This Retrospective Celebrates The Proto-Feminist Surrealist Who Trounced Her Male Competition

In a cramped Parisian art gallery, crammed on the bottom shelf of a cabinet overloaded with artwork by Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, one of the most notorious objects of the 20th century made its inauspicious 1936 debut. Comprising a teacup, saucer and spoon covered in gazelle fur, Meret Oppenheim’s inconspicuously titled Object delighted and scandalized audiences in France, and made an even greater impression in the United States, where it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.

At the time, Oppenheim was 23 years old and more widely known as Max Ernst’s erstwhile lover than as a Surrealist artist in her own right. For the remainder of her long life, and even after her death at the age of 75 in 1982, Oppenheim’s fame would be so closely associated with Object that the fur-lined teacup became the physical equivalent of a metonym.

The unexpected exclusion of Object from a new Meret Oppenheim retrospective at the Menil Collection in Houston can perhaps be understood pragmatically: MoMA would be diminished without it. The omission can alternately be viewed more idealistically as a posthumous effort to liberate Oppenheim from the source of her reputation as a young provocateur, so that the hundreds of paintings and sculptures she made during her prolific career might finally be noticed – a relatively brief respite since the retrospective heads to MoMA in October. Regardless of the explanation, the absence of Object paradoxically accentuates its singularity in Oppenheim’s oeuvre and within Surrealism more broadly.

The most memorable work in the Menil retrospective is superficially similar to Object, was made in the same year, and was shown in the same exhibition in Paris. Ma Gouvernante – My Nurse – Mein Kindermädchen was made by trussing a pair of pumps with white string and capping the heels with white frills like a dressed chicken.

The resemblance to a stuffed bird is as remarkable as it is improbable. Like Salvador Dalí’s famous Lobster Telephone of 1938, the visual rhyme is accentuated by the categorical discord. Ma Gouvernante instantiates a Surrealist strategy that Ernst referred to as “systematic displacement”, a method that was perhaps best characterized in a line written by the 19th century French poet Isidore-Lucien Ducasse and frequently cited by the Surrealists: “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”.

Other works by Oppenheim take this approach less spectacularly. For instance, a 1938 painting titled Stone Woman cunningly conflates a female body with a pile of rocks. Ma Gouvernante stands out amongst Oppenheim’s visual rhymes not only for the sense of surprise it elicits but also for its sly reference to societal views of women, often demeaningly referred to as birds. Immobilized and served up on a platter, the shoes are a synecdoche for 20th century expectations about the female sex.

But how meaningful is a visual rhyme? As clever as it may be, it’s a play on chance. The cleverness is limited to the recognition of a coincidence. A visual rhyme is a visual pun. From objects to collages to paintings, formal punning – whether in pursuit of allegorical meaning or spinning the non sequitur of holding a lobster to your ear – is one of the signal weaknesses of Surrealism.

With Object, Oppenheim set out in a new direction. The origin story has been told many times, and in multiple versions. The most telling is the earliest, related by Oppenheim herself:

I line a heavy bracelet with ocelot. I meet Dora Maar and Picasso at Café Flore. Both are fond of my idea. Meanwhile, the tea cools. Me: Garçon, more fur!

The ocelot bracelet belonged to a line of jewelry Oppenheim was making to earn a living in the mid-1930s. Object enlisted the same technique, as well as some scraps of Chinese gazelle pelt and an inexpensive cup and saucer she picked up from a Parisian department store after she was struck with inspiration at Café de Flore.

What was the nature of her inspiration? Surely it was deeper than visual resemblance. (If anything, the teacup was visually denatured when she sought to keep the contents warm.)

Another work from the same period, far less known, provides some insight into Oppenheim’s way of thinking, and helps to explain why Object is so remarkable, a singular achievement even when compared to the finest works of Dalí and Ernst. When Oppenheim was designing fur-lined bracelets, she also conceived a ring that had a sugar cube in the setting where ordinarily there would be a gem. Even though the sugar sparkles in the light, Sugar Ring is not a visual pun. What makes the substitution uncannily apt is the fact that sucrose provides an experience on the tongue equivalent to the ocular brilliance of a faceted diamond. Sugar Ring functions by synesthesia. And the synesthesia is multidimensional: Seeing the sugar cube, we anticipate its sweetness which is the flavor of the absent diamond’s dazzle.

More broadly, there’s a logic to Oppenheim’s jewel, in spite of the fact that it breaks all the rules. This perfect absurdity is also the essence of Object. (Dress the chilly tea in furs? Of course!) Just looking at a fur-lined teacup bestows a comforting sense of warmth.

What makes this work profound – and fulfills the Surrealist aspiration to plumb human psychology more successfully than most Surrealist art – is the insight it provides into the way we reason, the fracture lines of our assumptions, the ripples in our mental models. Object belongs at the Mad Hatter’s tea party more than in a Parisian art gallery of the ‘30s.

In a special issue of Cahiers d’art coincident with the exhibition where Oppenheim’s Object debuted, the Surrealist kingpin André Breton defined Surrealist objects as things perturbed and deformed to “hunt down the mad beast of function”. Some have claimed that he had Oppenheim in mind when he wrote these words. If so, he failed to appreciate her work, and the extraordinary effect it would have on viewers from Paris to New York. With Object, Oppenheim hunted down the mad beast of reason. We are still trying to recoup.

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