Arts and Entertainment

Meret Oppenheim: Spontaneity in Surrealism

An analysis of the artist and works featured in the MoMA’s Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition.

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By Jason Lei

Upon entering Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition, viewers’ attention is immediately grabbed by the electric lime colors, which boldly hint at Meret Oppenheim’s characteristic unconventionality. A projected black-and-white documentary demonstrates Oppenheim’s creative process for her most famous piece, Object (1936). From sculptures to paintings, the various mediums showcase her vast collection of intriguing yet provocative art. Venturing deeper into the exhibition reveals much about Oppenheim’s message and personal narrative.

Oppenheim was born in Berlin, Germany on October 6, 1913 to a family of Swiss analysts. From a young age, Oppenheim was exposed to psychoanalytic theory, inclining her to keep a dream diary—a constant springboard for inspiration. Her affinity for art took root in her childhood. Her high school math notebook contained the equation “X = an Orange Rabbit,”perhaps her first documented artistic social commentary. Oppenheim later enrolled in art classes at the esteemed Académie de la Grande Chaumière, quickly making a name for herself in the art industry despite the field’s oppression of female artists. Oppenheim’s captivating surrealist pieces were able to break down barriers, allowing her to be accepted in fine art’s inner circles and rise to fame.

Oppenheim, a prominent artist during the Surrealism movement of the 20th century, had an artistic style that reflects both abstract and imaginative expressions. Her exhibition poignantly highlights her spontaneity. She does not restrict herself to one particular form or technique, uniquely defining her lively collection. Her most notable work, Object, is a fantastical transformation of everyday objects into luxurious items. Object is an assemblage, consisting of a teacup, saucer, and spoon, all draped in Chinese gazelle fur. This mind-bending piece was inspired by a conversation in a Parisian cafe, in which cubist painter Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend, Dora Maar, admired Oppenheim’s fur bracelet. Tea sets and fur are both associated with opulence and sophistication among women, yet the almost grotesque combination of the two materials seems to contradict these conventional symbols of refinement. Artist André Breton even viewed Object as a representation of a fur fetish. Despite the room it grants for interpretation, this piece is usually regarded as a rejection of the materialism associated with femininity. Though the ensemble is presented as a simplistic sculpture, it carries a noteworthy statement.

The exhibit houses another well-known piece: Stone Woman (1938), an oil painting depicting various stones of different sizes and colors oriented to imitate the female physique. The work consists of muted colors, shadowing the piece in a solemn mood. The figure lies on a beach with her legs underwater, sprawling her torso across the desolate background. Her upper body is tilted to the left to reflect feelings of dejection and isolation. She wears Mary Jane shoes even though her immobile legs are underwater, symbolizing Oppenheim’s own depression and the struggles of being a woman in World War II’s male-dominated art world. These sentiments are thematically ingrained in many of her works during this time.

Oppenheim suffered a 20-year creative block caused by her impostor syndrome in the art world. However, the exhibition’s later works exhibit her growth in confidence as an artist. Many of these pieces critique the unfair social constructs restricting women, which Oppenheim was all too familiar with. One particular piece, Genevieve and Four Echoes (1956), depicts an armless floating nude, repudiating the commonly objectified portrayal of the female nude. Oppenheim continued to reject labels and defy expectations throughout her lifetime, distinguishing herself as an unconventional surrealist. She once explained in an interview, “There is no difference between man and woman: there is only artist or poet. Sex plays no role whatsoever. That is why I refuse to participate in exhibitions of women only.” Her rejection of labels exemplifies her growing assertiveness as she was forced to self-advocate.

Though Oppenheim’s eccentric pieces have become famed surrealist works, she only began to gain recognition in the latter half of her life. However, Oppenheim’s idiosyncratic artistic expression remains influential in today’s pop culture. One example of this is Lady Gaga’s iconic meat dress at the 2010 VMAs. The use of a ludicrous material for the dress emphasizes its purpose, much like Oppenheim’s provocative works. Besides themes of biomorphism (resembling nature/living organisms) and phantasmagoria (resembling dream-like images and objects), her art reflects strong feminist ideals, emphasizing that “women are not goddesses, not fairies, not sphinxes. All these are the projections of men.” A trailblazing female artist, Oppenheim made a huge impact in the world of Surrealism with her simplistic yet contemplative masterpieces.