Meret Oppenheim: Mon Exposition

Nina Zimmer

Magazine issue: 
#1 2022 (74)

To this day, Meret Oppenheim is best known as a Surrealist artist, however, the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bern also shows her as a contemporary artist from the 1950s to 1980s - always closely connected to the Swiss art scene and current international trends. This is evident in works such as “Octavia”, “Genoveva” or “Flower of the Fog”.

Meret Oppenheim. Meret OPPENHEIM. A Distant Relative. 1966
Meret OPPENHEIM. A Distant Relative. 1966
Plastic in bronzed iron frame. 27 × 33 × 16 cm
The Klewan Collection, Belvedere Museum, Vienna
Photo: Peter Frese
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich

Meret Oppenheim became famous as a very young artist in the context of Surrealism. She was to suffer from this later, like many other artists whose oeuvre developed over a long period of time and who went beyond the conceptual framework within which their first works were received and established in the context of art history. This structural problem in art history had an extreme impact on Oppenheim’s reception. As she was already on the radar of the art critics as a very young woman in the context of Surrealism, this early work became the benchmark for an artistic practice that, however, spanned almost five more decades until her death in 1985. Many phases of her work were - and, in some cases, still are - received exclusively under the banner of Surrealism.

Meret Oppenheim in her studio, 1982
Meret Oppenheim in her studio, 1982
Photograph, selenium toned baryta paper print. 18.4 × 27.7 cm
Photo: Margrit Baumann
© Margrit Baumann
Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern. Foundation for Photography, Film and Video

Oppenheim herself vehemently opposed any one-sided appropriation. She responded to the reduction of her oeuvre to her “Breakfast in Fur” (“Le Dejeuner en fourrure”) with inflationary self-quotations. Her correspondence, including in interviews and texts she edited herself, makes clear that she was very conscious and critical of her reception and tried to steer it away from cliches.

The other perfectly corresponding cliche that is often found in literature is that of “unclassifiability”, especially with regard to her work since the 1950s. Jean-Christophe Ammann called it “discontinuity in appearance”. “Oppenheim’s work is multi-layered and (...) eludes any conventional categorization. That is what makes it so appealing, but it also poses a problem,” Ammann said back in 1982. From today’s perspective, it is difficult to see the problematic nature of qualities such as “complexity” and “discontinuity”. What qualities of Oppenheim’s artistic work were described by this? Is it, put quite simply, the abundance of non-art materials and everyday objects used by Meret Oppenheim? Are they references to different formal languages that critics read as incompatible or asynchronous? Or do these attributions manifest themselves rather as a stubborn remnant of an autonomous Modernist concept of work, the edges of which have become dissolved from a postmodern perspective? Is it because of our familiarity with contemporary artistic strategies that we now readily accept that artistic languages elude the pressures of recognition and branding and that artistic languages can hide behind a mimicry of quoted and collaged stylistic affinities? Can we contrast the historicist-chronological model of art history of “who comes first” with the qualities of a simultaneity of the non-simultaneous?

Meret Oppenheim. Octavia (Oktavia).. 1969
Meret OPPENHEIM. Octavia (Oktavia). 1969
Oil on wood and molded substance with saw. 187 × 47 × 4 cm
Private collection, Bern
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich

After marrying Wolfgang La Roche, Oppenheim moved to Bern in 1949. She took on a studio and was soon immersing herself intensively in the diverse Swiss scene of those years. Important works such as “Octavia” (1969) were created - a life-size pictorial object consisting of a painted wooden panel and a commercially available hand saw with two handles, known in German as a "fox tail”. The model was so popular that you can still buy it on auction sites like Ricardo. The saw is applied on the left-hand side of the wooden panel. Oppenheim sawed the panel in such a way that the shape of the saw blade is inscribed in an idol-like figure. She transferred the curved shape of the handle to the panel for the design of the head shape. The second, flexible handle at the other end of the saw blade was straightened by her and, as a dangling stick, marks the transition to the stele-like foot of the figure, characterised by an imitation tree bark surface. The outlines of the saw were transferred by Oppenheim to the right-hand side of the panel and painted in a metallic colour. In the place of the hole in the handle, she placed a large eye, resulting in an axisymmetric pair of eyes. She added a smooth little nose in plaster of Paris and applied a pink-coloured tongue, the tip of which licks at the precise point on the saw where the handle merges into the blunt upper side of the saw blade.

It is striking that Oppenheim blends different forms of wood and, each time, it was sawn: from the false tree trunk to the panel itself shaped by the sawing to the wooden handles of the saw. This semantic space is broken by the artist’s illusionistic interventions, which develop the structure as a human-like figure and charge it with various sexual images. The literature talks of a fear of castration, as embodied by the saw. However, the Italian linguistic image, in which saws stand for male masturbation, is more evident. In concrete terms, licking the "fox tail” could also have an impact on the dangling piece of wood, whose wing-nut screw would at least allow other positions.

On the one hand, what we are dealing with here is a bachelor machine; on the other hand - given the female name Octavia - the character combines the male and female in itself, following Oppenheim’s philosophy of the androgyny of the sexes. The use of the everyday object of a "saw" can be located in the Dadaist-Surrealist tradition of newly interpreting and reinterpreting everyday objects. However, the chronology and lines of influence are not nearly as straightforward. Duchamp produced various new versions of his “Readymades” in the 1960s, including a version of the snow shovel in 1964 based on the lost original from 1915. This happened in the context of the French Neo-avant-garde and Nouveau Realisme.

Metal objects such as tools were the preferred materials of this artistic group. Their members had set themselves the goal of exploding the sublime aura of the fine arts. By turning away from the abstract, informal painting of postwar Modernism, which they found too self-centred, and towards adhesive and collage techniques as well as found materials, they sought to integrate the reality of everyday life into art. This tied in with the objets trouves tradition of Dadaism. The group consisted mostly of French and Swiss artists. Oppenheim was right in the middle of this context. She was close friends with key representatives such as Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Daniel Spoerri. From Oppenheim’s correspondence we learn that that her friendship with Tinguely went back to the war years in Basel, when Tinguely was not yet 20 years old. The friendship with Spoerri developed in 1956 when they were working together on a play in Bern. The venue was an old town cellar in the small theatre at Kramgasse 6 and the work performed was the German-language premiere of “Desire Caught by the Tail”. It was written by Pablo Picasso and staged by Isaac Tarot, actually a pseudonym of Spoerri, who had come to Bern from Paris as a dancer and was now trying his hand at the stage before making a name for himself in the art world.

A film documenting the rehearsals shows Meret Oppenheim and Lilly Keller in the role of the curtains from the play. In 1959, Spoerri moved to Paris, where he also met Tinguely. The correspondence between Spoerri and Oppenheim was extensive and their exchanges particularly intense in the 1960s. From 1972, in addition to her studio in Bern, Meret Oppenheim took on a studio in Paris again and moved here and there in her circles of artist friends.

The sculpture “Genoveva” was created in 1971. The starting point is a found rough wooden panel, or rather a board, the contours of which have been modified with just a few interventions, in such a way that the outlines of a body versus the shape of a head become visible. Oppenheim inserted wooden poles into the notches, which can be interpreted as being the figure’s arms. The work is based on a preliminary drawing from 1942, which is inscribed on the reverse with “Tombeau Genevieve” (Genevieve’s grave).

She chose the title “Genoveva” for the work and explicitly referred to the mythological figure of Genoveva, a legend from the High Middle Ages that was primarily taken up again by 19th-century German Romanticism. Genoveva was unjustly accused of infidelity by her husband, who was a Count Palatine, and was abandoned in the forest for years, then later rehabilitated. In interviews, Oppenheim repeatedly explained her personal identification with the Genoveva myth. Just as the young Countess Palatine was chased out of the palace through no fault of her own, she herself had to leave Paris and her circle of friends there because of the approaching Second World War and found herself stranded in the “forest”, in the comparatively provincial Basel, where her artistic productivity was severely restricted by depression. The rough-hewn board blotted with grey oil paint symbolises the exposure of the Countess Palatine and the artist.

Oppenheim used the Genoveva material for a number of works. However, for none of these works did she use such obviously “poor” materials. Although she often opulently mixed materials for other objects, adding plaster of Paris and painting them, she here restricts herself to the lightly worked wood she has found. This and other works from the 1970s testify to a proximity to Italian Arte Povera. Oppenheim was particularly interested in Marisa Merz, who exhibited in the context of Arte Povera in 1982 at Rudi Fuchs’s “Documenta 7,” where Oppenheim was also represented. In an interview, Oppenheim emphasised her appreciation for Merz. If you compare a work by Merz, such as “Untitled, 1977,” with “Genoveva,” there are definitely similarities: the wooden door that Merz chose for her work, like the piece of wood that Oppenheim uses, is staged with all its signs of age and use. In the case of Merz, these are the remains of newspaper, rust, stains and metal fittings; in that of Oppenheim, dents and scratches as well as traces of paint. Both works not only display the atmospheric qualities of the found material, but also clearly show the act of artistic intervention that triggers the poetic transformation. The chessboard-like organised copper wire mesh in Merz, the contouring of the panel in the sense of a figure and the attachment of arms in Oppenheim.

The “Flower of the Fog” from 1974 belongs to another important group of works by Oppenheim, created in Bern. In these, she strives for the greatest possible reduction of her painterly expression and approaches monochrome painting languages. It is above all the non-colour white that she approaches with minimal tonal differences. The vegetal figuration called for in the title appears in white, contrasting with the negative forms of shaded-off grey and white. In each case, Oppenheim uses an associative bridge to immerse herself in these increasingly abstract colour spaces. A whole group of works therefore bears titles such as “Nebelkopf” (“Mist Head”), “Verborgenes im Nebel” (“Hidden in the Fog”), “Nebelgebilde” (“Fog Shapes”), “Mann im Nebel” (“Man in the Fog”) or just “Nebelblume” (“Flower of Fog”). The literature mainly refers to the symbolic levels of meaning of these images, their structural similarity to dream images and other ephemeral images. It is striking that Oppenheim sometimes chooses the largest formats for these works that she will ever choose for her paintings. This may be related to the strong presence of American abstract painting in Bern and Basel in those years, for which the large format was a matter of course. Arnold RQdlinger, director of the Kunsthalle Bern, showed contemporary American paintings in a series of exhibitions in the 1950s, some of them for the first time in Europe. RQdlinger and Oppenheim were close friends. In 1956, RQdlinger moved to the Kunsthalle Basel, where he again showed important exhibitions of American postwar art. During this period, while on a famous journey, he bought works by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, among others, directly from the studios in New York for the Kunstmuseum Basel. Correspondence with Oppenheim shows that he invited her to his exhibition openings with detailed personal letters and exchanged closely with her on issues related to art and theory. He names a painting by Sam Francis, as if returning to a common joke about a monochrome picture, as “Sams Gebirgsinfanterie im Nebel” (“Sam’s Mountain Infantry in the Fog”), which has now stepped into the brightest light in the exhibition. RQdlinger’s successor as director of the Kunsthalle Bern was Franz Meyer, with whom Oppenheim became close friends after an initial romance.

Meyer also gave American postwar art a lot of space in his exhibition programme. Among other things, in 1960, he held a solo exhibition by Francis, who lived in Bern for a year in about 1961 due to lengthy medical treatment. Francis had created entire groups of works of white monochromes and many of these paintings were on display in his exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern. Meyer’s successor, Harald Szeemann, continued the US program in Bern. For example, the radically reduced white works by Robert Ryman were first seen in Europe at the Kunsthalle in Bern, in Szeemann’s renowned exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” from 1969.

Even though Oppenheim was connected to the Bern art scene in many ways, she was long regarded as a special case. She was well known, she was a friend, but her art was not easily digestible by many of her contemporaries. Her exhibitions were extremely rare in Bern. A highlight for Oppenheim was therefore her retrospective, organised for her by the Kunsthalle Bern in 1984. She chose “Mon exposition” as the title, which can certainly be read as a self-confident statement in which she is asserting her own access to her artistic development. This is reason enough for us to place her retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Bern under the same sign.

Meret Oppenheim. Quick, Quick, the Most Beautiful Vowel is Voiding, M[ax].E[rnst]. by M[eret]. O[ppenheim]. 1934
Meret OPPENHEIM. Quick, Quick, the Most Beautiful Vowel is Voiding, M[ax].E[rnst]. by M[eret]. O[ppenheim]. 1934
Oil on canvas. 45.5 × 65 cm
Bürgi Collection, Bern
Photo: Roland Aellig, Bern
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Red Head, Blue Body. 1936
Meret OPPENHEIM. Red Head, Blue Body. 1936
Oil on canvas. 80.2 × 80.3 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Meret Oppenheim Bequest
Photo: Jonathan Muzikar
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Enchantment. 1962
Meret OPPENHEIM. Enchantment. 1962
Painted cardboard and oil on wood. 76.5 × 84.5 × 11.1 cm
Kunstmuseum Bern, Meret Oppenheim Bequest
Photo: Peter Lauri, Bern
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Some of the Uncounted Faces of Beauty. 1942
Meret OPPENHEIM. Some of the Uncounted Faces of Beauty. 1942
Oil on canvas. 81 × 54 cm
Private collection
Photo: Gerhard Howald, Kirchlindach, Bern
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Ma Gouvernante – My Nurse – Mein Kindermädchen. 1936/1967
Meret OPPENHEIM. Ma Gouvernante – My Nurse – Mein Kindermädchen. 1936/1967
Metal plate, shoes, string and paper. 14 × 33 × 21 cm
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Photo: Albin Dahlström
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Spring Day. 1961
Meret OPPENHEIM. Spring Day. 1961
Oil on plaster and wood with wire basket. 50 × 34 cm
Private collection
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Mask with “Bäh“ Tongue. Undated
Meret OPPENHEIM. Mask with “Bäh“ Tongue. Undated
Wire mesh, plastic and velvet. 9 × 30 × 20 cm
Private collection, Switzerland
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Octopus’s Garden. 1971
Meret OPPENHEIM. Octopus’s Garden. 1971
Collage and blue transparent foil. 55.5 × 55.5 cm
Galerie Ziegler SA, Zurich
Photo: P. Schälchli, Zurich
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Fur Gloves. 1936/1984
Meret OPPENHEIM. Fur Gloves. 1936/1984
Fur, wood and nail polish. 5 × 21 × 10 cm
Ursula Hauser Collection, Switzerland
Photo: Stefan Altenburger
Photography, Zürich
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Squirrel. 1960/1969
Meret OPPENHEIM. Squirrel. 1960/1969
Beer glass, plastic foam and fur. 21.5 × 13 × 7.5 cm
Kunstmuseum Bern
Photo: Peter Lauri, Bern
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Genoveva (Genevieve). 1942
Meret OPPENHEIM. Genoveva (Genevieve). 1942
Pencil, watercolour on paper. 27 × 21 cm
Kunstmuseum Bern, Meret Oppenheim Bequest
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich, Photo: Kunstmuseum Bern, recom Art Berlin
Meret Oppenheim. Genoveva (Genevieve). 1971
Meret Oppenheim. Genoveva (Genevieve). 1971
Oil on wood with two poles. 127 × 123 × 74 cm
Museum of Modern Art, Ludwig Foundation, Vienna
On loan from the Austrian Ludwig Foundation
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. The Green Spectator. 1959
Meret OPPENHEIM. The Green Spectator. 1959
Oil on lime wood with copper sheet. 166 × 49 × 15 cm
Kunstmuseum Bern
Photo: Peter Lauri, Bern
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich
Meret Oppenheim. Flower of Fog. 1974
Meret OPPENHEIM. Flower of Fog. 1974
Oil on canvas. 195 × 130 cm
Collection Daniel Staffelbach, Courtesy Gerber Stauffer Fine Arts, Zürich, and Krethlow Fine Art, Bern
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich,
Photo: Peter Schälchli
Meret Oppenheim. Six Clouds on a Bridge. 1975
Meret OPPENHEIM. Six Clouds on a Bridge. 1975
Bronze. 46.8 × 61 × 15.5 cm
Kunstmuseum Bern, Meret Oppenheim Bequest
Photo: Peter Lauri, Bern
© 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich





Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play