BY Bice Curiger in Interviews | 29 MAY 13
Featured in
Issue 10

A Great Deal With Enormously Little

Meret Oppenheim would have celebrated her 100th birthday in October this year. The centenary has prompted a major retrospective in Vienna which will travel to Berlin, and this conversation between former curator of Kunsthaus Zurich Bice Curiger and her successor Cathérine Hug

BY Bice Curiger in Interviews | 29 MAY 13

Nebelkopf, 1974, Oil on canvas. (Photograph: Peter Lauri, Bern. For all images: © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2013)

Cathérine Hug When and how did you first meet Meret Oppenheim?

Bice Curiger In the summer of 1980, Zurich publishers ABC Verlag asked if I would be interested in writing a book about Oppenheim. I was very young at the time, 32. I had seen her retrospective at Kunstmuseum Solothurn and was thrilled: there was a great affinity with the young art of the period, and I discovered that she didn’t actually fit the cliché of Surrealism. The sparse, graphic, pictorial quality of her work appealed to me. Along with young artists in my circle of friends at the time like Markus Raetz, Urs Lüthi and Martin Disler, I had seen a great deal of conceptual art and Arte Povera thanks to the efforts of Harald Szeemann in Bern and Jean-Christophe Ammann in Lucerne.

CH Did you get to speak to Oppenheim in person? How was your first meeting?

BC Yes, they asked: could you send Ms. Oppenheim a few texts you’ve written? I posted her an envelope and word came back that she was interested and I should come to Paris. I rang her doorbell in the Marais, where she lived in a two-storey apartment. It was a wonderful encounter. I was fascinated and enchanted to be considered as the author – she had read my work and chosen me on that basis. She was almost 70 at the time and could have had many other more famous writers. Perhaps it was a sign of her curiosity, openness and appetite for risk that she wanted to work with someone young.

Gespenst, Gouache, 1959 (Photograph: Peter Lauri, Bern)

CH Which brings us to a central theme. A constant factor in Oppenheim’s work is her analysis of the zeitgeist, her interest in the simultaneity of micro- and macrocosms. And she always resisted the notion of a linear development.

BC The great thing is that she didn’t create the kind of aesthetic tools that allow you to just keep ploughing a single furrow. Instead, she made doubt part of her work. Her oeuvre developed in many directions at the same time and she worked in many different styles – but her work as a whole does have a certain coherence. Concerning the micro- and macro-levels: in her art, humans are not the centre of the universe: she accepts that there are greater things. She took the playful and poetic elements of Surrealism, as found in the early writings of André Breton, rather than devoting herself to the kind of tacky, illustrative enthronement of the unconscious found in the work of certain artists, especially after the war. There was a great deal of kitsch, from Paul Delvaux to the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism.

CH Few ‘isms’ have survived so doggedly and retained their popularity as Surrealism. More than ever, it is a huge crowd-puller at museums, while an open-ended battle is still being fought by insiders over the various dogmas that constitute Surrealism. In the exhibition currently on show in Vienna and that will travel to Berlin, it is very clear how well Oppenheim asserted herself against the dogmatic authority of the surrealist masters. For instance in the way her work of the 1960s and ’70s reflects the influence of colour field and minimalist painting, but without ever wanting to be considered part of either group. Her work can be described in terms of opposites such as reserve and resolve.

Walter Studer, Meret Oppenheim, Oberhofen,1958 (© Walter Studer)

BC There are works where she just used gentle pencil hatching or very light brushstrokes such as one large picture she made in 1974 titled Verborgenes im Nebel (Things Hidden In The Mist). For her, rather than technical virtuosity, it was about mental searching, including a search for dream ideas and dream images – about accepting such material without preconceived strategies. Art today sometimes suffers from artists becoming jaded strategists who think they have seen through everything. Oppenheim was the exact opposite. She doubted, she had a highly receptive antennae. After the war, this led her to be accused either of not being purely abstract or not being figurative enough, of not conforming to that illustrative surrealist mode of representation. By contrast, language, the body and nature played an important role in her work; as did references to the world of plants, the cosmos and the indifference of nature, as in her sculpture Der grüne Zuschauer oder Einer, der zusieht, wie ein anderer stirbt (The Green Spectator or Someone Watching Someone Else Die, 1933/59). She had a marked intellectual-philosophical side, and she didn’t like to idealize nature. She would provoke people by saying: ‘the atomic bomb is nature, too!’

Röntgenaufnahme des Schädels M. O. (M. O. 1913–2000), 1964, Black and white photograph (Photograph: Peter Lauri, Bern)

CH Did this view of nature reflect a spiritual or religious worldview, such as pantheism?

BC Not really. We know that she read Carl Jung because her father attended Jung’s Zurich lectures. She began writing down her dreams at 14. But she read Jung the way artists read theoretical writings or philosophy. One shouldn’t take it too literally. She drew inspiration, using it as a springboard to open her own doors.

CH Another keyword: provocation. In the 1930s, Oppenheim created items of jewellery and underwear for fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, some of them very elaborate. Her designs feature comments like: ‘Les fesses peuvent être maquillées ou étoffe-voile colorée’ [makeup may be used on the buttocks, or coloured veils]. Quite a risqué recommendation, then, which is still surprising coming from a woman, even today. Although the idea was to make money from fashion, was it actually an attempt to use such a provocation – staging a commercial failure in the fashion world – as a way of becoming all the more established in the art world?

BC She really was very young when she produced these designs: in her early 20s. In Paris she was brought up in an incredibly creative, stimulating atmosphere. She charmed the famous older men, from Max Ernst to Alberto Giacometti to Marcel Duchamp. And she had a great sense of humour, even in her later years, which comes through in her writings. One example is the much-quoted line from a poem, ‘mit ganz enorm wenig viel’ [a great deal with enormously little], that perfectly sums up her approach. And when her hearing began to fail, she would make a joke of answering with absurd spoonerisms. When asked: ‘Hast Du das Bahnbillet?’ [Have you got the train ticket?], she replied: ‘Was meinst Du mit Fasanenfilet?’ [What was that, pheasant fillet?]

CH The fact that her dealings as a young woman were mainly with older men gave her a strong awareness of her own position as a woman and as an artist. Her grandmother, the children’s book author and painter Lisa Wenger, was a women’s rights campaigner. At the same time, in the 1970s she explicitly opposed the notion of so-called ‘women’s art’.

BC She was a feminist, but she was against the idea of separate ‘women’s exhibitions’ with woman artists.

Das Neugeborene, 1961, Oil on cardboard. (Photograph: Peter Lauri, Bern)

CH She also said: ‘The intellect is androgynous’. Another great quotation is from a guest lecture at Zurich University in the 1980s: ‘When comfort is no longer mistaken for culture, when beauty becomes a necessity again – then writing and the arts will regain their position of their own accord. When the veil of desire increasingly covers them, like an eternal promise.’

BC In all areas of life, we are still under the yoke of pragmatism and technocracy, this has not changed much. In response to this situation, Oppenheim would often refer to Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism from 1924, saying that although she was not a surrealist, she could subscribe to everything the manifesto contained – an open programme, against purposive rationalism and for an experimental approach to dreams, poetry, beauty.

CH Do you see a direct link between Oppenheim’s artistic work and the way she lived her life? She had homes in Paris, Carona and Bern, and she made art in all three locations. You have described it as a settled way of keeping on the move.

BC Yes, it wasn’t a disconnected flitting about. She always had this open way of seeing things. In 1982, she had an exhibition in Rome, I visited her there and we walked from the Piazza del Popolo along the Corso towards Piazza Venezia. Although it’s not far, it took us a good two hours because she kept stopping to say, ‘What is this thing here?’ She always looked at everything very carefully and allowed herself the luxury of taking time to ask questions, to let herself drift, and then to carrying on chatting and making jokes. That was also the point of living in various places, it was about this openness to stimuli, not about cosmopolitan jet-setting.

CH Meret Oppenheim was very charismatic, and this was especially conspicuous in the charisma-resistant milieu of Switzerland where scepticism is the default mode and where women were only given the vote in 1971.

Margrit Baumann Meret Oppenheim’s apartment and studio Zieglerstrasse, Bern, 1982. (© Margrit Baumann, Bern)

BC But she also suffered. When she returned to Switzerland from Paris during World War II, rumours circulated: ‘Ah, that’s her, the one who posed for nude photographs in magazines’ – someone had seen the pictures from Man Ray’s Érotique Voilée series (1934) in Minotaur. People talked about it as if they were really disreputable images. And the local artists’ attitude was: don’t think you’re better than us, just because you’ve been to Paris and sold your Déjeuner en fourrure [Breakfast in Fur, 1936] to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Added to this she was beautiful and intelligent – it was too much. After that, she fell into a crisis that lasted 17 years – but she carried on working. It was a prolonged depression that suddenly lifted one day. In a situation like that, you either go under or you find a special identity that helps you to know what is important and what to ignore. When my book about her came out in 1982 and she gave interviews on television and in newspapers, many young women were suddenly incredibly fascinated by this role model: someone who had not allowed herself to be devoured by self-doubt, who in a sense actually accepted it.

CH It is a historical irony that Oppenheim herself had to make do without role models, which enabled her to develop her personality freely, speculatively.

BC At that time, in the early 1980s, when she had quite a high profile in the media, I was walking down the street with her one day in Lugano when someone rushed up to her and said: ‘Haven’t I seen you on television?’ Suddenly she braced herself and, in a deadly serious voice, said: ‘yes, I’m the president’s sister.’

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

The Meret Oppenheim retrospective, curated by Heike Eipeldauer, is on show at Bank Austria Kunstforum, Vienna, until 14 July before travelling to the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin (16 August – 1 December).

Bice Curiger is director of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in Arles, France, co-founder and editor of Parkett magazine, as well as editorial director of Tate Etc. In 1982, she published a monograph on Meret Oppenheim entitled Spuren durchstandener Freiheit (Defiance in the Face of Freedom, 1990). She was curator at Kunsthaus Zurich from 1993 to 2012, and in 2011 she was the director of the 54th Venice Biennale.