She is the most established name in the Swiss modernist canon, and a grand overview of her work is shown in Bern before traveling to New York and Houston. But her long battle for proper recognition among her male peers is still a very topical issue.
This content was published on December 5, 2021 – 09:00
Eduardo Simantob, Carlo Pisani (videos)
The last time Meret Oppenheim’s work was shown in full grandeur was in 1984, just before her death. Almost 40 years later, a new exhibition is running at the Kunstmuseum BernExternal link is a long-awaited tribute to her memory. It also reminds us that the issues of gender equality in art institutions and the struggle for equal recognition are still very relevant.
The most prestigious Swiss art prizeExternal link takes her name, but at a time when women’s meager participation in art is being questioned, Meret Oppenheim’s attitude amid the macho environment of 1930s surrealism and the Swiss art scene of her time is at its most standout aspect of the show.
“Mon Exposition” is hailed as Meret Oppenheim’s “first transatlantic retrospective”: after the curtain falls in Bern (13.02.2022), the show travels to the Menil CollectionExternal link (Houston, Texas) from March to September, then to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMAExternal link) in New York from November to March 2023. The MoMA exhibit somehow closes a circle: It was Oppenheim’s acquisition Objet (Breakfast in Fur) by this museum in 1936, which immediately brought international recognition to the then 23-year-old artist.
A feminist statement
She was still living in Paris at the time, where she moved at the age of 18. She soon entered the Surrealist circle and became intimate with the big names of the movement – most notably Alberto Giacometti,External link Andre BretonExternal link, male beamExternal link, and Max ErnstExternal link. When Oppenheim ended her relationship with Max Ernst, this was arguably the first strong feminist statement in the world about macho Surreal circle. Art collector Christoph Bürgi, an old friend of Oppenheim’s, told the media at the opening of the exhibition that Max Ernst would not consider a relationship until he decided to. Oppenheim disagreed and they even created a piece of art that cryptically defines their story together – “Husch-husch, der schönste Vokal entert sich. ME par MO”, 1934.
With World War II approaching, Oppenheim moved to Switzerland, married Wolfgang La Roche, and ended up in a prolonged depression. During this period of reflection on her life and career, she gradually broke with the Surrealists and began to take more interest in the younger generation coming of age in the 1960s.
An excerpt from the archives of the Swiss public television SRF dating from 1963 shows a visit to Oppenheim’s studio as she began to rise from the lows of the previous decades. She was in a transition from her surreal upbringing to a more individual, confident practice, flirting with pop artExternal link.
It may be hard to believe today, but at the time, the sedate Swiss capital of Bern became the country’s hippest arts center. It was highly attuned to the countercultural centers of Europe and the US. The actions, happenings and exhibitions promoted by the celebrated curator Harald SzeemannExternal link in the Kunsthalle Bern from 1961 to 1969, the pot of pop and conceptual art stirredExternal link, attracted the craziest and most radical minds of that generation, outraged traditional Bernese society – and ultimately cost Szeemann his job. Bern was able to quietly return to his sleep.
But it was this free-spirited atmosphere that convinced Meret to move from Basel to Bern in 1967, after her husband’s death. Rare images found in the SRF archives give a glimpse of the atmosphere of the time: a young hip crowd around Oppenheim at the Café du Commerce (today a Portuguese-Spanish restaurant), the city’s bohemian headquarters. The company later moved into her apartment.
The artistic couple Markus and Monika Raetz, also seen in these images, were some of Oppenheim’s best new friends. Markus died last year, but Monika was present at the opening of the exhibition.
“I don’t know if she’s ever taken LSD, but there were a lot of other drugs around, and you know, everyone was taking it,” she said when asked about Oppenheim’s use of mind-altering drugs.
Tripping or not, Oppenheim developed a long friendship with Markus Raetz based primarily on their practical and conceptual discussions about the use of different materials. This meant much more than simple shop talk. In Bern, conceptual art began, culminating in the historic Szeemann exhibition “When attitudes being form”, in 1969. In this radically new way of thinking, appreciating and valuing art, ideas and processes were more important or meaningful than the finished work of art itself .
Talking about the condition of women
At that point, more pressing issues emerged outside the art world, affecting, if not change, at least any other kind of consciousness in social mores. The issue of gender equality was still a very complicated subject in the 1970s. It is as if there is no language, or general concepts with which to speak more fluently about gender, sex and equality.
This is evident in some outtakes from a video interview made with Oppenheim in 1970, in which the artist struggles to comment on the hurdles of female artistry. In the first takes, she reads in a cold, sober manner from an essay she’d recently written about the plight of women. In the following sequences, she is in conversation with a journalist and the issue of gender inequality is raised. In three consecutive takes, Oppenheim abruptly breaks off her train of thought and says how awful it is to discuss the matter in a few sentences. “It’s driving me crazy,” she says on the third attempt.
In “Mon Exposition”, the choice of exhibited documents highlights her views on inequality in the arts. In a letter to Szeemann, rejecting an invitation to participate in a female-only exhibition, she explains that she hates being placed on the “shelf for women artists”. She’s an artist, period.
The recognition of more female artists of Oppenheim’s generation as part of the pantheon of great modernist masters is a very real, but also very recent result of decades of struggle.
The same MoMA that will soon host Oppenheim’s retrospective is currently showing one of Sophie Taeuber-ArpExternal link‘s, a (now) master DadaistExternal link, which was exhibited in Basel until June last year. Last year it was the turn of the (now) master abstract expressionist Lee KrasnerExternal link, who until recently was known only as Jackson PollockExternal link‘s wife – and whose first international retrospective was also shown in Bern. And the title of next year’s Venice Biennale, the Milk of Dreams, is taken from a book by British-Mexican of choice Leonora Carrington.External link, a (now) master surrealist, contemporary of Oppenheim. Women finally seem to be taking the lead. If they were alive to see it.
In collaboration with Renat Künzi (Swiss-German decoding) and Caroline Honegger (Archive)