Meret Oppenheim

Museo di Palazzo Bianco

All periods from Meret Oppenheim’s career were represented here—paintings, sculptures, and compositions of objects spanning the period from the ’30s to the present were arranged in a mix that didn’t so much follow a chronological order as emphasize the characteristics of the works. In fact, Oppenheim’s body of work does not appear divided into recognizable periods; rather, there is a single period, faceted like a gem. Youth and maturity do not seem to follow progressively, but coexist like the right and left hands of a single body. At any moment they can fold around each other, becoming indistinguishable.

All Oppenheim’s work is marked by a precise use of metaphor. The choice of abstract or figurative image is not important; what matters is the preservation of freedom, and in this the work ends up less normative and forced than many examples of expressionism. This sense of freedom is not always obvious—it moves in indirections, so as to evade and confuse. In Tisch mit Vogelfüssen (Table with bird feet, 1939) the two legs of a table end in large bird’s feet, and the tracks of such feet are marked on the table’s surface. Did the bird somehow walk on top of itself? Such conundrums are the basis of Oppenheim’s art. Her anarchic guerrilla tactics have nothing in common with today’s new painting; where the latter theorizes freedom from within the prison of style, the constant antidogmatic stance of Oppenheim’s work prevents it from being enchained by that which it negates.

The work constantly changes. Linking transgression, reversal, and transformation, it finds its iconic means in spiral or serpentine images and in the use of filamentlike materials like hemp or hair. Peitschenschlange (Serpent-whip, 1970) is among the more clearly serpent-related works; the alternating perspectives and color schemes in the oil painting Dschungelfluss mit Einbaum oder Krokodil (Jungle river with dugout or crocodile, 1975), or the movement of the small fist against the double spiral in Das Ohr von Giacommetti (Giacometti’s ear, a 1959 bronze version of a 1933 drawing), is also serpentine. So is the transmutation of the bronze forms in Sechs Wolken auf einer Brücke (Six clouds on a bridge, 1963–75), in which geometric and irregular shapes are united like actors on a stage.

The formal principle underlying Oppenheim’s work is proliferation. The multitude of paths, the infinite forays into form, are like a thread that winds itself in a ball, intertwining, breaking, turning back to pick up a former path. The 1975 tempera Der Traum von der weissen Marmorschildköte mit Hufeisen an den Füssen (The dream of the white marble tortoise with horseshoes on its feet) shows a cloudy threaded form enveloping the body of a tortoise suspended above a fireplace. In Am Horizont (On the horizon, 1979) the oblique columns and matted roof of a small eccentric temple are made of hemp; on the roof sits a ceramic rose. The line in the hatching of the drawings and in numerous paintings, used both in backgrounds and in the picturing of objects, is related. In Rötlicher Mond und Zypressen vor schwarzem Himmel (Red moon and cypresses in black sky, 1975) the sense of lunar light and form ensues from the thinning out of linear brushstrokes, like weakenings in a web. Within a precise metaphysical geometry, Gestirn von zwölf Planeten umkreist (Star surrounded by 12 planets, 1976) shows a painterly gesture that suggests a recurring undulation through space.

Oppenheim’s anarchic spirit links the varied moments along her path, but many images of order appear in the work—the visions of harmony (subversive elements are also present, however) in Gestirn von zwölf Planeten umkreist, for example, or in Teich in einem Park (Pool in a park, 1975). Then there is the parody of order in Bon appétit Marcel!, 1966, dedicated to Duchamp: a knife, fork, plate, and two glasses rest on a waxed-canvas chessboard; in the center of the plate is a molded biscuit with a fishbone inserted into it—an evocation of masculine and feminine suggesting the androgynous, and made into a sacrificial offering.

The images of the androgyne and of the jewel box lie at opposite poles of the spectrum of Oppenheim’s work. The jewel box offers entry to the marvelous. Into this archetype falls the imagery of Altes Grab im Wald (Ancient tomb in the forest, 1977) and of Der Eingang (The entrance, 1974). The latter was one of the most beautiful works in the show: a curved stone rests on a wooden slab; at the center of the stone is a small square cavity, the opening of which is obscured by strings of colored pearls. In Röntgenaufnahme des Schädels M.O. (X-ray of M.O.’s skull, 1964), the outline of earrings and a pearl necklace are preserved along with the spectral shape of the skeleton. The image of death is more regal than ironic.

Luciana Rogozinsky

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.