My Album: From Childhood to 1943 
by Meret Oppenheim, translated by Lisa Wenger and Martina Corgnati.
Scheidegger & Spiess, 324 pp., £42, September 2022, 978 3 03942 093 3
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The Loveliest Vowel Empties 
by Meret Oppenheim, translated by Kathleen Heil.
World Poetry Books, 128 pp., £18, February, 978 1 954218 08 6
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Meret Oppenheim​ ’s Ma Gouvernante, a pair of white leather pumps trussed up like a Sunday roast and served on a silver platter, is an allegory of other-womanhood. In 1933, three years before she exhibited Ma Gouvernante at her first solo show, Oppenheim began an affair with Max Ernst. She was 20, studying art in Paris; he was 44. His wife, the painter Marie-Berthe Aurenche, was 29. The shoes were Aurenche’s, a second-hand gift from Ernst to Oppenheim, who bound and plated them. After the exhibition ended, she sent the piece to the couple’s house, where Aurenche disassembled the sculpture and gave away the shoes.

Oppenheim seems to have enjoyed playing up to the image of the Surrealist femme sauvage. She posed nude for Man Ray behind the wheel of a printing press, one palm covered with ink, her hair slicked back and her neck encircled by a thin black band. The machine’s handle suggestively juts out from her pelvis while she holds the wheel, as if she’s stroking one penis while sporting another. Her parents had named her after the feral child Meretlein in Gottfried Keller’s novel Der grüne Heinrich (1855). Meretlein is taken in by a Christian family, who try – and fail – to beat her into submission. She dances naked, charms snakes and possibly even worships the devil. Oppenheim’s mother, Eva, was the daughter of the Swiss suffragette and children’s author Lisa Wenger; her aunt Ruth was briefly married to Hermann Hesse. Her father, Erich, was a German-Jewish doctor who was friendly with Carl Jung: he encouraged Oppenheim to record her dreams from an early age. Eva annotated her drawings – ‘Cinderella on a ladder/A tree on the right flowers to the left’ – and Oppenheim pasted some of them into Mein Album, a visual autobiography completed in 1958 and now published in English for the first time.

‘Ma Gouvernante’ (1967)

Mein Album was in part a therapeutic exercise. In 1937 Oppenheim left Paris for Switzerland: her father had been forced to abandon his Berlin practice and could no longer support her. In Basel she enrolled in vocational school to study painting and art conservation. Although she continued to work, she fell into a depression that stifled her output for the next eighteen years. ‘I felt,’ she later wrote, ‘as if millennia of discrimination against women were resting on my shoulders, as if embodied in my feelings of inferiority.’

In their introduction to Mein Album, Martina Corgnati and Lisa Wenger suggest that she assembled this ‘anti-autobiography’ to correct ‘an unpleasant, and false, picture of [herself] as a seductress, a ruthless femme fatale’. The photographs of Oppenheim as a toddler and private images of her friends certainly humanise her, and she shows herself trying to make her way in the world. Notes from Alberto Giacometti – ‘How are you? I’ve been looking for you and calling you for a thousand years’ – and bits of poetry are tucked in alongside important records, such as a letter from Alfred H. Barr, the first curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, asking to borrow three of her sculptures for the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism in 1936.

Of the three artworks Barr requested, only one piece – a teacup, saucer and spoon covered in gazelle hide – made it to New York. Object, better known as Le Déjeuner en fourrure, is by some distance Oppenheim’s most famous sculpture. At MoMA it captured the spotlight, and the New York Times used it to illustrate its review of the show. The article, by Edward Allen Jewell, was dismissive: if Dada ‘believed in nothing’, Jewell wrote, Surrealism, its giddy offspring, was more interesting and more contemptible for believing so much in itself. The ‘world craves new light and desperately needs new heroes’, but these pranksters were ‘dancers at the wake’. And yet, he added,

the exhibition itself, considered as a devastating and pot-valiant whole, is perhaps the most incredibly mad divertissement the town has ever seen. If you would go insane quite pleasantly and painlessly, let me recommend that you beg of one of the attendants a lump of 1921 sugar out of Mr Duchamp’s sneeze-trap, drop it into Mr Oppenheim’s fur cup, stir well, and then sit down to disintegrate at the hearth of Mr Terry’s ‘Fireplace with Waterfall’.

Jewell’s assumption that Oppenheim was a man may explain his unruffled response to Object, whose provocations slid beneath his notice: the pelt of the upturned cup, which both invites and repels touch; the spoon, phallic or digital; the saucer, a speckled disc of hair pressed down by the weight of the cup. When most people look at Object, they don’t think of stirring in a lump of sugar.

The title Le Déjeuner en fourrure came from André Breton, who wanted to yoke the cup to Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus im Pelz (1870), about a man who likes to be beaten by his lover while she wears a fur coat. But Object is more abstract than this interpretation allows. The sculpture is genital without being gendered: after all, a vagina doesn’t look anything like a teacup. It presents the idea of an organ without the context of a body – a dislocation that is countered or complicated by the highly recognisable shape of the teacup and the setting it implies. If the sculpture reads as feminine, or as having to do with femininity, it is because women are associated with certain rituals and labours (pouring tea or ‘being mother’). Object, then, is not about sexual roles but about the formal contrivances through which we experience them. It exposes the caprice of sex, and therefore the absurdity of an existence regulated by the body into which one happens to be born.

‘Woman’s problem,’ Oppenheim told an interviewer in 1984, ‘is not her sexuality but her relations with society.’ Although she disliked the word ‘feminist’, her work continually insists on the arbitrariness of embodiment. Bice Curiger, who put together Oppenheim’s catalogue raisonné in 1989, wrote of her ‘obvious indifference to style’ but it is perhaps better to say that Oppenheim treated form as essentially accidental. After her Surrealist phase she moved on to Nouveau Réalisme, Pop Art and monochrome painting – a career-long comment on the bizarre rendezvous between our selves and their expressions.

Neither Oppenheim’s curiosity nor her sense of humour made much of an appearance at My Exhibition, a retrospective of her work that was recently on display at MoMA. The show was loosely based on plans drawn up by Oppenheim in 1983, two years before she died, but the overall effect was diffuse and undercooked. Nearly two hundred works in different media were grouped chronologically and displayed with what seemed to be peevish inattention, as though it were the fault of the artworks that they are hard to categorise. Little effort was made to place Oppenheim in context or to provide a narrative of her development as an artist.

But there were still things to see. In Daphne and Apollo (1943), Oppenheim painted Apollo metamorphosing into a giant potato. War and Peace, from the same year, sets a handsomely dressed couple at the centre of a dark field, surrounded by glowing lines of razor wire. Most striking, to my mind, was the rarely exhibited Dead Moth (1946), a small painting on wood and slate. The moth, with its crumbled edges and veined white wings, looks like a letter creased from too much folding and unfolding and brought to mind Cornelis Gijsbrechts’s trompe l’oeil images of paper. It’s an image of war, or a relic: a bandage, a mound of ash, a handkerchief dropped to the ground.

The best work from her later years came out of Oppenheim’s interest in greyscale and negative space, as in a series of paintings from the 1970s with a motif of pale feathered lines. Uniform but turbulent, the lines seem variously to represent water, fog, clouds or the gaseous surface of a star. This was a turn to nature, but not a retreat from the body. Here, too, Oppenheim is thinking about perception, about distortions of form and what might lie beyond representation.

Where My Exhibition failed to surprise, The Loveliest Vowel Empties, the first English-language collection of Oppenheim’s poetry, succeeds in spades. The poems, written between 1932 and 1980, are printed in their original language (she wrote in both German and French) with facing-page translations by Kathleen Heil. They are not in chronological order, bear no dates and have no bibliographic information. This makes them seem utterly new, but some details are lost. We aren’t told that a short lyric beginning ‘What a beautiful woman/Somnambulant’ first appeared in a notebook in which Oppenheim also recorded the circumstances of its production: it was ‘written under the influence of hashish, induced by a small cotton wad that I was twirling in my fingers. I then gave the poem to André Breton, with the cotton wad stuck to the top of the page.’ In the notebook, reproduced in Mein Album, Oppenheim has drawn a little poppy.

Heil has taken some liberties with the translations. Here is ‘Edelfuchs im Morgenrot’ (from 1934):

Edelfuchs im Morgenrot
Spinnt sein Netz im Abendrot
Schädlich ist der Widerschein
Schädlich sind die Nebenmotten
Ohne sie kann nichts gedeihn.

And Heil’s version:

The fine fox in the glow of dawn
Spins his web in the glow of dusk
Baneful is the reflection
Baneful are the additional suns
Without with nothing thrives.

As Heil points out in her introduction, the neologism ‘Nebenmotten’ literally means ‘additionalmoths’. A faithful translation might render the line ‘Noxious are the extra moths’ (I prefer ‘noxious’ to ‘baneful’ for the way it preserves the sibilance of ‘schädlich’). Heil’s defence of her line is curious:

Oppenheim’s poetry … is often driven by sound to build (associative) sense. [Thus] ‘Schädlich sind die Nebenmotten’ becomes ‘Baneful are the additional suns’ – where Nebenmotten (the invented compound ‘additionalmoths’) calls to mind Nebenkosten (a ‘real’ word in German referring to one’s monthly utility bills). The English translation transforms these ‘additional sums’ into suns.

I have never paid a utility bill in Germany, so I can’t say if ‘Nebenmotten’ readily evokes ‘Nebenkosten’ – which is, however, the word Google will think you mean if you type ‘Nebenmotten’ into its search engine. The more obvious allusion is to ‘Die Nebensonnen’, the penultimate song in Schubert’s Winterreise, which is usually translated as ‘The False Suns’ or ‘The Phantom Suns’. If you wanted to import the reference into Oppenheim’s poem you could do worse than to turn ‘Nebenmotten’ into ‘shadow moths’, since ‘shadow’ captures the idea of something faint or spectral while retaining the gist of ‘neben’, which means ‘alongside’.

The text of ‘Die Nebensonnen’, by Wilhelm Müller, is very close in spirit to Oppenheim’s poem. Both use the play of light and shade brought on by the rising and setting of the sun to suggest psychic disorientation, and both end with a depressive’s paradox. Having announced that two of his three suns have already set, Müller’s speaker wishes the last one away: ‘Im Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein,’ he says: ‘I’d be happier in the dark.’ Oppenheim, for her part, declares that ‘nothing thrives’ without the moths that come out at dawn and dusk. They, too, are happier in the dark.

There is creative translation, or what Heil calls ‘seizing freedom from the language one is working with’, and then there is making stuff up. Why turn Oppenheim’s ‘gelben Wellen’ – yellow waves – ‘mauve’? She chose her colours carefully, and their names signal an intensification of mood. Change the colour and you change the mood, as Heil does when she tweaks Oppenheim’s ‘weiß und weiß’, a pun that exploits the German homonym for ‘white’ and ‘knows’, into ‘knows and noirs’, which introduces an unwelcome association with the filmography of Orson Welles.

In the end, however, these are minor irritations. What Heil does very well is to capture Oppenheim’s deadpan fatalism:

I feel my gaze make its way to the forest
and the moon.
I feel my compass bearing towards these
nourishing proverbs.
And yet – my beautiful crocodile,
crocodile of my heart,
where is your pride headed to?

At her best she is a minimalist for whom brevity is as ominous as it is playful: a heart like a toy crocodile, ticking away. Some of the poems are just three lines long, like this break-up tribute to Ernst: ‘We feed on berries/We worship with the shoe/Whoosh! The loveliest vowel empties.’ Another valedictory poem invokes a lover’s ‘rhomboid face’ (‘Rhombengesicht’): ‘rectangular, triangular, red-green/submerged in water’. Oppenheim liked the syntax of a riddle, which pleases but leaves a bitter taste:

Whoever’s quick with the lure
Will always be cleaved by the light
But can never be caught,
Found dead or alive.

Her poetry doesn’t make sense of her art. It is far too elliptical, lopping the world into pictograms of dogs, glassware, cuckoo clocks, chocolate coins and ‘cold laughing flowers’. It is cerebral rather than corporeal and at times seems to expel any trace of the physical body. Or perhaps it is the poems that are embodied: wryly moribund, they seem to want nothing more than to exist in the absence of their author.

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