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Thursday, December 6, 2018

More Than a Tea Cup

Meret Oppenheim is a name familiar to anyone who has taken an Art History survey course. Her brilliant, edgy and whimsical fur-lined tea cup, Object, is perennially trotted out as the emblematic symbol of the Dadaist movement. But as Mirrors of the Mind, a comprehensive retrospective of Oppenheim’s oeuvre makes clear, Oppenheim was far more than a one-shot wonder with a long and interesting career. 

The show at EMMA (the Espoo Museum of Modern Art) includes 200 works by Oppenheim and other surrealists like Man Ray and Daniel Spoerri, as well as photographs of Oppenheim herself. Oppenheim died in 1985, but she remains a leader in the field of Surrealism and an icon of feminism. 

In her 50-year career, Oppenheim created paintings, sculptures, drawings and graphics. She also designed and made jewelry, as well as furniture and garments, and if all that wasn’t enough, she also wrote poetry.

The exhibition is beautifully curated and displayed in a series of small galleries that suit the work’s aesthetic, scale and era. Particularly effective, is the room featuring glass vitrines placed within plywood walls that are both warm and perfectly attuned to the work on view—it would behoove the people at the soulless shopping mall-like institutions masquerading as museums to take a look at this presentation and see the power of intimate spaces.

I was charmed by Oppenheim's paintings and works on paper. The Earl Queen is a mysterious, somewhat haunting painting of a strange headed figure holding an infant with the same sort of head but with elongated crossing horns. The heads are kind of sinister, almost satanic. The two figures are next to a bushy tree that seems illuminated. In the background one can see the lighted windows of a train. The dreamlike scene is nocturnal and rendered in grays and blacks. The exceptions are the min figures' red and blue clothes. These are nearly diaphanous and suggest an apparition. Moth is a nearly abstract work of beautifully modulated grays, white and black. These two works reveal a subtlety and range surprising if all you have to go on as far as Oppenheim's work is Object. Her etching, Schoolgirl's Notebook is a replica of her math notebook in which she drew "x = hare", a nonsensical equation meant to illustrate her aversion to both math and school is simple, witty and striking. 

Giacometti's Ear, a true-to-life size bronze rendering of an ear is a marvelous object. You don't really notice at first, but Oppenheim has used something that looks like a tree trunk, or perhaps the silhouette of a woman's body, two lilies and a fist to form the anatomy of the ear. Traccia her famous bronze table with its funny bird legs is here, a delightful union of elegance and farce. I didn't see My Nurse at EMMA, but later in Stockholm during the same trip, a confection composed of a pair of white pumps neatly trussed and served up on a platter. The piece de resistance are the manchettes stuck jauntily onto the heels like the shoes are a proper crown roast. One is drawn to the materials, the humor and also the enigmatic quality. The photographs, taken over many years, are testament to Oppenheim's fearlessness and commitment to art. 

Man Ray's elegant swirl of a lampshade and Spoerri's Transvestite in a Blue Picture with a Glove Holder (from 2001) were two works by Oppenheim's circle that stood out. 

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