Thursday, 25 August 2011

Meret Oppenheim

Meret Oppenheim
I first became aware of Meret Oppenheim when I was about five years old. For some reason my mother took me with her to the art class she was teaching. Her subject that day was Surrealism, and she had some reproductions which she put in turn on an easel in front of the class to illustrate her talk.

I was given some crayons and told to sit quietly at a little table, which I did, until I happened to look up and see a picture of a furry cup and saucer, complete with a teaspoon, yet. I remember the horror to this day. Tea from that cup! I could just feel that wet, slimy fur on my lips and how the hairs would catch in my teeth if I put that teaspoon in my mouth. I freaked. Didn't get taken to school again.

Object: Breakfast in Fur

Meret was only 22 years old in 1936, when she created this memorable piece of art - once seen, never forgotten! "Object: Fur Breakfast" became an icon of the Surrealist movement, endlessly reproduced on posters and coasters, like Dali's "Persistence of Memory" and Magritte's "The Great War": the bowler-hatted man with a green apple covering his face.
Magritte: The Great War

"Object" was an overnight sensation at Surrealist exhibitions in both Paris and New York, and was immediately snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art.

Dali: The Persistence of Memory

In the same year, Meret created another important Surrealist work: "Mein Kindermadchen" (My Nanny) - a pair of high-heeled shoes, tied together, decorated with paper frills like a trussed chicken, and presented on a silver tray. The piece is full of latent eroticism. The rounded heels look like buttocks, evoking the image of a bound, nude woman on her back, legs apart.

Oppenheim: Mein Kindermadchen
With this image, Meret was raising questions about the way women were regarded as mere objects in the male-dominated art world. The Surrealists, mainly older men, surrounded themselves with women a generation younger than themselves, who were important to them as muses and lovers, but not taken seriously as artists. They were adored as the Surrealist ideal of the child-woman: sexual beings who inspired creativity.

At age 20, Meret was already a "muse", celebrated by the Surrealists as the "fairy woman whom all men desire". She was on intimate terms with Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamps and André Breton. Man Ray used her as the nude model for a series of photographs titled Erotique Voilée.

These photographs say a lot about the gender dynamics within the Surrealist movement. In the best-known one, Meret stands behind the wheel of a printing press, a black hoop round her neck, her eyes enigmatically downcast. Her arm is held up, palm gesturing outward to the viewer. The hand and arm are covered with printer's ink. The gesture ambiguously seems to ward off approaches while defiantly displaying the stain. Her pubic region is obscured by a blatantly phallic wooden handle which protrudes from the printer's wheel in front of her.

The acclaim that "Object: Fur Breakfast", and to a lesser extent, "Mein Kindermadchen", received, catapulted Meret into overnight fame when she was really too young to cope with the spotlight. Not unlike many young footballers of today! Many art historians feel that this spectacular early success blighted her future career - she was constantly trying too hard to live up to her early triumph.

It was not helpful that several of her fellow-Surrealists, perhaps with a touch of envy at the success of a mere young female, frequently tried to disparage and trivialise her. She lost confidence, failed to finish projects and even destroyed many works.

In the 1950s she seemed to come to terms with the pressure of expectations engendered by her almost mythical status as the quintessential Surrealist. She went on to create a rich and varied body of work: she designed objects, wrote film scripts and poetry, made masks and costumes. She set up a studio in Berne and became a source of inspiration for many younger artists.

She died of a heart attack at age 72, on the very day that her latest book of poems and etchings was launched.

Meret Oppenheim contributed greatly to the recognition of women as artists in their own right.