Swiss painter and sculptor of German birth. She studied in Basle at the Kunstgewerbeschule from 1929 to 1930. After seeing an exhibition of Bauhaus work, including that of Paul Klee, at the Basle Kunsthalle, Oppenheim produced her first Surrealist work, a series of pen-and-ink drawings in a school notebook. Oppenheim’s earliest works reflect the influence of Klee and the artists of Neue Sachlichkeit. She moved to Paris in 1932 and studied briefly at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière before meeting the Surrealists through Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp the following year. Oppenheim quickly became known as the perfect embodiment of the Surrealist woman, the femme-enfant, who through her youth, naivety and charm was believed to have more direct and spontaneous access to the realms of the dream and the unconscious. She was celebrated by the Surrealists as the ‘fairy woman whom all men desire’. Man Ray posed her nude with an etching press in a celebrated series of photographs that includes Erotique voilée (1933; see Minotaure, 5, 1934, p. 15). She first exhibited with the Surrealists in the Salon des Surindépendants in 1933, then participated in Surrealist meetings and exhibitions until 1937 and again, more sporadically, after World War II. Her participation ended shortly before André Breton’s death in 1966.
Oppenheim’s first one-woman exhibition took place at the Galerie Sohulthess, Basle in 1936. In 1933 Alberto Giacometti had encouraged her to make her first Surrealist object, a small work entitled Giacometti’s Ear (reproduced in bronze in an edition of two, 1959; see Curiger, p. 18). It was followed by a series of disturbing assemblages made from everyday items and suffused with latent erotic content, including Ma gouvernante, My Nurse, mein Kindermädchen (1936; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.)—a pair of women’s shoes tied on a platter, like a nude woman on her back with legs apart, frills on the heels—and Table with Bird’s Feet (1939; Paris, Jeanine Restany priv. col., see Curiger, p. 47). The best-known of these works, and the one on which Oppenheim’s early reputation as an artist rested, was Object (1936; New York, MOMA), the fur-lined cup, saucer and spoon, which was chosen by visitors to the exhibition of 1936–7, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (New York, MOMA), as the quintessential Surrealist object. The rich and disquieting poetic associations evoked by this piece brought international attention to the artist, although the precipitous fame of a single piece (produced when she was only 22) inhibited her subsequent development as an artist.
Oppenheim’s return to Basle in 1937 marked the beginning of a period of personal and artistic crisis during which she worked only in bursts and destroyed much of her production. In 1939 she took part in an exhibition of fantastic furniture with Leonor Fini, Max Ernst and others at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris. When she began working again during the 1950s, she made many works based on earlier sketches and ideas. In 1956 she designed the costumes and sets for Daniel Spoerri’s production of Picasso’s play Le Désir attrapé par la queue in Berne, and in 1959 she created the controversial object, Cannibal Feast, for the opening of the last International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris. The sculpture included a live nude model laid out on a table and covered with food and was criticized for depicting woman as an object of consumption; Oppenheim insisted that the work was instead intended as a spring fertility rite for both men and women. In 1983 Oppenheim designed the controversial Tour-fontaine in Berne (Waisenhausplatz), a tall concrete column wrapped with a garland of grass over a small watercourse. Her sculpture Spiral (1971) was erected on the Montagne Ste Geneviève in Paris in 1985.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press