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October 2013

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Renate Stendhal

She was an exceptionally beautiful young woman. Hair slicked back like a boy's, small breasts, long legs, and shy, heavy-lidded eyes. Next to her, the girlfriend with piled-up blond hair looked like a model for Renoir or Degas. Both were fledgling artists, having escaped their proper Swiss homeland for a bohème life in Paris.

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 At the CafĂ© de Flore, in 1936, Picasso and his model/lover Dora Maar admired the little metal bracelet the boyish young woman was wearing. She had made it herself, covered with a strip of fur. The group mused about the many odd things one could in fact cover in fur. Like this cup, she proposed. Then she did just that. When AndrĂ© Breton asked her the same year, to submit something to his next surrealist show, she covered a large French cup, saucer and spoon in gazelle fur, and Breton found the title: "Le Dejeuner en fourrure" (Breakfast in Fur).

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The allusion to Manet's risqué painting "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe," in addition to the disturbing idea of hot chocolate being served in the beastly cup, made the object an instant hit. A star was born, twenty-three-year-old Meret Oppenheim. The Museum of Modern Art in New York bought the cup straight off the table, so to speak, in 1936, perceiving the "Fur-lined Teacup" as the perfect emblem of Surrealism.

Young fame often carries a shadow. In Meret Oppenheim's case it led to the doubtful question whether she really was an artist or whether one celebrated object and her beauty were all she had, all the world wanted from her. The admiration of men like Breton and Giacometti, the passionate courtship by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and other famous artists, the glamour bestowed on her by Man Ray's photographic portraits and provocative nudes, were flattering and troubling to the young artist.

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She felt trapped in the energy field of overpowering artistic influences when she wanted to be free to find herself. (The first time she had shown her work, at the Paris Salon des Surindépendents, in 1933, the three paintings of the twenty-year-old had been surrounded by works of Dalì, Magritte, Ernst, Mirò, Man Ray and Kandinsky.) Her sudden fame did not translate into making a living. She tried to create fashion accessories (the furry bracelet she had worn at the Café Flore was bought by Schiaparelli for 12 Swiss francs), but she did not fit into the world of Haute Couture. Her ideas were often brilliant but macabre; too "surreal" and provocative to land her contracts. She struggled with depression. In 1938, with the threat of war, she returned home to her German-Jewish family who had recently emigrated from Germany to Switzerland.

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Her depression and self-doubt lasted for almost two decades. During this time she learned the practical, patient metier of restoring paintings, married, and went on struggling with the demons of art. She often destroyed the work she made, until in 1954 one of her many significant dreams (translated into paintings) announced that the crisis was over: she would find her artistic path.

Later, Meret Oppenheim complained about the surrealist label that stuck to her because of the "DĂ©jeuner en fourrure." For her, this early creation simply reflected the same elements most of her work embodied: eccentric, often ironic play with metamorphoses and masquerades, gender-crossing eroticism, and dreamlike insights into the paradoxes of humour and horror, beauty and death. The force of her creations, paintings as well as objects, followed no school or movement or direction other than her own intuition – a fact that made her multi-faceted work difficult to place outside of "magical surrealism." The art world was looking at her work through a narrow lens, more puzzled than enlightened because her work was too abstract and shifty to fit the mold.

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CULTURAL ICON

In spite of several retrospectives since the sixties and occasional exhibitions in the States, it is only now, almost 20 years after her death (in 1985), that her work has gained full recognition. The present celebrations of her 100th birthday, with important retrospectives in Vienna and Berlin are finally placing Meret Oppenheim at the same international pinnacle as Louise Bourgeois or Eva Hesse. The anniversary is a big deal in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. An elephantine catalogue adds to the by now considerable literature (some of it available in English) that discusses her work, including publications of her dreams, her whimsical poetry, notes and speeches. An amusing little book by Christiane Meyer-Thoss, The Book of Ideas, gathers the early fashion designs. A new documentary film for Arte TV has arrived on the heels of several earlier documentaries and will be available on DVD. A first biography of the artist is on the publishing horizon. No doubt, "M.O." (as she signed her work) gets the treatment of a cultural icon, and rightly so. There are still not many women who make it to the top in the field of art. She did – from the very start.

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Of particular interest to me is a first substantial collection of personal letters to and from Meret Oppenheim, Worte nicht in giftige Buchstaben einwickeln (Not to wrap words in poisonous letters). The coffee-table-size book is beautifully produced by a Swiss publisher, sorted and annotated with great intelligence and erudition by the artist's niece, Lisa Wenger. If you know German, Swiss German and French you can follow the intimate letter exchanges between the artist, her parents, André Breton and Benjamin Péret, the passionate exchanges with Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, the surrealist painter Leonor Fini and the lover the two women shared, writer André Peyre de Mandiargues, as well as many others.

The book also contains the facsimile of a scrapbook that M.O. had put together in 1958, "From Childhood to 1943" with her earliest drawings and watercolours, snapshots, diary notes, gallery lists and her own comments on her work. In a list of works shown at a Basel gallery as early as 1936, the great majority of titles is followed by the note, "destroyed." We are lucky to know today that these pieces were major creations, like "Ma Gouvernante -- My Nurse -- Mein Kindermädchen", as it occurred to the artist later to recreate what her depressive self-doubt led her to destroy. Max Ernst had written an introduction to this promising early show in Basel. His text was an homage to the young woman, celebrating both her physicality– "woman is a breakfast bun layered with white marble" ("das Weib ist ein mit weiĂźem Marmor belegtes Brödchen") -- and her creative potency, asking: "Who has outdone us all? Little Meret…" ("Wer ist uns ĂĽber den Kopf gewachsen? Das Meretlein.")

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A MEETING

When I met Meret Oppenheim in 1973, the artist was in her early sixties. I had spent some time in dance and theater and had just started writing cultural reports from Paris for the German press. I was as moneyless and bohemian as she had once been, always in need of another job. Meret had returned to Paris, reconnecting with artist friends and galleries. The Parisian and European art world was discovering and rediscovering the now mature creator of the "DĂ©jeuner en fourrure." Invitations to gallery shows and the price of her artworks rose rapidly. She was becoming famous again and needed an assistant. One Sunday afternoon at the private "salon" of journalist Ruth Henry, who was an old friend of Meret's, it was suggested that "M.O." needed someone like me.

 "Well," she said, eying me with the expression of an amused bird, "what are we going to do with you?" She had seen me onstage in a play by CĂ©line. "Dress you in a moor's uniform and send you with a silver tray to receive the cartes de visite from whoever comes to the door?" At that time, she was still living in a dilapidated, monk-like atelier in the 14ème, close to the Boulevard PĂ©riphĂ©rique – a most unlikely place for a moor with a silver tray. While I helped her with daily tasks -- at first writing checks, shopping, making coffee and grounding her canvases; later helping her with her correspondence, translations of letters, and driving her around in my Deux Chevaux -- I watched her at work.

I was young, bowled over by her beauty, her quick-changing moods, and her extraordinary self-determination. I could see, even decades later, what had attracted men and women alike when she first appeared in Paris as the embodiment of amour, liberté, poésie. There was her dazzling androgyny, her self-ironic doubt, the paradox of her vulnerable fear of intimacy and her sexual daring. Legend had it that M.O. was the young artist who one night, at La Coupole, peed into the tophat of a gentleman -- a story the artist would neither affirm nor deny.

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Legendary, but real, was the "Frühlingsfest" (Spring banquet) she celebrated in 1959 in Bern with a small group of friends. She invited an unknown woman to undress for her, get her face painted in gold and have her entire body covered with delicious foods and fruits, to be savoured by everyone present. When André Breton heard about it he talked Meret into repeating the ritual in Paris at EROS, the Exposition InteRnatiOnale du Surréalisme, the same year. She complied, but expressed to me that it was perhaps not a good idea to repeat the intimate, meaningful celebration as a public event. Needless to say, the "fertility feast" (imitated and copied many times by others) added to her "surrealist" fame.

MYSTERIES OF ART

I was attracted as much as puzzled by her work, bending my mind backwards to understand the artistic, poetic and often mystical riddles she seemed to be posing. Her inspiration was frequently fed by dreams, which she understood in the Jungian tradition as voices of an archetypal, unconscious wisdom and deep connection to nature. I remember a dream of my own at that time: I was looking at the lines in her hand, discovering with awe that her lines were as deep as canyons.

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At that time of youth I still believed that art could be understood. If you looked long and hard, with insistent patience, the artwork would let you in and reveal its secrets, and then you would naturally like it and even love it. With M.O.'s work, this attempt often failed, leaving me admiring the beauty, the daring, the mystery I couldn't put into words. I never "understood" works like "Stone Woman" but remained haunted by them. Other works were easy to fall in love with, like "Giacometti's Ear" or "Ma Gouvernante – My Nurse – Mein Kindermädchen." I once wrote an ardent poem about a favorite painting which she never sold ("Summer Night"), without ever daring to show it to her.

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She usually painted all morning. One day, while she was at work on a planetary landscape (one of many half-abstract images of clouds, skies and stars) that revealed nothing to me except dense mysteries, I asked her: "How do you know what to do? What tells you to paint in this and no other way?" She took the question seriously. "I don't know," she said, "Something tells me do a little dot-dot here in grey, a bit of brush-brush there in darker grey and pink, and then a few stripes back here in white... So I follow along. I try not to interfere." I had my answer, and it preoccupied me for years as a fledgling writer until my rational mind caught on and I began to trust intuition.

Her simple, Spartan life-style, which she kept up in full disregard of the growing price of her work on the art market, also puzzled and impressed me. She had moved from her monk's atelier into a luxurious townhouse apartment and studio space in the old Marais; I had helped her supervise the refurbishing, and still, for lunch we would share an apple and a couple of small, but fine pieces of cheese, and that was it. She wore a Jeans outfit on her long, lanky body while at work. For special occasions, however, she could dress up in the wildest costumes, monkey furs and crazy feathered masks. She still had her old passion for carnivals and white nights. Often she would hang out with friends at Brasserie Bofinger or some other night spot, then come home and sketch with pen or pencil into the early hours of the morning. At my arrival the next day, I would see the drawings scattered all over her work table, brilliant, funny, nutty doodles that would soon be signed and entered into the growing catalogue of her work – her oeuvre catalogue, which we began assembling in 1979.. "Would you like one?" she once asked. She tossed me a comical sketch of an eager, bent-over man planted on one tree-like foot and growing tree-limbs in all directions. "Morning gymnastics" was the title, dedicated (perhaps) to our every-morning work routines. Much later, at the MusĂ©e Pompidou, I saw similar sketches and doodles by her great colleague Louise Bourgeois, and wondered whether she, too, had fought off loneliness after drunken nights in this particular way and style.

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DISCOVERIES

When American feminists and art critics discovered the women of Surrealism and rediscovered Meret Oppenheim in the mid-seventies, several women came to interview her. Heated discussions about the nature of women ensued between Meret and me as I was already a radical. She developed her own stance in the rousing and, to her, somewhat questionable, waves of the feminist revolution. In 1975, the Swiss town of Basel gave her the city's art prize. I remember discussing every word of her acceptance speech, her notion that "art is androgynous" and that women have to carry their own femininity in addition to the femininity projected onto them by men, a double-whammy, in short. "Freedom," she said, "is not given to you – you have to take it."

Young people usually are incapable of self-humor, and I had some trouble understanding the artistic humour in a few of her works. Why, for example, did she agree to "quote" herself with a kitschy-banal serial edition of an object called "Souvenir du DĂ©jeuner en fourrure," a two-dimensional faux-fur cup and spoon on a doily, encased in glass? Of course, the "Souvenir" was addressed at the critics and fans everywhere who still believed she was a "surrealist painter," imprisoned in the old myth. Now I find it easy to understand that this notion annoyed her as much as Gertrude Stein was annoyed by the common misconception that her writing was automatic writing. A gesture of mockery and also self-humour therefore was de rigueur.

However, when I saw the notorious, most famous cup of art history for the first time, at the 1974 traveling retrospective that went from Switzerland to Germany, I was transfixed. It was much more than I had expected. Not just the Freudian notion of woman as cup to be (ful)filled, the allusions of Sader-Masoch's Venus in Fur, the Duchamp concept of the "ready-made" (the cheaply bought porcelaine cup), or the surrealist "accidental" genesis of the object. I experienced a second reality where nothing was what it seemed. The mere size, oversize of the cup was as surprising as the texture of the exquisitely crafted fur covering. The Chinese gazelle hair created a soft-golden meadow, beckoning the viewer to lie down and disappear into a dream. This was the perfect metamorphosis, the creation of something entirely new and unknown. Like Gertrude Stein's rose ("A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose"), no matter how misunderstood, over-used to define her and confine her, Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined cup with its shocking beauty and its playful refusal to fit into any explanation or convention, expressed the genius of her entire oeuvre.

All art works courtesy of Pro Litteris

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Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the
Archives
Read her Blog

©2013 Renate Stendhal
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

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