This story starts with a cliché, in a bohemian café in Paris with Picasso, his lover Dora Maar and Méret Oppenheim drinking tea. Yet this really is where the idea for Oppenheim’s most famous masterpiece was conceived. At the time, Oppenheim was working for Schiparelli as a jewellery designer and was wearing one of her pieces: a broad round brass cuff wrapped in ocelot fur. Picasso admired it, remarking that one could cover anything with fur. ‘Even this plate and this cup here,’ Oppenheim replied. When she found that her tea was cooling, she jokingly asked the waiter for ‘a little more fur’ to insulate her cup. Immediately afterwards she went out to the department store and purchased the tea set which would become her most famous and iconic piece of art, ‘Object’, or ‘Le Déjeuner en Fourrure’ (‘Luncheon in Fur’).
It is frustrating and perhaps ironic that discussion of the very piece of art that has been the subject of such public fixation, and so contributed to the tragic elements of Oppenheim’s life, seems the most appropriate demonstration of the impact of masculine domination on the art world, and the resultant loss of female artists’ identity and power. Many will never have heard of Méret Oppenheim, and her name is certainly not thrown around with the same abandon as those of Surrealist giants Dalí and Magritte. Some, however, will perhaps recognise ‘Object’ – a china teacup, saucer, and spoon covered in a tan pelt of Chinese gazelle fur. The fur has been artistically applied to accurately depict the shapes and contours of the tea set, the outer edges flowing horizontally with a skin-like smoothness, while the inside of the cup overflows with speckled fluff.
There’s no denying this creates a bizarre spectacle: when first exhibited it caused a sensation, becoming a modern-day fetish item as repellent as it is attractive, and it is often cited as a ‘quintessential’ Surrealist piece. After being shown at a small display of Surrealist artefacts, it was bought and featured by The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York as part of their 1936-37 exhibition ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism’, making Oppenheim the first ever female artist to be displayed by the museum, and leaving her the legacy of ‘first lady of MoMA’. Though this impressive history may seem to refute the aforementioned issues surrounding female art in the light of male domination, arguably Oppenheim’s ‘Object’ and ‘Le Déjeuner en Fourrure’ became two very different pieces of art. The disparity between them is indicative of some of the fundamental issues with how women are treated within art, and particularly by some of the (male) Surrealist giants we still worship today.
The purchase of ‘Le Déjeuner en Fourrure’ was Oppenheim’s last moment in the Surrealist limelight of the ‘30s, after which she destroyed much of the work she had produced during the period and fell into a 17-year long depression. According to Lisa Wegner, her niece and close personal companion, this was at least partly due to the treatment, reception and circumstances surrounding ‘Luncheon in Fur’, which Wegner claims Oppenheim referred to as “her prison”. It would be reductive to attempt to explain or presume to fully understand the movements of Oppenheim’s life; no one moment or action can cause mental illness. It is clear, however, that the circumstances surrounding her unhappy departure are important and worth appreciating for their relevance to artistic endeavour.
The piece was an immediate sensation among Oppenheim’s group of artist friends, some of whom were key members of the Surrealist movement. However, it particularly caught the imagination of Surrealist leader André Breton. Unfortunately, it was Breton’s overbearing interest in the piece that caused its subsequent issues. Although Oppenheim had named her creation ‘Object’, when Breton displayed the piece in the ‘Exhibition of Surrealist objects’ at the Charles Ratton Gallery in Paris he took the liberty of changing the title to ‘Le Déjeuner en Fourrure’, referencing Manet’s provocative ‘Déjeneur sur l’herbe’ – which had shaken the Paris Salon with its flagrant display of prostitutes among gentlemen – and the sadomasochistic novella ‘Venus In Furs’.
This context and these connections project a repellent sexuality onto the piece and ever since it has been inseparable from its connotations of Freudian disgust and eroticism, even despite MoMA reverting its listing to the original title. The fur was thought to be pubic, with the cup therefore acting as a fur void, representative of repellent female genitalia, with the spoon symbolising the phallic element: culminating in a realisation of repressed desires. Aside from anything else, this sexualisation and interpretation is somewhat tiresome as Oppenheim was not even a follower of Freudian philosophy, unlike many of her Surrealist peers, instead preferring to take inspiration from Carl Jung. And the anecdotal origin of the piece also elegantly illustrates the playful subversion that was at the heart of its creation. While interpretations are personal and cannot be explicitly denied, it is clear that these Freudian concepts were strongly indicated by Breton in opposition to Oppenheim’s original intentions. She has, in fact, consistently insisted that to her it was all a joke, just as whimsical as the occasion that inspired it; she merely sought to make the familiar seem strange.
While Wegner has made it clear that Oppenheim felt wilfully estranged from her work and artistic autonomy as a result of this series of unfortunate events, it is hard to be clear whether we can comment on this without presuming the existence of various rules concerning how art is to be appreciated and received. This argument comes very close to that dangerous question, which must always be avoided: what is art? Perhaps, therefore this feminist outlook on the subject as a violent act of pillage and asserted control is reductive. Who are we, or more specifically who am I, to suggest Breton detracted from rather than improved the piece with his interference? Surely if Oppenheim’s mentor Marcel Duchamp proved anything with his infamous ‘Fountain’ urinal, it is that the action of placing something in a gallery and calling it ‘art’ makes it so. Perhaps we should be grateful for the ‘Luncheon in Fur’ phenomena; it certainly created a visceral emotional response and led to interesting conversations on how we view female sexuality. Meaning is not bestowed by one person, and no one ever has the power to decide how their contributions to this world are received. Maybe in this case, it can be viewed as a feminist issue, but in many others, it is just a case of misunderstanding the artist’s intention. That said, there is something horrifying about this admittedly familiar narrative within the context of the Surrealists’ treatment of their female muses.
The underrepresentation of female artists compared to the overexposure of the female body is an age-old issue, which seems to have just as much potential for longevity as it does for amassing resistance against it: the activist group ‘Guerrilla Girls’ for instance have been fighting it for decades. Within the œuvre of Surrealism, however, it becomes particularly troubling. Needless to say, the women depicted are still very often naked, but in addition they have frequently been violated as well. Depictions of women from previous centuries consist of idealised curves, often forming what is referred to as the ‘serpentine S’ silhouette. While these alluded to their sexuality and fertility, they arguably did not aim to demonize these qualities. The Surrealists took these concepts and cruelly twisted them, ironically exaggerating the bestial and dangerous aspects of a ‘serpentine’ figure in pieces like ‘Woman with Her Throat Cut’ by Alberto Giacometti and recurrently presenting them as simultaneously both defiled victim and cruel predator. Furthermore, there is something singularly distasteful about claiming a piece of work by an artist who, after all has a vagina, and appropriating it as part of a narrative which depicts vaginas as repellent traps.
It is not just the use of the ‘femme fatale’ in Surrealists’ work, however, that is troubling. While these sexist clichés of femininity were admittedly championed by the Surrealists, it would be naive and lazy to use them as scapegoats, considering their visions were drawn from concepts about women that have abounded for centuries. What is truly devastating is the way that the violent treatment of the feminine form within their work can be seen as an apt yet chilling metaphor for the outrageous injustices being plied against the living, breathing women of the movement. If anything, Oppenheim can be viewed as one of the lucky few: while in some ways her sensationalised piece robbed her of her artistic autonomy, at least she had visibility, often considered to be one of the most prominent female artists of the twentieth century. For other talented women of the time, it was a story of complete disregard, remaining in the shadows or being wrongfully demoted to ‘muse of ’ or ‘wife of ’. Even at the recent 2017 ‘Dreamers Awake’ exhibition at the White Cube gallery in London, which specifically focused on the unseen or unacknowledged women of Surrealism, it was notable that almost all the art from the height of the Surrealist movement was by artists whose names had been lost – or if not, the works were untitled. The names which were present certainly were not familiar to anyone who was not already well educated on the subject. The most recognisable of the selection were from Lee Miller, yet even she, though a professional model and war photographer for Vogue, is more often referenced for her high profile affair with surrealist artist Man Ray, than for her own art.
Yet this is not just about sex: Breton didn’t just claim Oppenheim’s art as a piece of sexual repulsion, but also as a product of his own creation. In 1924, Breton released the manifesto for his artistic and literary movement ‘Surrealism’, singlehandedly leading the way for everything to come, and later wrote the equally inspiring 1936 essay ‘The Crisis of the Object’, which demanded that as a sign of rebellion, everyday things should be given different functions and utilitarian objects should undergo a process of mystification. His brilliance is undeniable and it is easy to see why he was so taken with Oppenheim’s art, but when he ‘discovered’ and then championed her works as a piece of quintessential Surrealism, he perforce claimed it as his own. And this was a continuing issue; in another such act of Surrealist subversion, Breton ‘discovered’ an inscription declaring ‘X=an Orange Rabbit’ in a school notebook of Oppenheim’s for his own exhibition, appropriating what was initially a playful plea addressed to her father to be allowed to study art in Paris. There is an endearing mischievousness to the creation, combined with philosophy and childlike naivety, yet when this was taken and named as ‘Surreal’ by the creator of the movement, it repackaged the connotation and perception, moulding it into the predetermined values set out by him. ‘It is not I who looked for the Surrealists, it is they who found me’, Oppenheim said – they were merely the circle she moved in; it was Breton who effectively subsumed her into his movement without her consent. It is therefore tragically, yet not unusually, the male appreciation of female success that goes down in history.
In these situations it is easy to focus on the dead white men involved, be they male Surrealist artists, or art historians who neglected the work of the female Surrealists in favour of their male counterparts. Yet we must instead focus our energy on further recognition of Oppenheim as a multi-faceted artist in her own right, along with other contemporary female artists. Apart from the brilliance that her work inspires, the beauty, the whimsical and the philosophical, the message to take from her and the tumultuous events of her life can be beautifully epitomised in her own words after winning the City of Basel culture award in 1975: ‘I think it is the duty of a woman to lead a life that expresses her disbelief in the validity of the taboos that have been imposed upon her kind for thousands of years. Nobody will give you freedom; you have to take it.’