Tempest in a Teacup

The Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim is best-known for her Le Dejeuner en Fourrure, a teacup covered in fur that was included in a 1936 exhibition of surrealist works organized in Paris by Andre Breton. The suggestively erotic, delightfully improbable piece was the hit of the show. Purchased by the Museum of Modern Art and displayed there later that year, it remains the most widely identifiable of surrealist objects, far more recognizable to the general public then the name of its creator.

The teacup is not included in the current exhibition of Oppenheim's work at the Bass Museum in Miami Beach. (It is too fragile to travel, though the MOMA did allow it be displayed last year at the Guggenheim Museum, where this show originated.) It would be nice to get a look at the famed cup, but its absence is of minor importance to the exhibition. As the title suggests, Meret Oppenheim: Beyond the Teacup is a revisionist retrospective that features the artist's more obscure works, a considerable but uneven output created from the 1930s to 1985, the year of her death.

Oppenheim was 22 years old when the teacup was conceived one afternoon in a cafe in the company of Picasso and his lover Dora Maar. The young Swiss artist had moved to Paris at eighteen to escape her bourgeois upbringing. There she became friendly with Alberto Giacometti, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst (who was her lover), and others, and posed nude for some of Man Ray's most famous photographs (notably Veiled Erotic, in which she stands naked behind a printing press, her arm covered in ink).

Like other young women who hung out with the men of the surrealist movement -- and whose own art has been historically overshadowed by that of the men -- Oppenheim was a thoroughly modern muse: beautiful, independent, uninhibited. Throughout her life her image was also frequently present in her own work, where it served as an affirmation of her identity rather than an inspiration for others. Some of these self-portraits are grouped together in the Bass show, which is attractively spread out among three of the museum's galleries.

Two photographic portraits strip Oppenheim of the archetypically feminine allure so seductive to her male colleagues. In the black-and-white X-ray of M.O.'s Skull (1964), only the artist's rings and earrings etched in bright light on the X-ray identify her as a woman. A work from 1980, Portrait (Photo) with Tattoo, shows Oppenheim with close-cut hair and her face painted with an abstract design. The photo is cropped just above her breasts, making her gender questionable. Another androgynous self-portrait is Five Imprints of My Hand, two monotypes of her ink-stained palms, which recall Man Ray's photos of her at the printing press.

Although such stalwart declarations of self were typical of Oppenheim later in her life, as a young woman she was unsure of her place in a world that still bore the traces of nineteenth-century mores; this is expressed in a group of lyrical paintings and drawings from the early Thirties. Sitting Figure with Folded Hands, painted in oil on cardboard, is faceless and sexless, though obviously feminine from its submissive pose: seated with hands gently folded. The figure is silent, like Oppenheim, who rarely spoke at gatherings in Paris. Another small, immensely engaging work, Well, We'll Live Later Then, drawn in India ink and colored with gouache, alludes to Oppenheim's feelings of doubt about her work in specific and herself in general by depicting a spectral feminine figure with arms outstretched, complacently allowing herself to be carried away by a similar being, this one dark and stern.

In the mid-Thirties, after the success of the fur teacup, Oppenheim began to experience episodes of deep depression. "I feel as if millennia of discrimination against women were resting on my shoulders," she wrote in 1937, as quoted in the exhibition catalogue, "as if embodied in my fear of inferiority." In 1939 she returned to Switzerland, married, and made art only sporadically until 1959, when she finally emerged from her malaise.

Oppenheim ultimately deemed that art should be androgynous, but that did not preclude her representations of the female image. Rather, it encouraged them. Her works from the Sixties to the Eighties frequently addressed women and their lot. A small abstract wood sculpture is titled Peasant Woman Carrying a Basket on Her Head (1960); Genevieve (1971) is a rough wooden board that stands upright with two poles extending from it like arms, crossed together in an impotent pose. Among celebratory images of women, The Beautiful African Woman, a vivid painting that evokes the batik fabric of an African dress, stands out.

The work included in this show demonstrates Oppenheim's enthusiasm for artistic experimentation in paintings, drawings, and mixed media assemblages -- some experiments more successful than others. Her paintings became more decorative in her later years, but she continued to have a wily sensibility for sculptures made of found objects: a pair of boots attached at the toes (The Couple), an Animal-Headed Demon made from an ornate clock case with a silver-leaf wooden beak. Also on display are a pair of goatskin gloves, silk-screened in red with the pattern of veins from a hand. Created shortly before Oppenheim died, the gloves embody the same juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade, of function and folly, that made the fur teacup so exciting 60 years ago.

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