Who is Meret Oppenheim?

March 24, 2022

Meret Elisabeth Oppenheim was a German-born Swiss Surrealist artist and photographer. She is best known for her work titled The Object. Could a silly joke among a group of artist friends result in one of the most iconic surrealist sculptures of all time? Artist Meret Oppenheim created her fur-covered teacup, “Object,” in 1936 after such an encounter, but spent the majority of her career attempting to escape the shadow of this sculpture. Though many view it as her lasting contribution to contemporary art history, the scope of Oppenheim’s career is so much broader than this single work of art.

Early Oppenheim

Born in Berlin but raised in Switzerland, artist Meret Oppenheim came from a German-Jewish family. She spent the majority of her childhood in Delémont, Switzerland living with her grandparents, who had a great artistic influence on her. Swiss culture exposed her to the likes of analytical psychologist Carl Jung, as well as different art movements like Fauvism and Cubism.

Oppenheim moved to Basel, Switzerland in 1932 to attend art school at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where she studied painting. In her second year there, she met the influential artists Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp, who encouraged her to participate in her first surrealist art show, in Paris. This proved to be a crucial move for Oppenheim’s career, as she met the founder of the surrealist movement Andre Breton in Paris. Breton later introduced her to artists like Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, formally ushering Oppenheim’s work into the surrealist canon. She soon became one of a few women artists to consistently exhibit with the surrealists, and regularly engage with their ideologies.

Joining forces with the other surrealists in Europe led Oppenheim to become a surrealist muse of sorts. She often joked that “it is not I who looked for the Surrealists, it is they who found me.” Oppenheim would pose for other surrealist photographers like Man Ray, creating a name for herself as both artist and muse. As a model, Oppenheim used her femininity as a stark contrast to the male artists who worked with her.

In 1936, Meret Oppenheim created Object, the Chinese gazelle fur-lined teacup, saucer, and spoon that now is a centerpiece of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The success of Object was immediate; art world insiders said that the work “personified male Surrealism’s idea of the ‘femme-enfant.’ Still reeling from the triumph of Object, Oppenheim fell into a deep period of the artistic block that lasted from 1939 into the 1950s. During this time, she fled Paris for Switzerland during World War II and took a job as a conservator to make ends meet. Oppenheim ended up staying in Bern, Switzerland, and keeping a studio there until the end of her life.

She returned to surrealism after her hiatus, but not for long. After World War II, Oppenheim felt a shift in Surrealism and stopped exhibiting with them in 1956.

Meret Oppenheim’s Artistic Career

Meret Oppenheim’s Object came to be out of a passing conversation at the Cafe Deux Magots in Paris. She joined the artists Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar one day while wearing a fur bracelet she had designed. Oppenheim’s companions commented on the bracelet, and joked that “just about anything could be covered in fur, even a teacup.” Oppenheim called out to their server “Waiter, more fur!” jokingly implying the use of fur to keep her tea warm. Thus, the idea for Object was born. First exhibited at MoMA in 1936 under the name Le Déjeuner en fourrure(Breakfast in Fur), Object was soon acquired by the museum’s then-director Alfred Barr. The object was the first Surrealist artwork MoMA acquired and has subsequently become a centerpiece of the collection. MoMA curator Anne Umland spoke about the work, saying “This object reverses all sorts of expectations,” implying that a teacup is not only impractical but essentially rendered useless. Throughout her life and career, Oppenheim would refer to Object as a “youthful joke,” and greatly believed that the success of this work overshadowed much of the rest of her artistic output. She tried to regard the work without seriousness; attempting to strip it of its status. She resented continually being asked about the sculpture throughout her career, and would often even refuse to talk about it when it came up in conversation.

Along with her surrealist sculpture, Oppenheim was deeply entrenched with surrealist fashion, having previously collaborated with the designer Elsa Schiaparelli on the fur bracelet that became the conduit for Object. She fixated on the idea of removing objects from the context of their original functionality, creating items like Das Paar (1956), which was a pair of boots connected at the toe, or a ring that in place of a precious jewel setting, Oppenheim instead added a sugar cube.

Oppenheim’s obsession with both fashion and art collided in her work My Nurse, which the artist made in 1936 and later remade for her Moderna Museet retrospective in 1967. The sculpture features a pair of white heels, tied up and served on top of a silver platter. Atop the heel of each shoe is a ruffled paper cap, similar to those used to adorn a chicken or turkey. Combining the edible and the wearable, Oppenheim creates a juxtaposition that can be read as both silly and fetishistic. Grappling with ideas of sexuality and femininity, the tied shoes can be read as either a representation of female repression or more simply as out-of-place objects implicated in the absurd.

Meret Oppenheim in the Museum World

Meret Oppenheim’s first solo exhibition took place in Basel, Switzerland in 1936, at the Galerie Schulthess. Later that same year, she showed Object in the show “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism,” at the Museum of Modern Art. After first exhibiting at the MoMA in 1936, Oppenheim had several other important museum shows take place throughout her career. In 1967, Oppenheim had her first retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. She was also given exhibition space at Documenta 7 in Germany in 1983, making her one of only a few women artists of her age to be recognized during her lifetime. Oppenheim passed away in 1985 and left much of her archive to museums and libraries in Bern. Most recently, Oppenheim is getting her first transatlantic exhibition, and the largest exhibition of her work to take place in 25 years. The retrospective, “Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition,” opens on March 25, 2022, at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, and will later travel to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in October of 2022. The show’s title comes from one of Oppenheim’s last artistic endeavors, a series of 12 drawings, titled M.O.:My Exhibition (M.O.: Mon Exposition).

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