Poetic Meret: The Poems and Paintings of Meret Oppenheim

Meret Oppenheim, Genoveva, 1971, wood, 127 × 74 × 123 centimetres. Photo: © mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, on loan from the Austrian Ludwig Foundation. Image courtesy Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung, Vienna. All images © Meret Oppenheim Estate, ProLitteris Zurich / CARCC Ottawa 2024.

Meret Oppenheim, the German-born Swiss artist, was 18 years old when she arrived in Paris in 1932. She wanted to be an artist and planned on taking classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière but found sitting in the cafés more illuminating. Alberto Giacometti, Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Man Ray—all older by decades—became her friends. In a shockingly short period of time she had become a leading figure among the surrealists who dominated the scene. Her name still resonates with the movement despite her efforts in later years to detach from it as she shifted further into pop art and nouveau réalisme.

Although her sculpture, painting, performance and design have been celebrated— as recently as 2022, in her survey show, “Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—the artist is less known for the poems she wrote, which served both as salve and mirror throughout her life. In those heady café days, sipping from a cup that would soon inspire her greatest work, she wrote her first poems. This one from 1934 suggests a youthful cry for freedom.

For you, against you
Throw all the stones behind you
And let fall the walls.

At you, upon you
The hooves tear loose
For a hundred singers above.

I gut my mushrooms
I am the first guest come through
And let fall the walls.

Object, 1936, a teacup, saucer and spoon covered in fur, remains her magnum opus—an inspired stroke of luck. While dining with Picasso and his companion, the artist Dora Maar, Oppenheim wore a fur-covered bracelet she had made for the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Admiring its unusual beauty, those at the table suggested that almost anything could be covered in fur. In the often told story, Oppenheim remembered jokingly calling the waiter over and requesting some fur to warm her cold cup. Meanwhile the poet André Breton was gathering artwork for “Exposition surréaliste d’objects,” an exhibition he was organizing at the Galerie Charles Ratton. He asked Oppenheim to contribute to the show; the timing was perfect. Oppenheim bought a tea set from the Monoprix department store and headed to her studio, where she proceeded to cover it with fur.

Breton preferred to call the fur cup Le Déjeuner en fourrure, partly in reference to the Édouard Manet painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1862, a masterpiece that courted controversy in its day when the Salon rejected it for contemporizing the female nude. Similar reactions befell the fur cup, with viewers shocked by its audacious sexual implications. Oppenheim favoured the more utilitarian title, Object.

Later that year the fur cup travelled to New York, where Alfred H Barr Jr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, included it in the expansive landmark exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.” He bought the artwork outright from Oppenheim for $50 with the intention of convincing the museum’s president, A Conger Goodyear, to acquire it for the permanent collection. It was no secret that Goodyear was not a fan, calling the artwork “ridiculous.” The ongoing resistance from the museum’s board of trustees stalled the acquisition until 1946 when it was finally accepted into the museum’s canon. Incredibly, it took until 1961 before Object was put on public display. Today it is considered one of the museum’s treasures.

As an artist who worked intuitively, Oppenheim eschewed a singular style or a particular medium. She subverted the purpose of common objects and used mythology and folklore to pursue her own story. Dreams were a source of inspiration, and from a young age she wrote them down in a notebook. She developed an association with Carl Jung, the founding father of analytical psychology, through her father, who was a psychiatrist and who arranged a session for her. Jung’s work became integral to her practice and she used his teachings as a guide.

The Suffering of Genevieve, 1939, oil on canvas, 50 × 71 centimetres. Image courtesy Meret Oppenheim Estate. Collection of Kunstmuseum Bern.

All the while Oppenheim continued to write poetry, albeit sporadically and mostly as a private practice. What is known is that she wrote 49 poems. With the recent collection, The Loveliest Vowel Empties: Collected Poems by Meret Oppenheim, translated by Kathleen Heil for the publisher, World Poetry Books, there is now an opportunity to consider how her forays into poetry align with her visual work.

Heil chose not to include dates—a potential obstacle for those trying to assess where the poems fit with Oppenheim’s history. Instead she notes that most were written between 1933 and 1944, a period that overlapped with a 17-year personal crisis that began after Oppenheim’s success with Object and her forced relocation to Switzerland in 1937 and ended when she returned to a studio practice in Bern in 1954 with a renewed sense of purpose.

In this anguished time, attributed to depression, she laboured to finish work and to reconcile whether it should be kept or destroyed. Her suffering coincided with the rise of fascism, a time that saw her family’s livelihood lost. Her father was Jewish and was banned from continuing his medical practice in Nazi Germany, leaving him unable to financially support his daughter in Paris. The family was forced to relocate to Switzerland and Oppenheim had no choice but to join them.

Object, 1936, fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon, cup 10.9 centimetres in diameter, saucer 23.7 centimetres in diameter, spoon 20.2 centimetres long, overall height 7.3 centimetres. Collection of Museum of Modern Art/New York. Photo: Digital Image © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, New York.

Common objects, animals, myths and dreams figure repeatedly in Oppenheim’s verse, conveying transformative meanings consistent with the uncertain times in which she lived. In her poems rocks obstruct the way, “falling to his right … falling to his left,” just as they provide a clear path, “without harming the coral, nimbly rushing from stone to stone”; clouds become a safe perch for “munching on marzipan” but equally “in the clouds the witches are laughing.”

Oppenheim’s poems read like her paintings and her paintings evoke her poetry. She summons imagery in words, but the writing is not illustrative even when correlations with her visual work are evident. As much as there are overlapping themes between verse and image, she kept them separate. The tortoise, mythologized for its immortality, figures in the painting The Dream of the White Marble Tortoise With Horseshoes on Its Feet, 1975—its title and subject matter linking back to a dream she’d had in 1960— and returns yet again years later in what is thought to be her last poem, “Self-portrait from 50,000 BC to X,” written in 1980, one of the few poems she titled.

My feet stand up on stones rounded
by many steps in a craggy cave. I let
myself enjoy the bear meat. My belly
is bathed by a warm ocean current, I
stand in the lagoons, my gaze lands on a city’s
reddened walls. Arms and ribcage are stuck
in armor made of tightly sewn leather scales.
In my hands I hold a turtle made of white
marble. My thoughts are shut away
inside my head as in a beehive.
I’ll write them down later. The script was burned
when the library at Alexandria burned. The
black snake with the white head is located in
the museum of Paris. It too will burn. Each and every
thought that has ever been thunk rolls round the earth
in the great spiritsphere. The earth cracks, the
spiritsphere bursts, thoughts disperse in the
universe, where they on other stars
live on.

Quick, Quick, the Most Beautiful Vowel Is Voiding (ME par MO), 1934, oil on canvas, 45.5 × 65 centimetres. Image courtesy Meret Oppenheim Estate.

A guessing game is inevitable when reading Oppenheim’s poems—they entice us to think about links to her visual art. An exceptional instance where she tethers a poem to an artwork comes in 1934 with a painting whose title is translated from the original German as Quick, Quick, the Most Beautiful Vowel Is Voiding. An alternate translation, offered by Heil, The Loveliest Vowel Empties, forms the title of her book and is lifted from the three-line poem Oppenheim wrote the same year.

We feed on berries
We worship with the shoe
Whoosh! The loveliest vowel empties.

The painting is an abstract portrait of her lover—the surrealist painter Max Ernst—or, more accurately, is a symbolic representation of their breakup. She abruptly called off their passionate affair after one year for fear that Ernst’s reputation and experience would unduly harm her burgeoning efforts to become an artist.

Oppenheim dedicated the painting M.E. par M.O. on the lower right corner of the canvas and it served as her parting gift to him. In the painting, what looks like a ball of fluffy grey fur is chained to a slanted line that bifurcates the canvas. Above this line six biomorphic shapes in colours common to Ernst’s paint palette hover in an orderly state of liberation. It’s not difficult to infer this painting is about both artists being set free.

During a talk at the Menil Collection in Houston—where “My Exhibition” was on display—Oppenheim’s niece, Lisa Wenger, elaborated on the “breakup” painting, explaining that during the Second World War, Ernst—who was German-born but living in France—spent two years in an internment camp at which time many of his belongings, including the painting, went missing. Wenger goes on to tell how years after the war, an antiques dealer found the painting in terrible condition while browsing in a Paris flea market. It was sold back to Oppenheim, at a premium, and in 1981 she restored the ravaged painting to its original state. It is now part of the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern.

In the painting’s attendant poem, the immediacy of the onomatopoeic “Whoosh” and the cyclical verb “empties” suggest a literary ouroboros, a favoured Jungian archetype of self-actualization that Jung identified as fundamental: “In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima material of the art was man himself.”

Oppenheim struggled to fully acknowledge her self-worth until she re-emerged from her decades-long depression. She’d earlier found something of herself in the late 18th-century romance poem “Genoveva von Brabant” by Ludwig Tieck. In the story a woman is banished to a cave in the forest and stripped of purpose for allegedly committing adultery. She is eventually redeemed and set free but not before enduring shame and isolation.

The Dream of the White Marble Tortoise With Horseshoes on Its Feet, 1975, gouache and objects pasted on grey paper, 37.3 × 24.5 centimetres. Collection of Kunstmuseum, Lucerne, the BEST Art Collection Lucerne Foundation (formerly the Bernhard Eglin Foundation). Image courtesy Kunstmuseum, Lucerne.

Oppenheim reworked this motif in a number of her artworks over a range of time: the painting The Suffering of Genevieve, 1939; the watercolour Genoveva (Genevieve), 1942; the drawing Genevieve’s Mirror, 1967; and the sculpture Genoveva, 1971. She depicted the Genevieve figure as helpless and alone, often with no arms, suggesting her own vulnerability and perhaps ambivalence over her affair with Ernst. The loss of her vibrant life in Paris to the dreary life she professed to have in Switzerland may have also manifested in the stark figure. She first imagined Genevieve in a poem dated both 1933 and 1936.

Freedom! Finally! The harpoons fly.

A rainbow encamps on the streets, Undermined only by the distant buzz of giant bees.

Everyone loses everything—as she, as ever, Buzzed past in vain.



Standing on her head
Two meters above the ground

Her son Schmerzereich:
Unbearably swaddled in her hair.

With her teeth she blows
him off and away!

Little fountain.

I repeat: Little fountain.
(Wind and shrieking in the distance.)

In her last years Oppenheim began to couple her poems with etchings in small-edition artist’s books. It was the first time she’d made such text-to-image pairings while still maintaining an abstract connection between the two. Her first book, Sansibar, came out in 1981.


As he’s turned his back
He’s lost
Above the chimneys
The little red corners
The little red foxes
All live forlorn
They ever endure
They eat their fur.

Genevieve’s Mirror (Der Spiegel der Genoveva), 1967, debossed print, 25.4 × 17.15 centimetres. Collection of National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC. Gift of Thomas Hill, in memory of Rosemary Furtak. Photo: Lee Stalsworth. © Courtesy Lisa Wenger and Martin A Bühler, Meret Oppenheim Estate. Image courtesy National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

On November 15, 1985, Oppenheim died of a heart attack in the intensive care unit of the Kantonsspital Basel and on that same day Caroline was published—a final book of her poems and etchings, with its title referencing her favourite poet, Karoline von Günderrode. Oppenheim is buried in the hills of Carona, a hamlet above Lugano, Switzerland, where she spent many years in the family home. Her red sandstone monument is marked with an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. ❚

Leah Singer, born in Winnipeg, Canada, is a multidisciplinary artist and an arts writer based in New York City.

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