Meret Oppenheim- Surrealist Savant by Becca Anderson

Becca Anderson, author of The Book of Awesome Women, has written a new blog post on the life and career of artist and poet Meret Oppenheim.


Paris, the City of Lights, seemed to be the most fertile ground for artists and writers in the early twentieth century. Several salons and schools of thought formed there, leaving an indelible mark upon culture at large. Artist and poet Meret Oppenheim found equal footing for her creativity among the Surrealists.

Meret was born in Germany in 1913, and her family moved from Berlin to Weisenthal, Switzerland, when she was five years old; she was schooled in Germany and Switzerland until she was seventeen. At nineteen, she moved to Paris to attend art school, whereupon she immediately fell in with kindred creatives—dancers, philosophers, painters, and poets—who formed a salon of the first wave of Surrealists, a literary and artistic movement that sought to reveal a reality above or beneath ordinary reality. She was befriended by Hans and Sophie Tauber-Arp, Marcel Duchamp, and Alberto Giacometti, who encouraged her to experiment with different media. In 1933, she was asked to exhibit with the Surrealists at Salon des Surindependents. After a successful debut show, Oppenheim’s art was featured in all of this group’s important exhibitions, beginning with Cubism-Surrealism in 1935. She tried her hand at jewelry making for the great fashion houses of Paris; she made a copper bracelet lined with sealskin and showed it to Pablo Picasso, who remarked, “Many things could be covered in fur.” His remark inspired Meret Oppenheim to do just that.

The following year, Oppenheim’s Dejeuner en fourrure (The Fur Tea Cup) stunned the art world, set off a scandal with its sexy suggestiveness, and established the twenty-three-year-old as one of the key figures in Surrealism. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased her teacup sculpture, her standing was cemented. Oppenheim felt the Surrealists were more evolved sociologically, and though this school was mainly male, they welcomed her as an artist completely. A muse for Man Ray, his luminous nude photographs of her are now part of the legacy of Surrealism. When she and Max Ernst met and fell in love, she broke off the affair despite the intensity of their feelings for each other. A long time after, she claimed it was an instinct to protect her growth as a fledgling artist from being squelched by him, a fully mature artist of international reputation.

Though she was a fine poet as well, everything else Meret Oppenheim did was overshadowed by The Fur Tea Cup, which shot her into stratospheric fame at the very beginning of her career. Finding herself the “darling of the art world” overnight was awkward, and she suffered deep bouts of depression. The next two decades were very difficult for her in terms of her work; after an early and meteoric rise to success, she found herself a “has-been” nearly from the start.

She left Paris for Basel during the aftermath of her sudden fame and undertook years of Jungian analysis to help her understand her depression. In 1949, she married Wolfgang La Roche, a businessman who supported her need for independence, and she spent weekends at her studio in Berne writing, making art, and reading a great deal, particularly the works of Carl Jung, a friend of the family. She maintained some links with friends from her early salon years and designed costumes for a Picasso ballet in 1956. Proving she could still shock, Meret Oppenheim put together the symbolist installation Banquet in 1959, featuring a nude woman as the centerpiece for the table. She lived to see herself “rediscovered” in 1967 and enjoyed a retrospective in Stockholm, where she regained her reputation and international standing.

Meret Oppenheim was a deeply sensitive woman who mined her unconscious for inspiration and insight. Both her writing and her art reflected her interest in archetypal imagery. She recorded her dreams for most of her life and strove to prove that art of any kind, whether poetry, painting, or sculpture, should have no gender.

During my long crisis, my genius, the animus, the male part of the female soul, that assists the female artist, had abandoned me…. But at the beginning of the fifties, I sensed that things were getting better.

Meret Oppenheim

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The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever

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