Meret OPPENHEIM | Eichhörnchen [Squirrel]

Germany 1913 – Switzerland 1985

fur, glass, plastic foam
no.38 from an edition of 100
not signed or dated
23.0 (h) x 17.5 (w) x 8.0 (d) cm
Purchased 2008
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 2008.931
© Meret Oppenheim. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia.


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 began working amongst the Surrealists in the 1930s, after moving to Paris, aged 18, to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. A talented and attractive ‘femme fatale’, the young artist became muse to Man Ray, embarked upon a passionate love affair with Max Ernst and impressed André Breton with her realisation of Surrealist ideas. It was, however, Oppenheim’s participation at the 1936 Exposition Surréaliste d’Objets and the exhibition of a single object which cemented her reputation and brought her international acclaim. Assembled from a porcelain teacup, saucer and spoon lined by pelt from a Chinese gazelle, the fetishistic Object or Breakfast in fur won instant celebrity and was elevated to the position of a quintessential surreal object.[1]

Plagued by the instant success of Breakfast in fur Oppenheim distanced herself from the Surrealists, participating only sporadically in their meetings and exhibitions up to the 1960s. While her life and work cannot absolutely be categorised by one particular style or movement, much of her output expresses Surrealist theories. One particular concept is the subversive redefinition and mystification of the function or ‘use values’ of objects and the subsequent undermining of rational conceptions.[2]

Squirrel was produced by Oppenheim 30 years after the success of Breakfast in fur, following a self-imposed hiatus from art. Of the edition of 100 made for the Galleria Medusa, only a few Squirrels have survived. In each assemblage the artist transformed the handles of beer steins―close to overflowing with imitation foaming beer―into a fluffy squirrel tail. By manipulating each component, the artist rendered its original ‘use value’ redundant. The new and different objects bordered on the ridiculous and evoked both conscious and unconscious associations.

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’.[3]

Niki van den Heuvel
Exhibition Assistant, International Art
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra


[1] The Museum of Modern Art, New York

[2]Enunciated by André Breton in the journal Cahiers d’Art, Noted by Josef Helfenstein, ‘Against the intolerability of fame: Meret Oppenheim and Surrealism’, in Jacqueline Burkhardt and Bice Curiger, Meret Oppenheim: beyond the teacup, Independent Curators Incorporated, New York, 1996, p 29

[3] André Breton, quoted in Josef Helfenstein, 1996, p 29