Meret Oppenheim. Sheet from M.O.: My Exhibition (M.O.: Mon Exposition). 1983. Pencil, colored pencil, and ballpoint pen on 12 sheets, each 25 1/2 × 19 11/16" (64.8 × 50 cm). Bürgi Collection, Bern

In black ballpoint pen on a small piece of graph paper, Meret Oppenheim wrote, “This ‘Imaginary Exhibition’ is only an example. I had to leave aside many works that for me are no less important.”1 She then glued that paper onto the first of a remarkable group of identically sized drawings created in anticipation of a major retrospective of her work, scheduled to open in September of 1984 at Kunsthalle Bern. The exhibition would be followed by presentations at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and other European venues; the possibility of it traveling to the United States had also been discussed.2 “When I heard that, after Bern, I would be showing in Paris and then in other countries and maybe even other continents,” Oppenheim told an interviewer, “I thought to myself, this is getting serious. . . . I sat down and made a series of twelve drawings on large sheets of paper, about 24 × 28 inches: an imaginary exhibition from the earliest days—drawings as a child included—to the present. I left out a lot of important things and I made the selection so that a thread runs through the show. There has to be some sort of unity in an exhibition like this. And I was tired of the mixed-up shows that had been mounted before.”3

Meret Oppenheim. Sheet from M.O.: My Exhibition (M.O.: Mon Exposition). 1983

Meret Oppenheim. Sheet from M.O.: My Exhibition (M.O.: Mon Exposition). 1983

These twelve Imaginary Exhibition drawings—likely begun in the artist’s studio in Paris, in December 1983—feature meticulous renderings, in pencil and colored pencil, of more than two hundred of her works, ranging in date from childhood drawings, made at age ten, to her most recent works, made at age seventy.4 Oppenheim numbered the sheets from 1 to 12 in pencil in the upper right-hand corner, indicating her concern with sequence, and provided a date range for each one. She more or less adhered to these ranges, with one notable exception: Drawing 1 (above) is labeled “Childhood—1931–1934” but includes several works from the 1950s and later—all of which had roots in the 1930s—as disruptions that signal the artist’s latest interests. Overall, however, the order established what Oppenheim characterized as a “more historically precise framework,” one of the strategies she had employed before, in 1974, to counter the undesirably “mixed-up” character of past shows.5

The manifestly labor-intensive quality of these drawings, with their detailed, precisely scaled depictions of hundreds of art objects, lovingly drawn and colored by hand, testifies to her seriousness in this task of artistic self-representation. The drawings’ immediate catalyst was the prospect of the 1984 exhibition, which would open just a year before Oppenheim’s death, at age seventy-two. Nevertheless, the retrospective act or intervention they represent was one she had been engaged with in various ways since the late 1950s, when the first synthetic postwar histories of European Surrealism began to be written.6 Oppenheim had been part of Parisian Surrealist circles as an active young artist and poet in the 1930s, and she did not suffer the same fate as all too many women artists of her generation—her name was not left out of the history books entirely. As a woman she was, however, subjected to slander;7 she was objectified, as the nude subject of an infamous Man Ray photograph;8 and she was frequently portrayed as the art-historical equivalent of the music industry’s “one-hit wonder,” having created, at age twenty-two, what was and is widely acknowledged to be a quintessential Surrealist object: a fur-covered teacup, saucer, and spoon (right).

Meret Oppenheim. Object. 1936

Meret Oppenheim. Object. 1936

Art history’s myopic focus on that singular object, along with other misrepresentations of her practice, were perspectives that Oppenheim, over the years, sought to contest, control, and correct. One of the earliest such attempts was private: in 1958 she compiled an album of miniature drawings of artworks, personal photographs, early exhibition invitations and checklists, correspondence, and original works on paper—all of them, like the artworks in her Imaginary Exhibition, organized chronologically, beginning with childhood drawings.9 This was an early manifestation of Oppenheim’s efforts to clarify, in this case for herself, her role in events and to memorialize what she made and exhibited.10 Two years later, in 1960, she began to meticulously and thoroughly catalogue her work in a series of notebooks, which would eventually result in a published catalogue raisonné.11 During the 1970s and early 1980s, as interest grew in her past and present artistic practice, she became more active in shaping its public reception. She conspired with her friend, and later director of Kunstmuseum Bern, Hans Christoph von Tavel, on an idiosyncratic biography published in 1974, in the catalogue of a touring retrospective.12 She also granted numerous interviews. All these activities point to Oppenheim’s increasing awareness of the important role of documentation, contextualization, and historicization in the reception, perception, and interpretation of her work.

Meret Oppenheim. Sheets 1–6 from M.O.: My Exhibition (M.O.: Mon Exposition). 1983

Meret Oppenheim. Sheets 1–6 from M.O.: My Exhibition (M.O.: Mon Exposition). 1983

Among these different self-narrating projects, the Imaginary Exhibition drawings are visually and conceptually unique: they frame the project of assembling a retrospective exhibition as a creative act, as a carefully composed and multifaceted story that is at once utilitarian and artful, told in almost purely visual terms, and intended for use at a distinct moment in time. Perhaps the closest artistic parallel is Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise multiples, begun in 1935, which contain sixty-nine small-scale, fabricated reproductions of a representative range of his work, packed together in a box nested in a brown leather carrying case and constituting what he described as a “portable museum.”13 Yet Oppenheim’s conceptual paradigm is not that of a museum, with its connotations of permanence, but rather that of the temporary exhibition, which is by definition provisional and highly selective, and which constitutes, as her graph paper note insists, just one of many possibilities. That the twelve Imaginary Exhibition drawings present a career overview, as opposed to the career overview, makes them no less compelling: they collectively picture what Oppenheim thought important to represent in December 1983 about her life’s work.

Meret Oppenheim. Sheets 7–12 from M.O.: My Exhibition (M.O.: Mon Exposition). 1983

Meret Oppenheim. Sheets 7–12 from M.O.: My Exhibition (M.O.: Mon Exposition). 1983

This essay looks closely at the drawings themselves, in particular their narrative constructions and Oppenheim’s choices of which works to include and how to arrange them. It also explores the drawings’ relation to the physical exhibition as realized at Kunsthalle Bern in 1984, shifting back and forth between the “virtual wall[s]” laid out in her drawings, and the real space of the Kunsthalle’s galleries.14 Careful comparison of the exhibition and drawings points to another important distinction between Oppenheim’s Imaginary Exhibition project and Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise: while the latter’s sixty-nine pieces are open to manipulation and rearrangement, they comprise a self-contained, closed system—the works remain the same. By contrast, Oppenheim’s drawings are conceptually closer to an open-ended plan or blueprint that allows for revision. These essential, hard-to-classify drawings and the Bern installation they inspired raise significant questions: How does the process of personal reflection on one’s art and reputation meaningfully inform a retrospective exhibition of one’s own work? What self-authored model of Oppenheim’s art is proposed by these drawings? If such a model were taken seriously, how would it reshape existing art-historical narratives and hierarchies applied to her work and, more broadly, to twentieth-century modern art?

Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition today.

Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition, organized by Anne Umland, The Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art; Nina Zimmer, Director, Kunstmuseum Bern; and Natalie Dupêcher, Associate Curator of Modern Art, The Menil Collection; with Lee Colón, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, is on view at MoMA October 30, 2022–March 4, 2023.

  1. All translations from the French by Anne Umland, unless otherwise noted.

  2. The retrospective also traveled to Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich. Jacqueline Burckhardt, “O wie Oppenheim: Porträt einer poetischen Künstlerin,” Quarto, no. 48 (2020): 13.

  3. “Meret Oppenheim in Conversation with Rudolf Schmitz (1984),” in Christiane Meyer-Thoss, ed., Meret Oppenheim: Book of Ideas (Bern: Gachnang & Springer, 1996), 135.

  4. Throughout this essay, we have used the term Imaginary Exhibition, as indicated on Drawing 1, to refer to these works. In the catalogue raisonné, the title given is M.O.: My Exhibition. At one point, Oppenheim referred to them as her “ideal exhibition.” Bice Curiger, Meret Oppenheim: Defiance in the Face of Freedom, trans. Catherine Schelbert (Zurich: Parkett; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), 88; and Dominique Bürgi, email to Lee Colón, January 9, 2021.

  5. Oppenheim, “Spuren zu einer Biographie, gesichert durch Hans Christoph von Tavel,” in André Kamber, Meret Oppenheim (Solothurn, Switzerland: Museum der Stadt Solothurn, 1974), 204–10. Translation by Colón, with Nora Lohner

  6. Marcel Jean’s Histoire de la peinture surréaliste (Paris: Éditions du Seuil) was published in 1959. That same year André Breton, José Pierre, and others staged the Exposition inteRnatiOnal du Surréalisme, at Daniel Cordier’s gallery in Paris, in which Oppenheim was represented.

  7. The most notable example being Patrick Waldberg’s portrayal of Oppenheim in his Max Ernst monograph, first published in 1958. See Oppenheim, Worte nicht in giftige Buchstaben einwickeln, ed. Lisa Wenger and Martina Corgnati (Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2015), 205.

  8. This photograph was first published in 1934, in Minotaure, no. 5. The images from that photo session are frequently reproduced in the literature on Surrealism in general and Oppenheim in particular.

  9. The album is reproduced in facsimile in Worte nicht, 87–198, and Lisa Wenger and Martina Corgnati, ed., Meret Oppenheim—My Album (Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2022).

  10. “In 1958 she created ‘for myself, so that all of my childhood and the first half of my life would not sink into the fog of the past,’ a ‘chronicle [Chronik].’” Oppenheim, “Spuren zu einer Biographie,” 204.

  11. Curiger, Defiance in the Face of Freedom, 134.

  12. Oppenheim, “Spuren zu einer Biographie,” 204–10.

  13. Marcel Duchamp, interview by James Johnson Sweeney, 1955, quoted in Elena Filipovic, The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2016), 90, 301n33.

  14. Jean-Hubert Martin has used the term “virtual wall” to describe the space depicted in the drawings. Martin, email to Umland, November 29, 2020.