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A chronicle of life and work

Text from catalogue

Barbara Zürcher

Meret Elisabeth Oppenheim is born on the 6th of October 1913 in Berlin-Charlottenburg as the first daughter of a Swiss mother and a German father. At the outbreak of war in 1914, her father, Erich Alphons Oppenheim, is conscripted into the army as a doctor. Her mother, Eva Oppenheim-Wenger, moves with her child to her parents’ home in Delémont, Switzerland, where Meret spends her early childhood.

Meret’s grandmother, Lisa Wenger, is a painter, writer and a women’s liberationist; she illustrates her most popular book herself, Joggeli söll go Birli schüttle. The grandmother fosters Meret’s first attempts at drawing and becomes a personal model of emancipatory awareness for her. In her youth the grandmother had been one of the first female students at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art.

After the war Erich Alphons Oppenheim opens a doctor’s practice in the southern German town of Steinen and sends for his family.

At the age of 14, Meret begins to write down her dreams, inspired by her father who regularly attends C. G. Jung’s seminars in Zurich.

At the age of 16 Meret decides to become an artist and draws in her school copy book the equation x=hare, which is later reproduced in 1957 in the journal Le Surréalisme même under the title Le Cahier d’une écolière. Meret admires her aunt Ruth Wenger; her mother’s sister is a painter and trained singer and was for a short time married to Hermann Hesse: “At home we read a lot, classical and modern literature. Art was something of value.”

M. O. visits the Kunsthalle Basel and sees works by Paul Klee in a Bauhaus exhibition, which made a lasting impression on her.

With her father’s permission she leaves high school determined to go to either Munich or Paris to study art; she decides on the French metropolis. At the age of 18 she paints the watercolor Ex Voto-Würgeengel, in which an aggressive act against a child is contrasted with the finely worked details of the female figure. She decides to remain childless, a decision that she will keep to throughout her life.

With Irène Zurkinden, a painter four years older with experience of Paris, she sets off for the big city. Both of them move into Hotel Odessa in Montparnasse. Meret registers at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, but she mostly works alone and the little hotel room also becomes her studio. Through her acquaintance with the Swiss artists Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp, she comes into contact with, and is accepted into, the surrealist group around André Breton. Within the surrealist circle she feels confirmed in her liberal life style and her relish for experiments. During this time she writes her first poems and make drawings that mostly have macabre themes, such as Selbstmordinstitut (1931) and Einer der zuschaut, wie ein anderer stirbt (1933). That such early works are to be taken seriously is proved by the fact that, years later, M. O. again took up these themes and developed them further in other mediums. She realizes the latter ink drawing 26 years later in a sculpture, Der grüne Zuschauer (1959), first in painted wood and copper, and in 1976 in serpentine with a gilded face. “By the green onlooker I mean nature, which is indifferent when the living dies”, the artist explains.

M. O. moves into a studio at Avenue de Châtillon 44. When one day Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp visit her in her studio, they invite the young artist to participate with the surrealists at the Salon des Surindépendants. M. O. falls violently in love with Alberto Giacometti, but it is unreciprocated. She visits him often in his studio, and it is at this time that she makes the pencil drawing Das Ohr von Giacometti (1933), which she later uses as the basis for a sculpture modeled in wax, then carves as a relief in slate (1958), has cast in bronze (1959), and finally, years later in 1977, issues as a multiple.

In the winter of 1933 M. O. meets Man Ray. He asks her to model for his photographs. In the studio of Louis Marcoussis, a photo series comes about with Meret and a printing press wheel. At other sessions Man Ray photographed her as a swimmer. Portraits and life studies followed. These early years inevitably became legendary. Meret’s intelligence, her playfulness, her urge for freedom, her strongly developed sense of humor, and, above all, her boyish beauty offer material enough for the label of muse, which she will never be able to escape. “For us women, surrealism embodied a world in which we could rebel against conventions; fantasy was the key to a freer life. In Paris I found confirmation for my life style.”

Shortly after meeting, Max Ernst and M. O. enter into a passionate relationship. Their “amour fou” lasts less than a year. In 1935 M. O. ends the affair abruptly in a café. The picture Husch-Husch, der schönste Vokal entleert sich – M. E. par M. O., which she painted for Max Ernst in 1934 and gave him, is found 40 years later on a flea market in Paris by an art dealer. M. O. buys back the former gift of love and carefully restores it.

During this period in Paris, the artist suffers repeated bouts of depression, which will get worse in the future. With her drawing Dann leben wir eben später (1933) she intuitively visualizes the coming melancholia and later artistic crisis. A black, bulky shape carries a light-colored, almost floating figure down a flight of stairs in its outstretched arms.

Her father is worried about his daughter’s high-strung condition and sends Meret to C.G. Jung in 1935, who writes the following about the young artist’s state:

Dear Colleague,

As you know I have in the meantime seen your daughter. I don’t believe her case to be very serious. She seems to have learned a few things from her confrontation with the world, and I don’t see why these should not be considerably broadened over time. I do not have the impression that there is any neurotic complication here. Her artistic temperament on the one hand and the youthful disorientation of our era, which has to compensate for the reasonableness of the 19th century, are explanations enough for the unconventionality of her standpoint. I also have the impression that, with your daughter’s natural intelligence, the struggle with realities will in a few years produce a seriousness that leads one to hope for a sufficient adaptation to the forces of reality. Regards from a colleague,

Yours sincerely,

C.G. Jung

M. O. commented on her meeting: “My father was worried about me and sent me to Jung. I found the afternoon with him very pleasant. Among other things he said: “One demands of all women that they be angels (very important!).”

M. O. takes part in the surrealist exhibitions in Paris, Copenhagen, London and New York. Seldom do her works find buyers. In 1936 her father has to give up his practice in Steinen because of his Jewish name, which gets him into difficulty. The family moves to Basel. Without any income (being German her father is not allowed to practice in Switzerland) the family lives on savings; Meret’s regular financial support comes to a end.

In these years of economic depression, several artists in the larger surrealist circle, including Alberto Giacometti, work for jewelry and fashion houses. M. O. also tries to earn money by designing jewelry and clothing for avant-garde courturiers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, among others.
In the early summer of 1936, M. O. is sitting with her friends Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso in Café Flore. She is wearing a bracelet that she has designed herself, a metal ring covered in ocelot fur, which excites the admiration of the two. Picasso suggests with a laugh that one could cover anything with fur. M. O. replies: “Also this plate and this cup here.” When, a little later, she is asked to contribute something to a surrealist exhibition in the Paris gallery of Charles Ratton, the artist transforms this communal idea into reality and presents a cup with saucer and spoon, all of which are covered in the pelt of a Chinese gazelle, which André Breton gave the title of Déjeuner en fourrure (1936). Alfred Barr Jr. buys it for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

M. O. could now have profited from her trademark. In Paris she was an overnight star and could have become the “enwrapping artist” per se. Her financial worries become ever more serious and her depressive moods increase. The political situation in Europe turns visibly more threatening. M. O. returns to Basel and many Surrealists go into exile.

M. O. feels artistically immobilized. This is the beginning of a long, 18-year crisis. “To me it was almost as if the thousand-year-old discrimination against women was borne on my shoulders, like a feeling of inferiority lodged in me.”

After the outbreak of her crisis, when she is almost completely isolated, Giacometti is apparently one of the few artist from her time in Paris that she seeks contact with. She visits him during the war when he is living in exile in Geneva.

Giacometti’s decision to return to working in front of a model, and the obvious worldview distance to the surrealists that this implied, probably strengthens M. O. in her mental and artistic independence.

At the age of 25, M. O. attends the Allgemeine Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel and signs up for courses in color and perspective studies, the drawing of portraits and nudes and thereby learns the profession of picture restorer, which provides her with a modest income.

Once again she is in Paris for an exhibition with Leonor Fini, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, etc. In the René Drouin’s and Leo Castelli’s newly opened gallery on Place Vendôme she exhibits her Tisch mit Vogelfüssen (1939). Back in Basel she moves in the circle of Gruppe 33. Club 33, an association and a meeting place for the cultural resistance in Basel, also offers accommodation and is a drop-in center for many emigrants. As Hans Christoph von Tavel reports, during the war M. O. “kept at times a rucksack packed with good shoes, rice and a revolver ready in case of a German invasion.”

M. O. lives with her siblings at Klingenthal 13, the house of her grandparents. For financial reasons the house must be let and the parents move into the grandparent’s palazzo in Carona, a village in the canton Ticino. M. O. moves into a room in Klingenthal over the garage.

M. O. writes Kaspar Hauser oder Die goldene Freiheit, a script for a film, which is never realized, probably for financial reasons. M. O.’s work is permeated with a continual interest in the literature and themes of the Romantic movement, by fables and ghosts, and the “wondrous”. Also the legend of Geneviève de Brabant who – slanderously accused of adultery – flees with her baby into the woods and is nourished there by a hind, till her husband recognizes her innocence and takes her home. M. O. is occupied with the Geneviève theme for almost 30 years. The figure is symbolic for a woman sentenced to inactivity, who finds it impossible to prove her innocence and demand justice. “My king has cast me out: It was the animus, according to Jung the masculine part of the female soul, which corresponds to the anima, the feminine side of the male soul. Now I had discovered that the ‘Muse’ of the poet and artist is also an image of the anima, and that consequently for women ‘the genius’ that stands by female artists and poets must be the image of the animus. But it was just this, my genius, that had abandoned me.” M. O. sees the source of her crisis, above all, in the problems of the female artist. This is a problem that she will explicitly analyze in her famous speech in 1975.

M. O. meets Wolfgang La Roche. In 1949 they marry and move to Bern, later to Thun, Oberhofen and Hünibach. “We were very happy together. In the later years of our marriage, each of us went his own way. He had female friends that I got on well with. We lived like brother and sister or like friends until his death,” as M. O. comments on her marriage in 1967. Thanks to Arnold Rüdlinger, the then director of the Bern Kunsthalle, M. O. is admitted into a very active artist and intellectual scene, among others, Daniel Spoerri, Dieter Roth, Jean Tinguely, Markus Raetz, some of whom come from elsewhere and enliven the legendary, open-minded Bern of the time.

M. O. travels to Paris and meets old friends. “My disbelief in the possibility of changing society through common political actions was also the reason for leaving them (as a group) after 1950 when I went to Paris again for the first time.”

M. O. moves into a studio in Bern. “The crisis passed almost by itself. It was an inner occurrence that was gone from one second to the next. That night I could hardly sleep because I knew that henceforth everything would be different.”

M. O. organizes a Frühlingsfest in Bern; a frugal meal is laid out on the naked body of a woman lying on a table. Three couples take part in this ritual. André Breton talks the artist into repeating this Festin in Paris on the occasion of the Exposition inteRnatiOnale du Surréalisme at Galerie Cordier, which would take place several months later. In the following years she has numerous solo exhibitions in Basel, Paris, Milan, New York, Zürich, Bern, Oslo and Geneva.

The artist is invited to a large retrospective in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. The museum buys her object Ma gouvernante – my nurse – mein Kindermädchen for its collection. M. O. remarks on her choice of title that the white shoes reminded her of her children’s nurse: “I was a small child, four or five, we (my sister and I) had a young nanny. She dressed in white (on Sundays?). Maybe she was in love and maybe she radiated a sensual atmosphere that I unconsciously registered, and maybe this was the reason that white-attired ‘Elseli’ left such a lasting impression on me.”

In December, after a long illness, her husband Wolfgang La Roche dies. As a means of distraction, she plans the renovation and rebuilding of the Casa Costanza in Carona: a small Gesamtkunstwerk for her family. M. O. moves from Hünibach to Bern in an apartment with a studio.

An Italian gallery owner encourages M. O. to produce the legendary fur-lined cup as a multiple. The artist finds this marketing strategy simple-minded and decides to do an ironic-kitschy homage: Andenken an das Pelzfrühstück (1970). The prototype appears in 1972 and is a sought-after multiple. The ironic parody of her own work as a kitsch object both gratifies and exposes the buyers’ wishes.

The manner with which she has claimed the right to unconventional self-determination and independence has doubtlessly brought her recognition, especially from younger generations. The clearest and, next to her work, the most valid form of explaining this standpoint is the much-quoted speech she held in 1975 when she was awarded the Art Prize of the city of Basel: “I am tempted to claim that the spiritual-male side of woman has so far been forced to wear a cloak of invisibility. Why? I think it is because men, ever since the patriarchy was established – that is, ever since the female was devaluated – have projected the female side of themselves, which they regard as something of lesser value, on women. For women, this means having to live their own female life, as well as the female life men project on them. Thus they are woman times two. That is much too much.”

A book of poetry from 1933-1957 is published in Basel at Galerie Fanal along with 15 color serigraphs under the title Sansibar in an edition of 200 copies.

M. O. is awarded the Grand Prize of the city of Berlin. She is invited to participate in documenta 7 in Kassel. The definitive publication on M. O. appears, the monograph by Bice Curiger.

In the last years before her death, an important source of inspiration for her is the correspondence between Bettina Brentano (1785-1859) and Karoline von Günderode (1780-1806). Their letters, published in 1840, inspired her Karoline book and two large paintings, which she dedicated to both these extraordinary writers of the Romantic age.

In November, “the stupidest month” as M. O. says to the press, her controversial fountain sculpture is consecrated on the Waisenhausplatz in Bern. The fountain hardly shows to advantage, since no grass has grown on the spiral that winds around the 8 meter high concrete column, and the water must be shut off because of the danger ice forming on the street. By 39 to 10 votes, the Bern city parliament vetoes a proposal from the Evangelical People’s Party (EVP) to move the disputed artwork out of the old city. “That doesn’t upset me,” M. O. says about the debate over her fountain, “I am old enough to be braced for the worst.” To put an end to this “shameful” imbroglio, the town council decides that the Oppenheim fountain stays where it is.


Large retrospectives at the Kunsthalle in Bern and at ARC Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris honor her work. Her poems are published with an epilogue by Christiane Meyer-Thoss.


On the 15th of November the artist dies of a heart attack at the intensive care unit of the Kantonsspital Basel, on the day of the publication of her book on Karoline.

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