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LONDON — She was called the enfant terrible of Surrealism. She was immortalized in some of Man Ray’s best photographs. Her well-known “Object” (1936) is considered one of the most important surrealist works.
This year is the centenary of Meret Oppenheim’s birth. To mark the occasion, the Bank Austria Forum, Vienna, and the Martin Gropious Bau, Berlin, organized what they described as the most comprehensive retrospective of her work ever. (The exhibition will travel to the Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut, Lille, next February). Other exhibitions were held at the Sprengel Museum, Hannover, and at the Kunstmuseum, Bern, not to mention talks and special events dedicated to her all over Europe. I contacted her niece, Lisa Wenger, to talk about Oppenheim’s work and life. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
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Francesco Dama: Lisa, Meret Oppenheim was your father’s oldest sister. Can you describe your relationship with her?
Lisa Wenger: As a child I wasn’t really aware of her importance, and she didn’t visit us very often. But when she did, I knew there was something special about her. Later on I knew I had a famous aunt but it was only when I was around 15–16 I started having a connection with her. I remember her as an aunt who used to take me seriously, who used to talk to me as an adult, but it was really only when I reached my thirties that we became friends. We would share our family house in Carona, Switzerland, for some periods.
FD: This year has been really busy for you, following the exhibitions and the special events dedicated to Meret.
LW: Well, yes, it’s been a really busy year for me indeed, and one that has brought great satisfaction as well. In April, Worte nicht in giftige Buchstaben einwickeln (Not to wrap words in poisonous letters) was published by Scheidegger & Spiess, and it was edited by me and Martina Corgnati. There were readings of it in Hanover, Vienna, Zurich, Basel (during the Art Basel fair), and Berlin. I was also deeply involved in the shooting of the documentary by Daniela Schmidt-Langels, Meret Oppenheim: Eine Surrealistin auf eigenen Wegen (Meret Oppenheim: A Surrealist on her own ways). I’ve been interviewed by radio and TV channels, I’ve participated in some round-tables. So I’ve been moving around a lot, which is something I always enjoy.
FD: The book gathers together a fascinating autobiographic album the artist put together during her first 30 years of life, which is included as facsimile, plus a selection from Meret’s private letters (in German and French) with some illustrious correspondents such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Leonor Fini, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and André Breton. You had an active role in researching and editing the documents.
LW: Absolutely! For almost 15 years I have been collecting, searching, hunting out, typing up, and editing a massive number of documents written by or about Meret. Then, with the agreement of my cousins, I presented everything to the Swiss National Library, Bern. With the exception of few letters, all this material was never published before! The book has been extremely well received, not only for what it tells us about Meret Oppenheim, but also for the insights it gives us into Surrealism and of the history of 20th century art.
FD: Most of the public knows Meret because of the famous “Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure)” (1936), the fur cup created when she was only 23, which I think she both loved and hated as a symbol of her precocious success.
LW: Absolutely. Until 1954, when Meret came out of a 17-year-long personal crisis, she had those mixed feelings and experienced the fur cup as confining her to some particular category. After that moment, she gained more self-confidence in herself and she was able to face her “Breakfast in Fur” with humor. So that, in 1970, she made “Souvenir du déjeuner en fourrure,” a kitsch version of a multiple object. What is true is that Meret always refused every kind of label, including the lazy “the artist that works with fur.” Thank godness! The current exhibition at the Gropius-Bau highlights the breadth of her work. Someone told me they realized the cup wasn’t included [in the exhibition] only as they left [the show].
FD: Do you have particular memories of Meret you’d like to share?
LW: In my thirties we were spending time together in the family house in Carona [Switzerland]. One evening, as we were brushing our teeth, she asked me whether I had ever thought of having children. I answered that it wasn’t one of my priorities and that I didn’t think I would had to. She replied: “Good! You know, you can be a complete woman without having children!”
Another time we were watching fireworks on August 1st, the Swiss national holiday. She used to have super-short hair. I commented, in Italian, that the fireworks where wonderful, and she replied, in Swiss dialect, that that year they were particular beautiful. A man behind us, who happened to have overheard us, commented to his wife: “Did you hear them? The woman speaks Italian, while the man talks in Swiss dialect.” At this, Meret turned around and, slightly piqued, said: “Look, I’m a woman!”.
FD: How funny! This leads us to the issue of being a female artist, and being a woman artist within the Surrealist movement, where the female presence has had always been disputed and ambiguous. What are your thoughts about it?
LW: During her first years in Paris, during the 1930s, Meret was a multifaceted figure within the Surrealist group. On the one hand, she served as a muse for the Surrealists, and on the other, with her famous cup, she created a cult object for the movement. It was only really during the 1950s and 1960s, however, that she came to be considered as an important artist, independent of Surrealism. This is highlighted in her correspondence with André Breton. She distanced herself from Surrealism because she didn’t want to restrict herself to any one artistic movement.
FD: I was particularly struck by a letter Meret wrote in July 1984, to an editor who wanted to publish a book about women artists. Meret writes she had decided not to take part in such projects, which is interesting given her status as a feminist icon of the 1970s.
LS: Right. This really confirms what I said about her refusal to be categorized. The issue of women’s role in society was crucial to Meret. Her grandmother was one of the first woman activists in that sense. If I remember correctly, Meret took part in a women art exhibition only once; it was the sensational The Other Half of the Avant-Garde curated by Lea Vergine in Milan in 1980. As Meret would say: “There’s no such thing as male art or female art. Art is androgynous.”
Meret Oppenheim: Retrospective at the Martin Gropious Bau, Berlin, will continue until January 6 2014. The exhibition will travel to the Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut, Lille, from February 15 2014 to June 1 2014.