Meret Oppenheim’s Magical Tables and Teacups

Photo: Suzanne Khalil/NMWA

Although it stands still, Meret Oppenheim’s “Table with Bird’s Feet” (1983) brims with kinetic energy. The work comes exactly as advertised; had it not anticipated “Beauty and the Beast” by some eight years, it could have been a remnant of the magical castle’s set, and at first glance, the viewer is thrilled that the sculpture is encased in glass, as it appears on the verge of walking off of its podium and clear out of the museum.

An avian table is just the sort of thing one might expect from Oppenheim, whose plainly titled “Object” (1936) consists of a cup, saucer and spoon lined with fur. There is something foreboding about the table, which evokes, perhaps, the footed bathtub in Joanna Cole’s popular children’s book “Bony-Legs,” but the fur tea set has even less promise as a functioning object. It might hold water, but the drinker is sure to finish her snack with a mouth full of hair.

The hairy teacup does not appear in the exhibit “Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships,” on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. through September 14, but the table and a variety of other works and letters are present.

“The Ear of Giacometti” (1977), from a private Swiss collection, thankfully does not include an anatomical sample of the Surrealist artist’s auditory apparatus — no “living copy” of Van Gogh’s ear here. But the work captures the facial feature of one of the first friends Oppenheim made when she arrived in Paris in 1932. Giacometti’s casts of body parts may have influenced Oppenheim, who first drew the former’s ear and then cast it in bronze in 1959 and reproduced it as a series in 1977, according to a NMWA wall text.

“Oppenheim’s design is reminiscent of the lush letters of the alphabet found inscribed in medieval illuminated manuscripts,” the text adds, perhaps overstating the case slightly. But there is surprising beauty in the work, which has a good deal of potential to be creepy.

Oppenheim (1913-1985) was born in Berlin and died in Switzerland. Her father, a Jewish doctor, couldn’t practice medicine in Germany, so he had to flee to Switzerland during World War II. He could not, therefore, support his daughter in Paris, so Oppenheim too returned to Switzerland in 1937 following a long period of depression in Paris.

“They were lucky, because [Meret’s] mother was not Jewish, had a house and family in Switzerland, and during the war Switzerland was neutral,” said Krystyna Wasserman, curator of book arts at the museum and curator of the exhibit.

“I do not think Meret practiced any religion. Her niece, Lisa Wenger, and her whole family feel very strongly about anti-Semitism then and later too,” Wasserman added.

The NMWA exhibit also explores a famous photographic series that Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky) shot of Oppenheim nude, standing in front of a printing press. The show doesn’t celebrate either of these artists as Jews, but Surrealist works are never simply about what’s on the surface.

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