The Legacy of Meret Oppenheim Lives On!
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The Legacy of Meret Oppenheim Lives On!

MASI Lugano is hosting an exhibition dedicated to Meret Oppenheim. The art museum is not far from the village of Carona, where the artist used to spend her summers. Members of her family recently met with the museum's curator there to prepare for the exhibition. 

Bertolt Brecht lived just a stone's throw away. Hermann Hesse visited Oppenheim's grandparents, Lisa and Theo Wenger, on a daily basis. Many artists who are now world-famous would meet at Meret Oppenheim's home in Carona; a small palazzo that has been known as Casa Costanza since time immemorial.

The house with its thick walls and high ceilings stands at the heart of the village. Visitors to Casa Costanza are greeted with stories from the last 300 years. The remarkable house is just a few kilometers from Lugano and has belonged to the Oppenheim and Wenger families for several generations.

Around the Table with Man Ray

Art historian Guido Comis, close family members of Meret Oppenheim, and the team of journalists from "Aspects," Credit Suisse's new magazine in Switzerland, are all gathered at Casa Costanza. The group is reminiscent of the artist's circle of Ticino-based friends and cozy talks round the table with other artist friends who traveled to southern Switzerland from all over the world. Oppenheim regularly met with friends and acquaintances in Carona – just as she had previously done in Paris when she belonged to the circle of surrealists. There, she was one of the few women among men such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti.

Today, we are being hosted by Oppenheim's sister-in-law Birgit Wenger, together with her daughter, Lisa Wenger – the executor and publisher of the artist's literary estate. It was Lisa Wenger who invited Guido Comis, the curator of the MASI (Museo d'arte della Svizzera italiana) in Lugano, to today's round-table meeting. Comis is planning an exhibition entitled "Meret Oppenheim. Works in dialogue." Birgit Wenger has joined them. Now aged 95, she reminisces about the first time she met the legendary Meret: "I was 17, she intimidated me, she was Meret Oppenheim! Even as a young woman, she was a dignified character."

Letter to André Breton

Meret Oppenheim had, and continues to have, a magical attraction for her contemporaries and Swiss artists. Casa Costanza, her grandparents' house, is her "synthesis of the arts." Within these four walls, her personality and her spirit live on – in every corner and in every room. Oppenheim altered and configured the palazzo to her own plans, and designed most of the furnishings. In the great hall, her gold-leaf chandelier hangs gleaming, as if its creator had only just dusted it. Her onyx-marble table glows from within. Oppenheim loved working with precious and costly materials, although she had little money during her own lifetime. Material things did not matter to her. In a letter to her artist friend André Breton, she wrote: "The most important thing in my life is independence and my freedom."

This philosophy on life is reflected in her bedroom, which is sparsely furnished and has a wardrobe that is monastically narrow. Oppenheim had no mirrors; vanity was not an issue for her.

"Déjeuner en Fourrure"

At the age of 23, Oppenheim created the fur cup entitled "Déjeuner en fourrure." "It was a stroke of genius, one of many in her career," says Guido Comis. When MOMA in New York bought the work in 1936, the young woman became an icon of the art world.

The curator of MASI has worked closely with the family to create his exhibition. "Meret Oppenheim: Works in dialogue" is designed to showcase the artist's significance and strength by highlighting her influence on those around her. Comis will be presenting contemporary works of art, alongside pieces from Oppenheim's artist friends. On display will be works from Max Ernst and Man Ray, as well as others from younger artists such as Robert Gober and Mona Hatoum. The exhibition will focus on a number of different themes, including Meret's dreamlike fantasies, her erotic pictures, her fetishes, and her relationship with nature.

In the world of art history, Oppenheim is often only remembered for creating the "fur cup" and for being something of a surrealist muse. Curator Guido Comis hopes to portray a more varied picture of the artist and showcase the breadth of Oppenheim's works. He believes her personality will exert an even greater impact the closer we bring her to the works of other artists.

Swiss Artist

Along with the Wenger ladies and Guido Comis, a circle of friends has gathered at Casa Costanza. This is something of a homage to the years when Oppenheim lived, philosophized and played the surrealists' favorite game, Cadavre Exquis (Exquisite Corpse), with friends here. They played it on hot summer evenings in the cool Solaio, the storage area under the roof, and at Christmas in front of the fireplace in the great hall.

Meret maintained friendships with a great sense of responsibility, her relatives say. She supported, encouraged, and bought the works of her protégés or exchanged them for her own. She defined herself as a Swiss artist and placed great importance on her roots, particularly after she returned to Bern from Paris. And yet her art transcended nationality. Boundaries in life – as in art – were there to be broken down by her: whether between nature and culture, dreams and reality, men and women.

A visitors' book has been kept at Casa Costanza since 1917. Meret herself kept a kind of diary, in which she recounted her love for this very special house. She noted down the origin and history of all the works of art on small pieces of paper, and concealed them in the works themselves. Thanks to her efforts, visitors up to the present day have been able to discover the history of many works for themselves.

Meret Oppenheim, the art cosmopolitan, was at home all over the world, and yet her heart belonged to a small palazzo in a tiny village in Ticino.