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Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

Meret Oppenheim, Object (Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon)

Meret Oppenheim, a surrealist artist, created a famous fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon. This unusual artwork, sparked by a conversation with Picasso, challenges our sense of normalcy by combining domestic objects with wild elements. The piece represents a collision between polite society and our raw, inner selves.

Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1936, fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon (The Museum of Modern Art) © Meret Oppenheim

A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(pleasant piano music) - [Steven] The artist Meret Oppenheim was sitting in a cafe in Paris in 1936 with Picasso and Dora Maar. - [Beth] They were admiring a bracelet that Oppenheim was wearing that she herself had made, which was metal wrapped in fur, and Picasso remarked, "You could cover anything with fur" - [Steven] And Oppenheim said, "Even this cup and saucer." And soon after, she purchased some Chinese gazelle and wrapped a cup and saucer and spoon, which is what we're seeing here. This object became very famous very quickly, and cuts to the heart of the surrealist strategy of the collision of things that don't belong together in order to rupture our sense of normalcy - [Beth] Oppenheim was a serious surrealist artist. She was engaged with the surrealists in Paris at a very young age. And felt very strongly about the independence of the freedom of the artist, and how difficult those things were as a woman artist. And so, although that famous story about this object is a fun one to tell, it does center it around Picasso and could lead us to forget about the importance of Meret Oppenheim herself. - [Steven] And the artist was keenly aware that she was too often viewed as muse and as a companion. But Oppenheim was forceful in her assertion of her own artistic independence. - [Beth] I do wonder whether Picasso or a male member of the surrealist group would've adopted domestic objects like this and have done something so creative and unusual. - [Steven] The teacup and saucer and spoon was associated with the domestic, with the feminine, as is fur. But there is this striking and aggressive relationship between the cool, crisp, smooth, hard quality of the porcelain, and the tactile quality of the fur. - [Beth] You describe the fur as being feminine, and we could associate the fur with a fur coat, for example. But the fur also for me represents the wild and the uncivilized, these things that are so elemental, as opposed to the polite society in which we usually think of the teacup and saucer and teaspoon. And so there's a kind of brutality and even violence here, to me - [Steven] The idea of wet, warm, fur touching your tongue, touching your lips, liquid pouring across that into your mouth is immediately repellent. But it's interesting to think about why it's repellent. To think about it through a psychoanalytic lens. And psychoanalysis was of deep interest to the surrealist community. That while our conscious mind, our civilized mind, our public mind, is repelled by this. At a deeper level, our unconscious mind is attracted to it. That there's a degree of desire that we have to keep hidden. And the conflict between the unconscious and the conscious is what makes us so deeply uncomfortable. And that is a conflict that has been so much a part of modern culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. And I think the brilliance of the object is its ability to bring to the fore this collision between polite society and the rawness of the interior self. (pleasant piano music)