Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Surrealism’s Female Sexuality




Foreword

Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101 articles intend to illustrate the problems Surelaism’s artworks generated in terms of gender and sexuality, especially women’s. Each article will explore a different artwork and analyse the issues they represent or the way some artists have dealt with them through their art. This series will delve into this by examining artworks by Meret Oppenheim, Hans Bellmar, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Claude Cahun. The article series will be divided into five parts:


  1. Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Surrealism’s Female Sexuality

  2. Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Surrealism’s Misogyny

  3. Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Surrealism’s Female Masquerade

  4. Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Surrealism’s Gender Play

  5. Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Gender Identity Within Surrealism


Surrealism’s Gender Issues 101: Surrealism’s Female Sexuality



Object by Meret Oppenheim, 1971, Bob Hanson


It was common for the art world to be dominated by men, especially in the 1920s. Although​​ the Surrealist group was much more progressive, it did not stray from their notion of male superiority and domination. Although a small number of women were part of the group and produced artworks, "women were asked to represent it more than to inhabit it" (Hal Foster, 2001, p 203). This article will explore the role female sexuality played in Surrealism through the artwork Breakfast in Fur by Meret Oppenheim whilst analysing her psychosexual view of femininity in terms of identity and eroticism.


Born in 1913 in Germany, Meret Oppenheim was a Swiss artist who moved to Paris to commence her career. She is one of the most acclaimed female artists of the Surrealist period, a movement in which women artists and women, in general, mainly were sexualised and seen as muses rather than reputable and talented artists. Meret Oppenheim was an essential artist to the evolution of Surrealism. After the first world war, a time of destruction and lack of beauty and positivity in the world, Surrealism tackled art from a new angle: art no longer represented what the artist saw; it began to represent the artist's unconscious mind.



Surrealists at the Central Bureau of Surrealist Research, 1924, Man Ray


Many of Oppenheim’s artworks express the artist's views on women and female sexuality. However, this article will concentrate on Breakfast in Fur, made in 1936. Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur, her most iconic artwork that launched her career, initially started as a conversation between herself, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at a Parisian cafe. The artwork displays a teacup, saucer and spoon placed in a traditional tea-like fashion, but each component is covered in gazelle fur. The fur and the cup do not match; they do not naturally belong together.


Upon seeing this, the viewer may feel uncomfortable; it heightens the viewer’s sensory perception, imagining the feel and even smell of the assemblage. This reaction to a Surrealist object was considered key to its success by its members: the objects made were designed to activate an embodied response from the viewer.


The title itself, Breakfast in Fur, implies there is to be a certain level of engagement with the piece from the viewer. The word ‘in’ suggests where the breakfast is being had: the fur. The title plays a large part in igniting the viewer's sense of touch, without even touching it: the nature of the teacup implies it is to be held and come into contact with one's mouth, creating a cringe sensation when what is meant to be met as porcelain is fur. Artist Jenny Holzer compares the fur cup to eating food with hair; it is "repulsive". She believes Oppenheim "killed off the chit chat part of the tea ceremony". (Jenny Holzer, 1988.) In a typical Surrealist manner, Breakfast in Fur is controversial and provocative, creating various meaningful juxtapositions related to female sexuality.


It is vital to explore these juxtapositions Oppenheim created, and they can be seen as the subject of the artwork. The most noticeable is the clash between culture and nature, "animating the inanimate'' (Anne Umland, 2022 audio). The former being a cheap set bought from a Monoprix, a cheap French department store, and the latter being an animal's fur. The teacup is accessible to all, while the gazelle fur is not; it derives from a wild animal, directly from nature. The fur wraps what the teacup represents: civilisation.


The notion of a tea party is a very social and common event that has been part of many different cultures across the world for centuries. The Monoprix tea set is a commercial object, something any ordinary person uses daily. It has no significant value. Oppenheim contrasts the vapidness of the porcelain cup with gazelle fur, one of the most prestigious and expensive furs. Breakfast in Fur correlates and enforces a strong juxtaposition between the mundane and the extraordinary, modesty and extravagance. The combination of such luxury and such frugality creates an intentional confusion, corroborating one of Surrealism’s aims. Bretton, one of the movement’s core founders, believes "mundane things presented in unexpected ways had the power to challenge reason, [...] to connect to their subconscious.", making this piece a very reputable and powerful one. (MoMA Learning, 2022.)


Meret Oppenheim holding her famed work, Object, in 1975, Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo


Breakfast in Fur hampers middle-class values thanks to its highly suggestive and erotic nature, especially feminine sensuality. The teacup and spoon themselves create an accord between male and female sexual conventions: the cup being female, comparable to a vagina, and the spoon being male, referencing a penis - the spoon goes in the cup like a penis goes inside a vagina. In addition, the fur of the artwork evokes pubic hair, especially the notion of bringing the cup up to one’s mouth, recalling the act of oral sex. Oppenheim did not make the artwork explicitly vulgar. The messages portrayed are subtle and interpretative. Unlike a nude photograph or a naked depiction, which does not leave much to the imagination, Breakfast in Fur is solely based on creativity and instinct.


The sexual nature of this piece is an important one to note. Oppenheim has rendered a simple teacup, saucer and spoon covered in fur into a highly provocative and suggestive piece of art. Other artists have been more obscene in their artworks. Compared to most male artists regarding female sexuality, their pieces depict explicit nudes of women. Oppenheim’s work is astonishing and significant for the role female artists play in Surrealism and art in general, thanks to her subtlety in creating a powerful and womanly piece without using a woman, but solely through senses and fantasy. This artwork depicts and represents female sexuality by completely ignoring the standard male gaze many artworks perform.


Jenny Holzer describes the cup as something "that could fight back" and "reverses all sorts of expectations"(Anne Umland recording 2022). To me, the work represents its artist: Oppenheim ‘fighting back’, reclaiming her femininity in such a male-dominated universe. She exaggerated the unpleasant and uncomfortable side of what female sexuality is. A banal object is covered by a prestigious one, the ordinary covered by the extraordinary, the expected covered by the unexpected. This is what Oppenheim views as female sexuality in Surrealism. The viewer cannot but look and remain confused by its overpowering sense of presence and importance.


Bibliography:

  • Foster, H. (2001). Violation and Veiling in Surrealist Photography: Woman as Fetish, as Shattered Object, as Phallus.

  • Krauss, R. (1999). Claude Cahun and Dora Maar: By Way of Introduction, Bachelors.

  • Mundy, J (2001) Surrealism: Desire Unbound.

  • Spector, J. J. (1994). Surrealism Redefined [Review of Compulsive Beauty, by H. Foster]. Art Journal, 53(3), 108–111. https://doi.org/10.2307/777450

  • Unknown, MoMA, A Woman’s Work: Surrealist Artist Meret Oppenheim. https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/meret-oppenheim-object-paris-1936/


Image Sources:


Author Photo

Cosima Franchetti

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