau New York Times.
  30. Belinda Grace Gardner, "From 'Breakfast in Fur' and Back Again," in Thomas Levy, ed., Meret Oppenheim: From Breakfast in Fur and Back Again (Bielefeld, Germany: Kerber Verlag, 2003), p. 7.
  31. "The artwork of Meret Oppenheim: A surreal legacy". The Economist. September 3, 2013. Retrieved March 28, 2017.
  • Chadwick, Whitney. "Oppenheim, Meret." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online.
  • Oppenheim, Méret. "Meret Oppenheim: Beyond the Teacup." New York, 1996. Print.

Further reading

  • Kleiner, Fred S.; Mamiya, Christian J. (2005). Gardner's art through the ages (12th ed.). USA: Thompson Learning Co. pp. 999–1000. 
  • Slatkin, Wendy (2001). Women Artists in History (4th ed.). USA: Pearson Education. pp. 203–204. 
  • [1] With Photographs by Heinrich Helfenstein. Translated from German by Catherine Schelbert.
  • Oppenheim, Meret (1988). Meret Oppenheim: New York. New York: Kent Fine Art. 
  • Galerie Krinzinger (1997). 'Meret Oppenheim: eine andere Retrospektive. A different retrospective. Graphische Kunstanstalt - Otto Sares, Wien. ISBN 3-900683-02-6. 
  1. Meret Oppenheim: Retrospective. Hatje Cantz. 2013.
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