Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition
October 30, 2022–March 4, 2023
It began with the teacup. At twenty-two, artist Meret Oppenheim wrapped a cup, saucer, and spoon in gazelle fur, rendering them inoperable for their intended purposes, and transforming them instead into something slinky, erotic, yet utterly useless. Object (1936) was featured in Andre Breton’s 1936 exhibition of Surrealist sculpture, Exposition surréaliste d’objets, before the Museum of Modern Art acquired and included it in the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition of 1936. The work’s popularity would follow Oppenheim throughout her career, but to the young artist—whose growing audience assumed she only wrapped objects in fur—the attention felt restrictive, contributing to a reluctance to exhibit her work publicly for almost twenty years. Although renowned as a Surrealist in the first decade of her career, she resisted such classifications and the expectations they elicited. Instead, she worked for six decades to build an expansive oeuvre shaped by her tenacious curiosity, singular wit, and openness to what art could be.
More than 180 of Oppenheim’s works—paintings, sculptures, object constructions, drawings, collages, and prints—are jam-packed into Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition, an ebullient if at times overwhelming retrospective. Organized by MoMA curator Ann Umland with curatorial assistant Lee Colón; Director of Kunstmuseum Bern, Nina Zimmer; and Associate Curator of the Menil Collection, Natalie Dupêcher, it follows the instruction of M.O.: My Exhibition (M.O.: Mon Exposition) (1983) in which twelve meticulous drawings were made by Oppenheim to guide the hanging of her work in a 1984 retrospective in Bern that took place a year before her death. Ranging from early doodles made in her teenage years to large-scale abstract paintings created near the end of the artist’s life, the exhibition spans an array of styles and subject matter that suggest a contemplative life spent rigorously expanding the boundaries of her practice. Precise in her selection of objects and their historical sequencing, Oppenheim’s deep concern with self-representation can be traced back to the success and subsequent fallout of Object, which is all but lost in the abundance of images and objects that make up the show.
Works from early in her career, made when Oppenheim was a self-taught artist, carry a forthright earnestness while also revealing a morbid sense of humor. In a line drawing tinted with gouache, Well, We’ll Live Later Then (Bon tant pis, on vivra plus tard) (Dann leben wir eben später), from 1933, two spectral figures, one carrying the other, run past an ominous columned building while a red balloon floats away in a gloomy sky. The painting Little Ghost Eating Bread (Kleines Gespenst, Brott Essend) (1934) shows a smiling blue person holding a loaf to their mouth, one step away from falling off the edge of a high balcony. Oppenheim’s style changed significantly in the late 1930s; after training as an art curator, her technical abilities as a painter expanded as she made dream-like narrative paintings that reexamined female protagonists of myths and legends. In Daphne and Apollo (Daphne und Apollo) (1943) the heroine stands—half-tree, half-woman—while her unwanted suitor, transformed into a potato, struggles to capture her. In The Suffering of Genevieve (Das Leiden der Genoveva) (1939) the persecuted heroine rises through an ominous sky while a demon in a chariot flies toward her.
In subsequent years, Oppenheim’s work skewed more toward abstraction, although she never adhered to any specific style for long. Her concern seemed to lie more in finding, case by case, the best ways to transpose her subconscious into visual language. Images of snakes, trees, clouds, planets—all things levitating—appear and reappear, inspired by her dream diaries and her interest in the writings of Jung. In the 1950s, she returned to the subject of the Genevieve in Genevieve and Four Echoes (Genoveva und vier Echos) (1956) and Genevieve Hovering over the Water (1957); in both paintings, the figure is reduced to a dark, rounded form. In one of Oppenheim’s last works, the large-scale painting New Stars (Neue Sterne) (1977) red, orange, and yellow diamonds sail above a black skyline dotted with houses. Moving seamlessly between the picture plane and three-dimensional work, Oppenheim often turned to ceramics, carved wood, and found objects. Six Clouds on a Bridge (Sechs Wolken auf einer Brücke) (1975) a small bronze sculpture of sharp-edged clouds floating atop geometric pedestals, echoes the angular arrangement of her duotone painting Under the Raincloud (Unter der Regen-Wolke) (1961–64). Primordial Venus (Urzeit-Venus) (1962), a ceramic figure stuffed with straw, suggests the voluptuousness of Venus figures found earlier in art history.
Always clever, she nevertheless remains somewhat circumspect, revealing herself only obliquely through her subject matter and themes. One uniquely frank image, X-Ray of M.O.’s Skull (Röntgenaufnahme des Schädels M.O.) (1964), presents a profile X-ray of the artist’s head and shoulders, hand at her chin. She wears hoop earrings and two rings on her fingers. Taken in 1964 but printed in 1981, its dates imply it was something she held onto and thought about before committing to sharing it as her work. The opposite of Object, it concerns itself not so much with external embellishments or wrappings, but literally with that which is hidden inside.