MoMA’s Stellar Méret Oppenheim Retrospective Goes Beyond the Fur-Covered Teacup

There may never have been an artist who painted self-portraits quite as strange as Méret Oppenheim. In Head of Fog (1971), she depicted her featureless face as though it were veiled in a thick grey cloud, with white strokes flecked across the canvas. In Stone Woman (1938), she portrayed herself as an array of smooth rocks that extend into an ocean, where, beneath the wavelets lapping against the shore, we can glimpse a pair of socked human feet.

When you conjure a work by Oppenheim, you probably think of Object, her famed 1936 sculpture composed of little more than a fur-covered teacup, along with a fur-covered saucer and a fur-covered spoon to match. You probably don’t imagine something like Head of Fog and Stone Woman, but you should—she produced many intriguing works in their vein, and with them would prove herself, time and again, as an artist more complex than her critics often realized.

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Oppenheim’s stellar Museum of Modern Art retrospective, on view now in New York, is a testament to her unwillingness to let anyone box her in. She was a Surrealist who flirted with Pop, Nouveau Réalisme, Arte Povera, and other styles; a self-taught artist who dabbled in sculpture, painting, drawing, and even performance; and a German Jew whose career brought her to France, where she fell in with the likes of André Breton and Many Ray, and Switzerland, to which she moved during World War II as her family experienced financial strain. She was indefinable as an artist, a fact to which she even alluded when, in a 1983 interview, she said, “Committing to a particular style would’ve bored me to death.”

A painting of a grouping of oversized stones on a shore that are attached to a pair of legs.
Meret Oppenheim, Stone Woman (Steinfrau), 1938.

This Oppenheim show views her as expansively as the artist herself wanted. (It was organized for MoMA by Anne Umland, the crack curator behind a string of great retrospectives for modernists at the museum; she worked with Nina Zimmer and Natalie Dupêcher on the show, which has appeared at the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland and the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.) Object appears toward the start, where it’s set modestly, if unremarkably, in a small vitrine. This is not the kind of presentation that announces the work as the Surrealist masterpiece that it is.

The emphasis, then, is everything that came after Object: the gloriously weird figurations of the wartime years, the icy experiments with readymade objects in the decades after, the inscrutable images based on dreams from her last decade. It’s a joy that MoMA has staged the show in this way, complicating both Oppenheim—and the history of female Surrealists more generally.

But the show is organized chronologically, so it’s worth dwelling on that first gallery. Oppenheim departed Switzerland for Paris in 1932, and almost immediately began making paintings that envision an angel holding a slit-throated babe, a specter munching on a piece of bread, and more phantasmagoria.

Despite its focus on the full breadth of her career, the show could benefit from some editing. Several early paintings are mixed in quality; the worst of them reek of the same grating macabre-twee quality that assails Tim Burton’s more forgettable films. It’s the sculptures, of which there are few on view, that stand out most. A highlight is Box with Little Animals (1935/73), a wooden case with farfalle tonde that teem in one corner like termites. So imaginative was Oppenheim that she could make store-bought pasta seem totally unfamiliar—and totally alive.

A teacup, a saucer, and a spoon, all of which are covered in fur.
Meret Oppenheim, Objet (Object), 1936.

It’s tempting to call Box with Little Animals cutesy, and then you see a work like Corpse in a Boat (1936) nearby. This brushy gouache features a nude female body whose breasts have been lopped off and whose pelvis has been splayed open; the corpse limply rests inside a rowboat, where it may go unseen to others traveling the serene waters nearby. There’s an implicit sense of violence in all of these pieces, which act as a reminder of the real-world carnage of the moment that forced Oppenheim to depart avant-gardist Paris for Switzerland in 1937.

In the ’40s, Oppenheim’s style would take the first of many sharp, unexpected turns. She had attended a trade school, where she studied restoration, and would emerge with a newly polished painterly style, one that conforms more neatly with the Surrealist art that we know so well. Some of her paintings from the era are cast against moonlit landscapes that recall the work of Max Ernst, with whom Oppenheim had briefly had an affair while she lived in Paris. Yet Oppenheim’s paintings from this decade, loaded as they are with nude figures whose heads are filled with clouds and branches, amass imagery that’s all her own.

The MoMA retrospective wisely devotes the bulk of its space to Oppenheim’s output from the decades afterward, in which her brand of Surrealism met its match in the stylings of the moment. She took up ready-made items and transformed them, as she did in Miss Gardenia (1962), a ready-made metal picture frame that ought to encase a small painting or a mirror but, for some reason, actually holds a piece of plaster that bulges out toward the viewer. Based on the title, you can imagine this ersatz picture as a portrait of a stately bourgeois woman as filtered through Oppenheim’s imagination.

Other sculptures provide their own tantalizing pleasures: a pair of boots that merge because their tips are snipped off, an iron frame that contains a pair of sculpted breasts spilling out of it, a beer glass filled with plastic foam and affixed with fur molded to appear like a bushy tail. There’s even a painting of blocky fronds with some fungus attached to the canvas.

A saw painted with the face of a female figure.
Meret Oppenheim, Octavia (Oktavia), 1969.

For the less adventurous, there are quite a few abstractions depicting the moon, vegetation, and extraterrestrial-looking plants. Seen in isolation, they’re too similar to other modernist experiments to differentiate themselves. They miss the mark.

It’s a good thing, then, that toward the end of her career, Oppenheim brought her art into the unique realm that only she could enter, with a late-career body of work that touches something spiritual. There are deliciously unknowable works like Face in Cloud (1971), where an abstracted nose juts out toward the viewer from a lumpy grey mass, and wonkier experiments like Genevieve (1971), a sculpture composed of a piece of unvarnished wood augmented with two snapped-off poles that stand in for arms. Oppenheim had been fascinated by Genevieve of Brabant, a figure from medieval lore who was ostracized after her husband accused her cheating on him; the artist saw some of herself in this mythological woman. It hardly seems like a stretch to imagine that Genevieve may be a self-portrait of sorts, too.

X-ray of a woman's skull with two earrings dangling from her ears.
Meret Oppenheim, X-Ray of M.O.’s Skull (Röntgenaufnahme des Schädels M.O.), 1964/81.

But for those in search of a more representational self-portrait by Oppenheim, there’s a good one that comes very close to the MoMA retrospective’s end. It’s an X-ray, taken in 1964, that offers a glimpse into Oppenheim’s cranium. The contours of a necklace hanging on her neck is visible, as are the ghostly outlines of her nose and mouth. Two hoop earrings dangle from her unseen ears. Everything is laid bare here, but Oppenheim’s still resisting by refusing to fully show her face. The more you see inside Oppenheim’s head, the less you know about what went on there.


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