PRINT Summer 1978

Meret Oppenheim: Confrontations

SURREALIST OBJECTS ARE FETISHES attuned to disorientation. Lautréamont, the great forerunner of Surrealism, is to the fetish-maker what liquor is to the driver, the propelling spirit of accidents. Picasso’s Bicycle, Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder, Giacometti’s Hour of Traces and Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Cup are perhaps the most famous of all.

The usual explanation for the last object is Freudian, associating a cup of fur with female sex. However, unlike Dalí, Meret Oppenheim is not apt to exploit the sexual chiaroscuro. In an interview with the poet Alain Jouffroy, Oppenheim traced the origin of this object to a conversation she had at the Café de Flore with Picasso and Dora Maar while wearing a bracelet that she had fashioned by wrapping a wire in fur. Picasso remarked jokingly that there was practically nothing that could not be covered in fur. Taking their cue from this observation, all three pointed to various objects around them that might be wrapped. Meret said, “Or this cup.” It happened that two weeks later Breton asked Meret to make a piece for a forthcoming Surrealist exhibition. So she went right to a uniprix and bought cup, saucer and spoon.

Since a cup of coffee is the minimum price one pays at a café for the pleasure of chatting with friends, the fur cup can metaphorically denote a shift of interest from the oral pleasure of drinking to the oral pleasure of conversing. Meret’s object is a celebration of the Surrealist conversation rather than some pointless confirmation of Freud’s method of analysis. The original title of the Fur Cup, Déjeuner en fourure, suggests that it is a complementary opposite of the Déjeuner sur l’herbe—which is then viewed as a pre-Freudian repast since its women are revealed merely bodily.

In that same year, 1936, Meret Oppenheim made an object bearing the trilingual title Ma Gouvernante, My Nurse, Mein Kindermachen. It consists of two white linen pumps bound together, their heels adorned with paper chef’s “boots” or cuffs, served on a dish like a pair of lamb chops. Elena Calas pointed out that the cuffs and pumps recall the stiff collar, cuffs and headdress worn by nurses in earlier days. The gouvernante, succeeding the nurse in the home of the privately reared children, shifts the emphasis from physical needs to cultural demands in speech and manners. In Ma Gouvernante . . . the transition from the gustative to the verbal fixation is stressed by the double meaning attributed to the shoes, which are paired so as to recall the image of a woman’s “chops.” As this metaphor is presented on a dish, in the likeness of some display at an elegant restaurant, we tend to associate its eroticism with a ceremonial occasion. And in another work, a pair of délaissées (abandoned) boots, with tips irretrievably glued together, entitled A délacer (to unlace), 1956, parodies an endless kiss. This witty object pursues the commerce of ideas on shoe fetishism so dear to the Surrealists, from Dali to Klaphek.

On the opening night of the Exposition inte R nati O nal du Surrealisme (E.R.O.S.) in Paris, in December of 1959, Meret Oppenheim prepared a banquet for a group of men and women. The table held as a centerpiece a naked girl decorated with succulent lobsters and various culinary delicacies. Unlike “happenings,” such Surrealist events stress the ceremonial aspect: Meret did this by resorting to a festive metaphor.

Bon appetit, Marcel (1966) consists of a white plaster chess queen on a plastic dish, together with a knife and fork, placed on linoleum chess squares. For an exhibition which I was planning on the theme of “games without rules,” Oppenheim produced a set of wind chimes. She comments:

I reflected, do games without rules exist?—No. Yet one says that wind plays with foliage, with waves. Thus play without rules. To show this play of wind, the idea of chimes came to me. The long strips of glass which are the chimes brought up the idea of “rulers.” By chance in English, “ruler” translates as “rule” (a pity this word play does not work in German.) So I had “rulers” made in glass, to be placed among the other pieces of glass, those painted with flowers. There: games without rules —with rules. To prove that games without rules do not exist which proves but my pleasure in contradiction.

While in Ma Gouvernante the fusion of chops and shoes is imagistic, in the wind chimes the fusion of glass ribbons and rulers is instrumental, since the latter have been blended to the tune.

Total fusion finds its most forceful expression in the myth of the androgyne, which was particularly dear to the Surrealists. Meret made an impressive version of it, a wooden sculpture consisting of two limbless, conjoined figures with a common head. Both retain their distinct contours; the broader one is reminiscent of a primitive mother goddess, the slenderer, superimposed on the other, reminds one of the torso of an archaic youth. The meaning of the work is hidden under the title Mask (1959).

Three years ago Meret masked her own image upon a hand mirror designed for a portfolio on the theme of the mirror after Picasso, entitled The Love of Polyphemus.1 It thrusts back at Meret’s face a face pressed against the looking glass, with eyes fused into one, nose crushed, and tongue encountering the unappetizing polished surface.

Unlike Eve’s apple, the image of one’s self can never be tasted. The true androgyne can only be conceived in terms of a physical and emotional communion of two individuals of opposite sexes. Regardless of how androgynous the make-up of each partner may be, Meret remains true to her vocation by using the alchemy of terms to cultivate an ambiguous, epigrammatic, iconic statement.

Meret Oppenheim’s recent—and first—American solo exhibition embraced works from the last two decades. Wisely enough, she chose not to drink for the rest of her life from the cup of her early Surrealist successes. So, like the serpent, she changes her skin. On the face of it, Secret Vegetation (1972) might be seen as a herboreal pattern, an ivy-vine. Stylistically, it evokes an Art Nouveau era adapted to the contemporary preference for geometrically defined spaces. The vegetation has its roots in the unconscious: on either side of a well-paved road, an electrically charged serpent writhes to the tune of “All flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6;I Peter 1:24). A shower of white rectangles falls upon the ground, enriching it with neat packages of light, superimposing pattern upon pattern. One serpent stares with a creative blue eye, the other clouds from the sight of death. Between these two extremes, there is the male-female antithesis. “It was to Eve that the serpent gave the fruit of wisdom,” says Meret. Some years ago Meret’s androgynous stance prompted her to refuse participation in an all-women’s show in California. She feels opposed to sexual racism.

Meret gazes into the darkest Jungian forests. Boat and Cloud (1963), a polychrome statuette, is built of dry “spuck,” a synthetic material, around a concealed armature. The boat’s mast, restored to its original state, that of a tree, spreads branches right and left—perhaps as wind repellents? A cloud as heavy as a roof tops the tree. Immobility and voyage are one with sky and earth.

HM-HM (1969) is a shaped-canvas enchantress with an oil painting of a mammoth moth forming her head, the ears curved horizontally above the eyes. Her Picassoid nose is an overturned toy boat roughly carved out of a wood block. A second canvas, an elongated rectangle, accommodates the enchantress’ robed body, a blue trunk against a more neutral field of color. A twig of an arm creeps along the edge of the canvas to meet a painted cane.

Meret’s assemblages are sometimes brutal and read like violent poems. The Knife (1934/75) is locked within the secret of blond hair. Having cut the victim’s throat, the blade remains with her glued hair. The buttons of her blouse are also there—small dotted cubes. Bad luck! X-Ray /Photograph (1969): beauty is skin-deep; insight penetrates. A profile view of Meret’s own skull reveals the presence of foreign bodies, jewels with which she has bedecked herself for the portrait. In a whimsical mood Meret invented The Dreaming Caterpillar (1966). Can creeping things dream? Meret’s caterpillar has plumed its back with the image of its secret desire to grow wings or flower-petals. Explains Meret: “It has not yet learned to differentiate the one from the other.”

Meret Oppenheim is playing a deadly serious pictorial “language game.” The alchemy of images is justifiable when and only when it regenerates symbols. Our cultural archetypes have to be refilled. We cannot rest on the known Surrealist paradigms. To change the existing state of affairs we have to retain our hope in the unseen, which is what Meret Oppenheim’s metaphors convey.

Nicolas Calas



1. Mirrors of the Mind, introduction by Nicolas Calas, portfolio published by Multiples and Castelli Graphics, New York, 1975.