Bizarre objects created from paradoxical juxtapositions of made and found components subvert the rational and reveal the unconscious. Cubist and Dada assemblages and photomontages incorporate anti-artistic and ephemeral material. Surrealist objects made from the early 1930s―and displayed as curios in cabinets alongside items from nature and ‘primitive’ cultures―are also worlds apart from traditional fine art and aesthetics. They confound, amuse, shock and annoy. A sewing machine is redundant in a felt straitjacket, a tactile foam breast becomes the cover of a book, and a life-size female figurine is subjected to extreme acts of fetishism and mutilation.
Meret Oppenheim‘s Squirrel elicits an equivocal response. Feminine, masculine, puzzling, amusing, seductive, frustrating, macabre and kinky, Squirrel entices and repels. Lured by initial connotations of the all-too-familiar beer stein and fluffy tail, the viewer is inevitably prevented from a tangible experience of the original. We cannot enjoy the ‘amber liquid’ because of the stein’s altered function. The squirrel’s pelt brings pleasure to the skin but not to the tongue, while the mock liquid is stoppered by a hardened foaming head. With this object and many others like it, Oppenheim has succeeded in realising the Surrealist demand ‘to hound the mad beast of function’.
Niki van den Heuvel, Exhibition Assistant, International Art, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
This Surrealist object was inspired by a conversation between Oppenheim and artists Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at a Paris cafe. Admiring Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelet, Picasso remarked that one could cover anything with fur, to which she replied, “Even this cup and saucer.” Soon after, when asked by André Breton, Surrealism’s leader, to participate in the first Surrealist exhibition dedicated to objects, Oppenheim bought a teacup, saucer, and spoon at a department store and covered them with the fur of a Chinese gazelle. In so doing, she transformed genteel items traditionally associated with feminine decorum into sensuous, sexually punning tableware.