A century after her birth, the legacy of Swiss surrealist Meret Oppenheim is being celebrated by major shows in Bern, Berlin and Vienna. They reveal her ongoing influence, including in contemporary art.

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Meret  Oppenheim, Das Leiden der Genoveva, 1938, Öl auf Leinwand, 49,4 x 71,5 cm, Kunstmuseum Bern © 2012, ProLitteris, Zürich

Article published by swissinfo.ch on 17 December 2012 in the following languages (links):
Celebrating Switzerland’s most famous surrealist
Hommage an die bekannteste Schweizer Surrealistin
La plus célèbre surréaliste suisse à l’honneur
Meret Oppenheim, la sete di libertà fatta arte
La surrealista más famosa de Suiza
Celebrando a mais famosa surrealista suíça
永遠に現代であり続ける、アーティスト
احتفاءٌ عالمي بـإرث ميريت أوبنهايم الفنّي
梅拉·奥本海姆-永远的前卫派艺术先锋

Listen to an exclusive interview with Bern curator, Kathleeen Buehler and journalist, Michèle Laird
Celebrating the innovation of Meret Oppenheim
14 December 2012

Listen to an exclusive interview with participating artist, Elisabeth Llach
Interview with Elisabeth Llach

Listen to an exclusive interview with participating artist, Francisco Sierre
Interview Fransisco Sierra broadcast on World Radio Switzerland on 30 October 2012

Oppenheim is best known for “Breakfast in fur”, the teacup covered in gazelle fur that she created in 1936 when she was only 23. Overnight it became the icon of Surrealism, but the resulting fame almost destroyed the young rebellious artist.

Oppenheim retreated back to Switzerland where she spent the rest of her life working outside all stylistic conventions and refusing all labels. Although she passed away in 1985, she is still considered a trailblazer of the avant-garde.

To do justice to Oppenheim’s multifaceted oeuvre, which includes paintings, sculptures, costumes, design and poetry, and announces installation and performance art, events are taking place at the Kunstmuseum in Bern until February and at the Bank Austria Kunstforum Vienna and Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin until the end of 2013.

Because a retrospective already took place in 2006, Kunstmuseum Bern curator Kathleen Buehler decided instead to show how contemporary Oppenheim’s art and ideas have remained with the delightful “Meret’s Sparks” exhibition.

She invited five young artists based in Switzerland to display their own “surrealism” alongside a selection of 50 pieces by Oppenheim. The artists were selected not because of any visual similarities in their work, but because they shared Oppenheim’s “funny, erotic, anachronistic universes”.

“Like Meret, they invite you to forget your own way of thinking and let your mind wander,” Buehler told me.

The result is as unsettling as Meret’s work, but as playful and intriguing as well. Although all five artists work in distinctive styles, bordering on the bizarre, they conjure the spirit of Oppenheim so powerfully that she appears to be peering approvingly over their shoulders.

Meret’s eroticisms

One of the participating artists, Francisco Sierra, revealed that he did not know Oppenheim’s work that well when he was approached by the Kunstmuseum Bern.

But the more he learned, the more he became aware of her invisible influence: “I was astonished to discover how close we are.”

The two self-taught artists also share a peculiar sense of humor that allows them to illustrate genitalia without being provocative or lewd. Oppenheim did not shy away from nudity and allowed her lithe and androgynous silhouette to be photographed naked by Man Ray in 1933, a series evocatively titled Erotique voilé (Veiled Erotic).

A strong-willed young woman who managed to break away from the oppressive influence of the aging Surrealists when she was still only 26, including from Max Ernst with whom she had an affair, Oppenheim has been branded a feminist, another label she abhorred. She just wanted to be free, but her freedom came at a price because she ceased to be an artist for several years when she returned to Switzerland.

“Meret did not subscribe to the prevailing currents and remained true to herself,” said Sierra, who also shares her disdain for conformism.

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Installation Francisco Sierra

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Francisco Sierra, Rimini-Elégance, (The Unicorn  Ballet), 2012, Öl auf Leinwand, 126 x 190 cm, Courtesy the artist

In the Bern exhibition, he expresses his connivance with Oppenheim with a suspended fur-covered bracelet the size of a dining room table. “We both like taking people on journeys,” he beamed mischievously.

Meret the outsider

Oppenheim’s unbridled creativity only reappeared in 1954 after she rented a studio in Bern. While working as an art restorer the preceding years, she had acquired the skills that would allow her to explore different themes in a variety of materials.

Meret Oppenheim in her studio in Bern

Meret Oppenheim in her atelier in Oberhofen,
Canton Bern in 1958 (Keystone, courtesy swissinfo.ch)

Her uncensored inventiveness is what Elisabeth Llach, another of the artists participating in the Bern show, finds so attractive. Llach did not want to work with Oppenheim’s paintings, which she finds oppressive. On the other hand, she discovered that her objects worked well with her own world of “excess and hysteria, of decadence and beauty”.

The extravagant voluptuousness of Llach’s females comes in stark contrast to Oppenheim’s mysterious sobriety, but the juxtaposition works well.

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Elisabeth Llach, Vagues 14, 2012, Acryl auf Papier, auf Holz aufgezogen , 40 x 100 cm, Courtesy the artist and KATZ CONTEMPORARY, Zürich

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Installation Elisabeth Llach

Asked whether she considered herself to be a surrealist, Llach answered that Surrealism was a movement conscribed in time between the two world wars. But that perhaps what she shared with the other four artists in Bern, and with Meret, was a resistance to formalism and decorative art. “We are all outsiders,” she reflected.

Meret’s timeless influence

Unlike the exhibition in Bern, the one that will open in Vienna in March and travel to Berlin in August will be a major retrospective of Oppenheim, the first museum exhibition of the German-born artist in either city.

“It is long overdue,” curator Heike Eipeldauer told me. She sees the centenary as an ideal occasion for making Oppenheim’s work accessible both to a broad-based public and to international specialists, especially given the geographical locations of the capitals.

Given the diversity of her oeuvre, Eipeldauer has decided on a thematic approach sourced in the myths and dreams that guided Oppenheim (see sidebar). “A linear development was not part of her thinking,” she said to justify the non-chronological presentation.

Oppenheim’s work is not extensive, Eipeldauer pointed out, but there is always something new to discover. “You can’t come to a point where you have decoded it all.”

Meret continues to fascinate, Eipeldauer suggested, because she distrusted presumed truths, practiced a transdisciplianiary approach in a large variety of subjects and materials, but most of all, she held “an unparalleled belief in freedom as a form of existence”.

Billed as one of the most significant and idiosyncratic artists of the 20th century, Meret’s enduring credo was:  “Freedom isn’t given, it has to be taken,”

Centenary events

“Meret’s Sparks – Surrealisms in Contemporary Swiss Art” is on at the Kunstmuseum Bern until February 10, 2013 with the participation of Maya Bringolf, Vidya Gastaldon, Tatjana Gerhard, Elisabeth Llach and Francisco Sierra. The five contemporary artists were invited to Oppenheim’s summer home in the Ticino, where her niece, Lisa Wenger, continues to preserve and uphold the memory of her aunt.

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Vidya Gastaldon

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Tatjana Gerhard

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Maya Bringolf

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Curator Kathleen Buehler with artists Vidya Gastaldon, Tatjana Gerhard, Maya Bringolf,  Francisco Sierra and Elisabeth Llach, photo Suter

Publication of an exhibition catalogue with numerous texts, including by Swiss art celebrity, Thomas Hirschhorn, who explains: “Why I love Meret”.

Meret Oppenheim exhibition at the Bank Austria Kunstforum, Vienna from March to July 2013 and at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin from August to December 2013.

Exhibition articulated on nine Oppenheim themes, including the search for identity, dream scenes and myths, understanding of nature, masks and metamorphoses, eroticism and female fetishism, image-text-relations.

Publication of a comprehensive monograph with an index of works, unpublished text fragments, voices of colleagues and friends and key themes.

Meret Oppenheim

1913 Born October 6 in Berlin.
1914 Family moves to Switzerland when father is conscripted in WWI.
1932 Moves to Paris to become a painter. Becomes involved with the Surrealists.
1936 Makes “Breakfast in fur” following an encounter with Picasso and erstwhile mistress Dora Maar where they decide that anything can be made in fur.
1938 Studies to become an art restorer.
1939 Moves to Basel. Political situation deprives her family of income.
1945-49 Meets and marries Wolfgang Laroche. Moves to Bern.
1954 Finds her creative drive again.
1967 First major retrospective at Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
1982 Berlin City Grand Art Prize and participation in Documenta 7 Kassel.
1983 Inauguration of controversial fountain in Bern.
1985 Dies of a heart attack.

Quotes from the “Muriel’s Sparks” catalogue

“The work of Meret Oppenheim occupies a place of its own in the history of modern painting. Regardless of what she had in common with particular representatives or even particular strands of that history, her only loyalty was to her own freedom.” Kathleen Buehler, 2012

In der Geschichte der modernen Malerei nimmt das Werk Meret Oppenheims seinen eigenen Raum ein. Was immer sie mit einzelnen Repr.sentanten oder auch Tendenzen dieser Geschichte verbindet, Treue empfand sie nur gegenüber ihrer Freiheit.

“The breakthrough that art can generate happens when something new, a new form, a new concept is created. It’s only and always about this breakthrough, and Meret Oppenheim achieved it with all of her works.” Thomas Hirschhorn, 2012

Diesen Durchbruch, den die Kunst erzeugen kann, wenn etwas Neues, eine neue Form, ein neuer Begriff entsteht. Es geht nur immer um diesen Durchbruch und diesen Durchbruch hat Meret Oppenheim geschafft. 

“There are artists that I have loved for a long time, and Meret Oppenheim is one of them. To love an artist means to love everything, even the smallest works.” Thomas Hirschhorn, 2012

“Meret Oppenheim has shown with her work where the true struggle lies: on the boundless field of freedom. The freedom with one’s self!” Thomas Hirschhorn, 2012

“I love Meret Oppenheim for her resistance. Every one of her works is resistant: resistant in itself. This is an important model for me.” Thomas Hirschhorn, 2012

Links:
Kunstmuseum Bern
Bank Austria Kunstforum
Martin-Gropius-Bau

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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