Meret Oppenheim was having coffee with Picasso in Paris in 1936, when he caught a glimpse of her bracelet, made out of fur. “You can cover anything with fur,” Picasso observed, inspiring Oppenheim to create her most famous work, a fur-lined teacup, saucer and spoon. Not long thereafter, New York’s Museum of Modern Art bought the sculpture, its first by a female artist. Oppenheim, who died in 1985, is now considered one of the leading female artists of the Surrealist movement.
Friendship didn’t just help Oppenheim advance: It was her muse. The Swiss artist came back to it again and again as she explored themes of love, sensuality, nature, reality and imagination. Her relationships and those of others sparked the pieces collected in the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ new show, “Meret Oppenheim: Tender Friendships.”
Some of the works are collaborations, such as the “exquisite corpse,” a sequence of drawings created by three people, none of whom can see what the others have drawn.
Poems (in French, German and English) and correspondence speak to friendship on a more personal level. One display case is dedicated to letters and postcards written to Trevor Winkfield, who met the 63-year-old Oppenheim in 1976, when he was 22. The pen pals traded philosophical musings.
Oppenheim was struck by the close bond between Bettina Brentano and Karoline von Gunderrode, two 18th-century poets, and dedicated paintings and prints to them. Other pieces are more-abstract takes on friendship as the relationship between humans and nature.
The concept of friendship extends to the people who brought the exhibit together. After a collector of Oppenheim’s artwork died, a friend acquired it and donated it to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in her memory.
“It was a great act of friendship,” says curator Krystyna Wasserman, herself a friend of both the late collector and the benefactor. “This is the reason we called the exhibition ‘Tender Friendships.’ ”
National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; through Sept. 14, free for NMWA members and those age 18 and under, $8 for ages 65+ and $10 for adults; 202-783-5000. (Metro Center)
‘Schoolgirl’s Notebook,’ 1973 (copy of the 1930 original)
Made out of her math textbook, this work was originally a present for Oppenheim’s dad’s birthday when the artist was 16. (Another form of friendship: father-daughter.) “She didn’t like the strict education system [in Switzerland, where they lived] and wanted to go to Paris,” Wasserman says. (Oppenheim didn’t like math either, as one can see in the ridiculousness of her “equations.”) “This was her plan to convince her father to send her to study in Paris.” And it worked!
‘Table with Bird’s Feet,’ 1973 (copy of the 1939 original)
Although she didn’t like being categorized as a Surrealist, Oppenheim’s sculptures tended toward the bizarre and dreamlike. “She liked to take utilitarian objects and make them into a fantasy,” Wasserman says. This table not only has bird feet, but it also has “traces of birds walking on it,” Wasserman notes. For Oppenheim, the relationship between humans and the environment was a kind of friendship.
‘Gloves,’ 1985 (adapted from a 1940s design)
While living in Paris, one of Meret Oppenheim’s day jobs was designing gloves. As curator Krystyna Wasserman points out, Oppenheim liked incorporating gloves in her works as symbolic of hands, “the tools of the artist.”
“Oppenheim collected gloves of all kinds,” Wasserman says. “She even had a baseball glove, a present from Marcel Duchamp.”
In “Gloves,” Oppenheim depicted “friendship” between nature and humans by way of the outwardly visible blood vessels, reminiscent of the veins of leaves.