“If you speak a new language of your own that others have yet to learn, you may have to wait a very long time for a positive echo.”
“There is one thing I do not want you to ask me,” Meret Oppenheim told an interviewer in 1978. It was spring in New York, and the Swiss artist’s latest work was on display at an uptown gallery. Meanwhile, her most famous work—about which she flatly refused to answer questions—was installed 20 blocks south, in MoMA’s galleries on 53rd Street. “I have been asked so often,” Oppenheim complained, “‘How did you have the idea of the fur cup?’ It bores me.”
More than 40 years had passed since the artist, at the age of 22, wore a bracelet of her own design, luxuriously lined in fur, to meet friends Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso at the Café Flore in Paris. As her tea cooled, the young artist quipped, “Garçon, more fur!” suggesting, with decadent absurdity, that the café waiter put a muff on her teacup for warmth. When she saw André Breton, Surrealism’s leader, soon after in St-Germain, she decided to carry out the joke for an exhibition of objects he announced. Oppenheim bought a cup, saucer, and spoon and covered these household items in short-haired fur, calling the end result simply Object. “What amused me,” the artist said, “was the contrast between porcelain and fur, like the metal/fur in the bracelet.” Breton, however, displayed the work under a more suggestive title—Breakfast in Fur—and it was under this name that the object came to be widely regarded as an iconic object of Surrealism; its veiled eroticism succeeded in both attracting and repelling viewers.
Oppenheim was not just an object maker, and she worked across mediums even at this early stage in her artistic development. The painting Red Head, Blue Body (1936) illustrates her interest in ambiguously animate forms, which she also explored in ink and gouache, in lipstick and string, and in other conventional and unconventional art materials during this period. Made in the same year as Object, the two-dimensional work depicts biomorphic shapes—an irregular red circle hovers above a nebulous dark blue base—wrapped in a network of lines resembling a pulley system. The lines seem to suspend and connect the organic forms. As with the fur-covered cup, base matter comes to life in the artist’s hands.
In 1937 Oppenheim returned to Switzerland, where she would remain during World War II. Lacking a formal art education, she enrolled at the Basel School of Design and trained as a conservator; the few works that remain from this difficult period show the artist’s growing knowledge of traditional painting techniques. It wasn’t until 1954 that Oppenheim set up a studio in Bern and began working again with more frequency, producing extraordinary sculptures that incorporate objects found in nature, as well as paintings, drawings, and collages that demonstrate the artist’s close engagement with the Swiss landscape and with the techniques of abstraction.
In 1967, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm organized the first major retrospective of her work at a moment that was ripe for the reconsideration of female artists and precedents; the exhibition provided exposure and appreciation for the full scope of Oppenheim’s multifaceted career. In an acceptance speech for the City of Basel Art Prize in 1975, Oppenheim took issue with the term “woman artist” and advocated for a proposed “androgyny of the spirit” as a necessary condition for art, earning her the admiration of a younger generation. “If you speak a new language of your own, that others have yet to learn,” she cautioned, “you may have to wait a very long time for a positive echo.”
Lee Colón, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2022