This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.
Why does fashion seem to be obsessed with Surrealism? Of all the crossovers and references designers have made to the art world, Surrealism seems to be the one genre that they just can’t quit. Perhaps it’s because trompe l’oeil lends itself so well to fabric design or because it requires a sense of humor. The earliest melding of the two worlds is often attributed to designer Elsa Schiaparelli and artist Salvador Dalí; the duo had a partnership that practically invented the fashion and art collaboration. But there was another Surrealist artist that Schiaparelli joined creative forces with: Meret Oppenheim.
Oppenheim was a Swiss-German sculptor and painter, who embraced fetishism and became a respected female artist during an era when most artists were male. From a young age she was encouraged to think beyond everyday logic, thanks to her psychoanalyst father, who suggested she keep a dream journal and urged her to read the works of Carl Jung.
Oppenheim moved to Paris in 1932 at the age of 18 and worked her way into the inner circle of Surrealists, including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti. A year after her arrival in Paris, Man Ray asked Oppenheim to model nude for a series of photographs, solidifying her stance in the art world as both creator and collaborator.
“It is not I who looked for the Surrealists,” Oppenheim once said. “It is they who found me.”
Oppenheim’s sculptures toyed with everyday objects, not only subverting their normal uses, but for some critics, providing a welcome commentary on society and gender. One of her best-known pieces, My Nurse, arranges women’s shoes on a platter, like a turkey about to be served. The work links the objects associated with women to the roles they play in the home, highlighting the contrast between dressing up and serving.
My Nurse was only the beginning of Oppenheim’s use of women’s apparel as a creative outlet. In 1936 she pitched the idea for a fur-covered bracelet to Schiaparelli, who went on to include the item in her winter collection that same year. The simple accessory turned out to have a large impact on Oppenheim’s career. While wearing the bracelet, she and Pablo Picasso began joking that almost anything could be covered in fur. The idea sparked one of Oppenheim’s most celebrated works, Déjeuner en Fourrure, a fur-covered teacup, spoon, and saucer set. The piece was a massive international success. After being included in MoMA’s first Surrealism exhibit in 1936, it eventually became the museum’s first acquisition by a female artist.
If Schiaparelli’s work with Dalí invented the collab, then her work with Oppenheim conceived the capsule collection. The women worked together again, later in the 1930s, on a line of gloves. Featuring eerie trompe l’oeil details such as fake fingernails and painted veins, Oppenheim showed how a unique, artistic concept could have an impact on the world of fashion. She also designed a pair of shoes with faux toes—a design detail that has reemerged on the runway from brands like Celine and Comme des Garçons.
Unfortunately the early success of Déjeuner en Fourrure was overwhelming for Oppenheim, who chose to retreat from the world of art for nearly 20 years. By the time she returned to the scene in the 1950s, she had rediscovered her creative voice and branched out into new mediums.
She designed costumes for Daniel Spoerri interpretation of Picasso’s play Le Désir attrapé par la queue in Bern, Switzerland and created Spring Feast, a performance piece where a banquet was served on the body of a nude women—from which diners feasted sans silverware. In the decades leading up to her death, in 1986, her work was remembered in a handful of retrospectives. It was clear that Oppenheim captivated a new audience—one that didn’t just recognize her as a woman in the Surrealist movement, but as the woman of the Surrealist movement.
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