Meret Oppenheim at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Meret Oppenheim. Object. Paris, 1936Meret Oppenheim, Object (1936), fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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The phrase “one-hit wonder” is used by rock critics to describe a singer or musical group whose commercial success is based on a single hit song. While it may not be entirely appropriate to employ the vernacular of the Top Forty in writing about the visual arts, I can think of no better way to describe the contribution of Meret Oppenheim (1913–85) to modernist culture. Her Object (Breakfast in Fur) (1936), commonly referred to as “the furry teacup,” has long been a textbook example of Surrealist art. What student of art history has not suffered a shock of recognition upon encountering it in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection? While it may not have the renown of Dalí’s flaccid watches or Magritte’s bowler-hatted automatons, Object (Breakfast in Fur) is just as pithy a manifestation of the Surrealist ethos and the sine qua non of Oppenheim’s reputation.

That the rest of Oppenheim’s work has been eclipsed by Object (Breakfast in Fur) can be surmised from a friend’s response upon hearing of this, the artist’s first U.S. retrospective: “You mean she did something else?” I am sure that Jacqueline Burckhardt and Bice Curiger, curators of Meret Oppenheim: Beyond the Teacup, have heard this question before—it’s implicit in the title of their exhibition. By including paintings, drawings, sculpture, and, yes, Object (Breakfast in Fur) in the exhibition, Burckhardt and Curiger set out to prove that there is more to Oppenheim’s oeuvre than a single object. Those wishing to brush up on their art history, or who are curious, will find the exhibit informative. Of course, Burckhardt and Curiger also want to increase our respect for Oppenheim the artist, and this is a trickier task. As the show reveals, there isn’t much of anything Beyond the Teacup.

Oppenheim created Object (Breakfast in Fur) at the age of twenty-three, four years after arriving in Paris in 1932 from Basel. She became friends with Hans Arp and Alberto Giacometti and through them met Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and André Breton, who is said to have titled Oppenheim’s signature work. In 1933 she posed for a series of photographs by Man Ray, one of which featured a nude Oppenheim standing next to a printing press, her left arm smeared with ink. This photo caused a scandal when it was published in the Surrealist journal Minotaure in 1934 and garnered Oppenheim the reputation of Surrealist “muse.” It was not until Object (Breakfast in Fur) was purchased by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. for the Museum of Modern Art in 1936, however, that Oppenheim gained a notoriety that would define her as a Surrealist artist.

While it retains a modicum of fetishistic allure, Object (Breakfast in Fur) has lost whatever capacity it may once have had to provoke. The furry teacup is, after all, something of a modernist classic, and once an intentionally disturbing object has been granted such a status, it loses much of its reason for being. Such is the case with Oppenheim’s masterpiece. It is difficult to believe, at this late date, that anyone would find what is basically a rather stylish amusement repugnant or revelatory. If it retains any interest for us today it is as a document of the Surrealist epoch. This is not nothing. Alfred Barr wrote that the furry teacup “makes concretely real the most extreme, the most bizarre improbability,” and so it does. Barr’s purchase of Object (Breakfast in Fur) for MOMA’s collection seems, in retrospect, nothing less than a coup. That the definitive museum of modern art should have one of the definitive artifacts of Surrealism was, undoubtedly, Barr’s objective. But shouldn’t we expect more from art than a momentary case of the heebie-jeebies?

One thing Beyond the Teacup makes plain is that Object (Breakfast in Fur) was not, as might be supposed, the hard-won culmination of one individual’s artistic inquiry. It was, simply stated, a fluke. Indeed, the remarkable aspect of Oppenheim’s work is its amateurishness. Eichhörnchen/Squirrel (1960), a belated sequel to the furry teacup, is typical of Oppenheim’s output. Here the artist takes a beer stein, complete with a sponge simulating foam, upon which she attaches a squirrel’s tail for a handle. With this piece, Surrealist strategy is reduced to kitsch and a rather desperate kitsch at that. Eichhörnchen/Squirrel reminds me of nothing so much as the mythical “jackalope”—in actuality, a taxidermic rabbit whose head has been mounted with deer antlers—that I encountered in truck stops growing up in Utah. If Eichhörnchen is the most embarrassing object on display, its lack of aesthetic merit (or imagination) is, nevertheless, indicative of the quality of the art on view in Beyond the Teacup.

As an exhibition, Oppenheim’s retrospective is small and higgledy-piggledy. The installation avoids chronology in order to stress, as the curators would have it, the work’s “conceptual underpinnings.” Yet the work is so unfocused and indolent that it is impossible to divine what exactly these underpinnings are. In his catalogue essay, Thomas McEvilley locates them in Oppenheim’s “parallelisms” of nature/culture, female/male, and representation/abstraction. This sounds good (and weighty), but it is just an example of someone taking the conceptual ball and running with it. And can McEvilley run. His interpretation of Frühlingstag/Spring Day (1961) is, as a blatant sop to politics, unintentionally farcical and not in the least surprising. Can such an inconsequential knickknack—a lumpy biomorph emerging from a small, wire basket —really be about “the limitation of women in the patriarchy and their dream of breaking free”? Is it any wonder why art criticism is considered the domain of blowhards and hucksters?

So what we are left with, finally, are odds and ends: paintings so arid they shrink from the eye, errant scribbles posing as drawings, academic Surrealist sculpture, and assemblages that might pass for those of a moderately gifted folk artist. Oppenheim’s attempts at tapping into the formal and, one would guess, spiritual authority of non-Western art, as in Oktavia/Octavia (1969), are put to shame by any single work found in the stunning Africa exhibition in the Guggenheim’s main rotunda. Burckhardt and Curiger claim that the inconsistency of Oppenheim’s oeuvre is predicated on her “ethical stand” of freedom from the “absolute truth of style.” But if there ever were an advertisement for “the absolute truth of style,” Beyond the Teacup is it. The curators’ grandstanding is a subterfuge for an artist for whom art seems to have been little more than a diversion.

Still, Steinfrau/Stone Woman (1937), a small charcoal study, has a convincing sense of volume and weight, displaying a measure of artistic talent. It is, interestingly, a sculptor’s drawing and an exceptional curio in an exceptionally curious career. Yet the most representative objects are two self-portraits that greet the viewer upon entering the exhibition. Neither is a portrait in the conventional sense: one is a monotype of the artist’s hand from 1959, the other an x-ray of Oppenheim’s head from 1964. They don’t tell us about Oppenheim, just that they are of Oppenheim. And this is where celebrity—well, art-world celebrity—is given priority over aesthetics. Beyond the Teacup inflates a scrawny body of work on this basis and, in doing so, makes its own small contribution to the trivialization of art. Give Oppenheim credit for the furry teacup. But give Burckhardt, Curiger, and McEvilley credit for nothing more than confusing the cult of personality for the life of art.

© 1996 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 1996 edition of The New Criterion


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