Inside Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Otherworldly, Witty, Whimsical’ exhibition at MoMA, the first American museum retrospective of the Swiss surrealist in a generation

If you know the name Meret Oppenheim, you probably associate the artist with one thing: fur. A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, however, proves the surrealist to be an artist of endless creativity and incredible versatility who drew, painted and sculpted in a wide range of mediums and materials.

“She just had a remarkable imagination and an unparalleled ability to get up in the morning and never do the same thing twice,” Anne Umland, the museum’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, told Artnet News. “It’s pretty radical that over her five-decade career she’s managed to stay committed to a very supernatural, witty, whimsical sensibility.”

The exhibition, titled “Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition,” is the artist’s first U.S. exhibition in 25 years, and it features many pieces that are being shown for the first time in the country. It originated in the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland, which has the largest collection of works by the artist in the world, and is co-curated by the two museums and the Menil Collection in Houston.

Meret Oppenheim, Object (Object) (1936). Photo courtesy of Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The MoMA is the last stop on the transatlantic tour, and it has a strength that other venues lack: Objectthe fur-covered teacup, saucer and spoon that earned Oppenheim his place in the art history books.

Too fragile to travel, the work is a mainstay of MoMA’s collection, even though the acquisitions committee has repeatedly rejected it.

“When it first arrived in 1936, it sort of became the poster child for all that was absurd and anti-art in the surrealist approach to art making,” Umland said.

Meret Oppenheim, <i>Pair of gloves</i> (1985).  Collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern, gift of Ruth von Büren.  Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.  “width=”1024″ height=”939″ srcset=”×939.jpg 1024w, /app/news-upload/2021/08/cri_000000266847-300×275.jpg 300w,×46.jpg 50w, https://news 1570w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/></p>
<p id=Meret Oppenheim, Pair of gloves (1985). Collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern, gift of Ruth von Büren. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

Fortunately, founding director Alfred Barr had the good sense to buy Object himself after debuting at MoMA “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism” exhibition that year, giving the the institution’s time to come to pioneer work.

Oppenheim, born in Germany in 1913, was only 22 when she made the work, a time when she supported herself by making jewelry. A fur-covered bracelet she had made caught the attention of Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar as the three of them were having lunch. When Picasso pointed out that anything could be improved by fur covering, Oppenheim’s wheels started turning.

Having made a name for himself in the art at such a young age, Oppenheim had a somewhat complicated relationship with Object. She was proud of her role in the surrealist movement as a young woman and her ability to channel the avant-garde spirit even as she resisted being defined by one piece. But it also overshadowed other aspects of his career.

Meret Oppenheim, X-ray of MO's skull (Röntgenaufnahme des Schädels MO).  (1964/1981).  Hermann and Margrit Rupf Foundation.  Bern Kunstmuseum.

Meret Oppenheim, X-ray of the skull of MO (Röntgenaufnahme des Schädels MO), 1964/1981. Hermann and Margrit Rupf Foundation. Bern Kunstmuseum. Photo courtesy of Museum of Modern Art, New York.

“It’s the kind of thing that’s just unforgettable,” Umland said. “Artist Jenny Holzer described it as ‘absurdly sublime.’ It’s also both seductive and repulsive, an everyday object and yet made strange.It takes something that is associated with decorum and domesticity, and makes it rather animalistic and spectacularly other.

The work also marks Oppenheim’s first exploration of themes that would become recurring.

“Oppenheim’s five-decade career has written great works to undermine long-held dualisms or opposition between things like man and nature, animate and inanimate objects, men and women – all of these binaries are things that the furry teacup undoes, and that the greater body of work continues to undermine in countless different and varied ways,” Umland added.

The title of the exhibition, “My Exhibition”, comes from the fact that it was organized in part in response to Oppenheim’s own carefully illustrated plans for a retrospective of his work, a series of drawings from 1983 that showcase his career in chronological order.

Vue d'installation de The Green Spectator (1959) blocks a door between the galleries, a design choice considered by the artist in a set of 1983 drawings for a possible retrospective of his work. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar, courtesy of Museum of Modern Art, New York. ” width=”1024″ height=”604″ srcset=”×1179-1-1024×604.jpeg 1024w, https ://×1179-1-300×177.jpeg 300w, 2022/11/IN2507_010_CCCR-Press-Site-2000×1179-1-1536×905.jpeg 1536w,×1179-1-50×29 .jpeg 50w,×1179-1-1920×1132.jpeg 1920w, /news-upload/2022/11/IN2507_010_CCCR-Press-Site-2000×1179-1.jpeg 2000w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/>

Meret Oppenheim, Red Head, Blue Body (1936).  Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Meret Oppenheim Bequest.  Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Meret Oppenheim, Red head, blue body (1936). Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Meret Oppenheim Bequest. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

But most of the works on display are on loan from Switzerland, where most of Oppenheim’s oeuvre still resides. That means there’s a lot to discover in the exhibition, from delightful collages to surprisingly deft oil paintings that reveal Oppenheim’s considerable draughtsmanship, such as stone woman (1938).

“There’s this bravery technique that renders all kinds of textures, you can look at the shimmering surface of the water and underneath see that the little legs of the figure have socks and Mary Jane shoes,” Umland told about work. “It has almost levels of translucent layered glazing and paint application.”

Meret Oppenheim, Stone Woman (1938).  Private collection.  Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Meret Oppenheim, stone woman (1938). Photo by Sarah Cascone.

“That idea of ​​magic, enchantment and transformation, the themes of isolation, entrapment and loneliness that were so characteristic of Oppenhein’s world in the late 1930s are present in this painting,” he said. -she adds.

Viewers also might not expect Oppenheim’s talent for assemblage, crushing found objects to delightful surreal effect. Another strong point is animal-headed demon (1961), a neoclassical clock case which the artist modified by plunging a large wedge of wood through its face and adorning it with ceramic knobs.

And then there’s Oppenheim’s undeniable sense of humor. A work from 1936, My Governess (My Nurse)features a pair of upside-down white pumps on a silver platter, tied like a roast chicken, decorative paper ruffles covering the heels.

Meret Oppenheim, <em>My Governess (My Nurse)</em>, 1936. Collection of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.  Photo by Sarah Cascone.” width=”768″ height=”1024″ srcset=”×1024.jpg 768w, https://×300.jpg 225w,×1536.jpg 1152w,×2048.jpg 1536w,×50 .jpg 38w,×1920.jpg 1440w, /IMG_6263-scaled.jpg 1920w” sizes=”(max-width: 768px) 100vw, 768px”/></p>
<p id=Meret Oppenheim, My Governess (My Nurse), 1936. Collection of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

The shoes come into play again decades later with the 1967 sculpture The Couple (with Egg)of a pair of boots sewn together at the toes, sitting next to an egg perched on a nest of coiled shoelaces.

“She was trying to imagine what shoes left outside a hotel room door would do – of course they would mate!” said Ulmand.

Even for the curator, the breadth of the artist’s wildly inventive career was unexpected. “Being someone who worked as an academic, art historian and curator in the interwar period, I hadn’t realized how vast the body of work is,” Ulmand said. . “To see what she did in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is just mind boggling.”

“Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from October 30, 2022 to March 4, 2023.

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