Saturday 30 May 2009

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985)

Born in Berlin in 1913, Oppenheim passed her childhood in Switzerland and southern Germany where her father, a doctor long interested in Jung's ideas, had a country medical practice.

Her aunt had at one time been married to Herman Hesse; her grandmother had studied painting in Dusseldorf in the 1880s and later became well known as a writer of novels and children's stories and as an activist in the Swiss League for Women's Rights.

Oppenheim took the latter's example to heart, decided at an early age not to marry at all or at least not until later in life, and began hiding a sketchbook inside her hymnal during long and tedious church services.

At sixteen, stimulated by an exhibition of Bauhaus work at the Basel Kunsthalle that included the number paintings of Paul Klee, she produced her first "surrealist" work, an equation between X and a drawing of a rabbit in a school notebook. She wouki later present this first Cahier d'une Ecoliere to the Surrealist leader, Andre Breton.

Leaving school the following year, Oppenheim met some of the artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit and began making pen and ink watercolors, many of which have an air of expressive caricature not unlike that of Klee's early etchings.

She arrived in Paris in May 1932, rented a room at the Hotel Odessa in Montparnasse, and enrolled briefly at the Academic de la Grande Chaumiere.

Soon bored by the academic routine at the academy, she began to spend her days in galleries and cafes, writing her first poems in the Cafe du Dome where she met Giacometti in 1933. Through him she met Sophie Taeuber and Hans Arp, Kurt Seligmann and Max Ernst. Giacometti and Arp became her first artistic mentors; Ernst and Man Ray her intimate companions.

Giacometti, who was earning a living making furniture and objects, encouraged her to make her first Surrealist object, a small piece titled Giacometti's Ear (1933). He and Arp invited her to exhibit with them at the Salon des Surindependents in 1933; after that she frequented Surrealist meetings and gatherings, increasingly identifying her life and her art with the movement.

Her youth and beauty, her free spirit and uninhibited behavior, her precarious walks on the ledges of high buildings, and the "surrealist" food she concocted from marzipan in her studio, all contributed to the creation of an image of the Surrealist woman as beautiful, independent, and creative.

But this public persona was of little help, in fact was almost certainly a hindrance, in her search for artistic maturity. The objects that insured her place in subsequent histories of the movement offer flashes of brilliance rather than evidence of sustained artistic growth, and she was, even at that time, conflicted and uncertain about her life as an artist.

She had been named after the Meretlein or "Little Meret" of Gottfried Keller's story Green Henry.

Participated in Surrealist meetings and exhibitions until 1937 and again, more sporadically, after the war until shortly before Breton's death in 1966.

First one-woman exhibition at the Galerie Schulthess, Basel, in 1933.

Her fur-lined teacup, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1937, was chosen by visitors to the exhibition as the quintessential Surrealist symbol.

Oppenheim's return to Basel in 1937 marked the beginning of an eighteen-year period of artistic crisis and redirection.

In 1939 she took part in an exhibition of fantastic furniture with Leonor Fini, Max Ernst, and others at the Galerie Rene Druin and Leo Castelli in Paris.

A major retrospective of her work was organized by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1967.

For the latter part of her life, lived and worked in Berne and Paris.


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In this blog I intend to do some historical justice to the many, many women who have contributed with their genius, creativity, adventurous spirit, nurturing - amongst other qualities - to the apparent linear and male dominated prescribed notion of History. This is just the beggining.