A tree-year long, tripartite transatlantic collaboration to show the work of Meret Oppenheim

Meret Oppenheim "Ma gouvernante – my nurse" (mein Kindermädchen, 1936_1967, Metallplatte, Schuhe, Schnur und Papier 14 x 33 x 21 cm), Moderna Museet, Stockholm Foto - Albin Dahlström © 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich. On the occasion of the exhibition "Meret Oppenheim. My Exhibition". Courtesy Kunstmuseum Bern
Meret Oppenheim “Ma gouvernante – my nurse” (mein Kindermädchen, 1936_1967, Metallplatte, Schuhe, Schnur und Papier 14 x 33 x 21 cm), Moderna Museet, Stockholm Foto – Albin Dahlström © 2021, ProLitteris, Zurich. On the occasion of the exhibition “Meret Oppenheim. My Exhibition”. Courtesy Kunstmuseum Bern

This talk revisits parts of the three-year of how-tos experienced by the museum teams behind  the organisation of “Meret Oppenheim. My exhibition,” a retrospective show organised with the Kunstmuseum Bern, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Menil Collection in Houston. This talk happened on December 7, 2021, link here (additionally, Vernissage TV made a video run through the exhibition itself, here).

The three curators of the exhibition, Nina Zimmer (Kunstmuseum Bern), Anne Umland (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and Natalie Dupêcher (The Menil Collection, Houston) open the conversation by reminiscing to each other their first encounter with Meret Oppenheim’s work. Today, Oppenheim is recognised as a leader of the surrealist art movement, yet her oeuvre hasn’t been known very well until recently. Interestingly, even Zimmer, who works at the Kunstmuseum Bern—the world’s largest museum collection of the Swiss surrealist artist’s work— admitted that she knew only a “handful of works”, in particular some paintings from her time working at the Kunstmuseum Basel. “I think of myself as a very patchy art historian so I have my very few tiny islands where I feel comfortable and I’m always aware of all the oceans of the unknown that are around these,” she explains, which I thought was a great metaphor that can be extended to describe the ways we form knowledge around the world’s art production throughout different epochs.

Slow start and preconceived ideas. Faced with the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern and Oppenheim’s surrealist iconic status, Umland mentions the initial challenges to figure out what was important to include in the show, and what wasn’t (the exhibition includes around 200 works from the museum collection), and a sense of overwhelm as they were getting to know Oppenheim’s language rather slowly, forming their opinions overtime. Zimmer admits that at the beginning she had pre-fixed ideas of what Oppenheim’s work should be like, but those ideas—and insecurities, as Zimmer describes them—gave way to a profound reflection on the place of Oppenheim’s work in art history, questioning all the ways she had been labelled so far to read her afresh. “For me, that was the transition I needed to go through to come to grips with the entire breadth and width of her work” says Zimmer. They discuss useful filters to engage with the work of the artist, placing her beyond modernism and post-modernism, and more towards concept art. 

Logistics and code of ethics. After an initial in person meeting three years ago in the storage rooms of the Kunstmuseum Bern, the three curators continued their discussion online with in-between trips to see works in person wherever those were (Oppenheim’s works are spread out in Switzerland and some in the US). They established a code of ethics specific to the organisation of this exhibition, “we vowed that we would view every work in the original before we would request it” explains Zimmer, “at least one of us”—considering the transatlantic scenario and the pandemic that hit soon after they initiated the project. And “there were so many surprises” says Dupêcher about the real-life encounters compared to the reproductions in magazines and catalogues.

Digital Curator's Talk, clockwise_Natalie Dupêcher, Anne Umland, and Nina Zimmer - Meret Oppenheim exhibition. Kunstmuseum Bern's YouTube channel.
Screenshot – Digital Curator’s Talk, clockwise_Natalie Dupêcher, Anne Umland, and Nina Zimmer – Meret Oppenheim exhibition. Kunstmuseum Bern’s YouTube channel.

Breakthroughs. They also share some treasure hunt stories, such as about a painting they found that hadn’t been shown since Oppenheim’s first major solo exhibition in Basel in 1936. It had been purchased directly from the artist and stayed privately with that family until Umland heard about it by word of mouth amid professor colleagues in the US. They describe those moments of finding and facilitating the showing of long-time unseen works as breakthroughs during their process. They also describe how they surrounded themselves with those conversations, many of which they had with people working in museums, from art handlers to art educators who remembered working with Oppenheim (she lived until she was 85). Zimmer believes Oppenheim “changed the life and the spirit for so many people and was such an important connector” and was happy to have caught stories by just talking to people casually before those stories disappeared. 

Reading Groups. Ulman also goes on to describe the reading groups they organised among them and the assistant curators, weekly. They would set a syllabus for themselves to go through every catalogue and piece of literature about Oppenheim, from the most recent back to the catalogue published in 1936. Online, they also shared material—Oppenheim left letters to curators and art historians, interviews, and essays on her own work—discussed their readings by keeping each other accountable, but also talked about the progress of the show, the state of their loan requests, and about whatever was going on in their respective institutions.

Deciding what to write for the exhibition catalogue. The three curators followed different lines of investigations for their respective essays “it fell right into place with every institution special interest” says Zimmer—the surrealism angle for Dupêcher from the Menil Collection, known for its great surrealist collection; a conceptual approach for Umland from MoMA; and it was the post-war period and overall conceptual questions for Zimmer—hinting at the diverse geographical, cultural, institutional, and personal affinities that drew them each to particular aspects of the artist’s work. 

Rich documentation. The artist’s writings state that curators can be free in how they present her work “she handed us the keys to freedom by telling us there are one thousands possibilities” says Zimmer, drawing from an imaginary dialogue between the artist and them now. Dupêcher notes however that they still took directly from the artist’s notes for inspiration—such as presenting the work mostly chronologically—by looking for what made sense in their respective spaces in a process of on-going conversations with the material. Some works don’t fit a strict chronology, in Bern, Zimmer speaks of a series of drawing that binds the show together but is placed separately, and we are left wondering on the scenography decisions that will be made at the Menil Collection in the spring, and later at MoMA in the fall. Besides the main curatorial points caught here for you, they discuss many more biographical facets of Oppenheim’s stance as an artist. If like me you find her work very exciting, see the whole talk here.

Art critic and writer.

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