It was 1936, and Pablo Picasso and his lover Dora Maar had joined the young painter and sculptor Meret Oppenheim for lunch at the Café de Flore, that famed stomping ground of Parisian creatives. Oppenheim was just 22 years old, but already known in Paris for her strange Surrealist canvases, her devilish wit, and her audacity.
With typical flair, she arrived at the restaurant wearing an unusual accessory: a bracelet swathed in fur. (She’d recently pitched the outlandish cuff to jewelry designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who included it in her winter collection.) Picasso and Maar were taken with the piece, and at one point, Picasso jovially suggested that perhaps anything could be covered in fur. Not missing a beat, Oppenheim replied, “Even this cup and saucer. Waiter, a little more fur!”
While the conversation ended with lunch, the image of a fur-lined tea set took hold in Oppenheim’s mind. Not long after, she realized her vision, purchasing a cup, saucer, and spoon at a discount department store, then coating the set with bits of what was thought to be Chinese gazelle pelt (MoMA’s Department of Conservation has concluded that it’s not Chinese gazelle, but has yet to determine exactly what it is).
So it was that Object (1936) was born. And almost immediately the work began to spark controversy, while also trailblazing a path for female artists into the modern art canon: It would later become the very first work by a female artist to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection. But the road into that hallowed collection wasn’t an easy one.
Oppenheim first unveiled Object at “Exposition surréaliste d’objets,” a groundbreaking show organized by Surrealism leader André Breton at Galerie Charles Ratton in Paris. Her sculpture was presented on the bottom rung of a multi-tiered vitrine that, on higher shelves, housed objects created by more prominent male artists like Picasso (Glass of Absinthe, 1914), Marcel Duchamp (Bottle Rack, 1914 and Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy, 1913), and Max Ernst (Habbakuk, 1934).
Even so, it was Oppenheim’s contribution that caused a stir, confirming a flattering (if patronizing) comment Ernst penned about her work earlier that year: “Who covers a soup spoon with precious fur? Who has outpaced us? Little Meret.” As the late MoMA curator Carolyn Lanchner pointed out in her book Oppenheim Object, Breton himself even lauded the hirsute artwork as a manifestation of his belief that a Surrealist object should “traquer la bête folle de l’usage” or “hound the mad beast of function.”
In Paris, Object began to assume its position as a tantalizing expression of Surrealist ideals: a sculpture that joined incongruous parts to create an impossible, uncanny object.
After the Ratton exhibition closed, Oppenheim’s sculpture continued on its path of shock and awe in London, at the New Burlington Galleries’ “International Surrealist Exhibition,” and in New York, where in late 1936, MoMA’s director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. included it in a groundbreaking survey called “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.”
The show was sprawling. Its Dada and Surrealism section alone included 46 artists, 39 of which were men. Many of these were represented with scores of artworks; Ernst, for instance, contributed over 40 pieces to the installation. By contrast, Barr included only Oppenheim’s Object from her oeuvre, yet this was the addition that seemed to most captivate and confound the New York audience.
One newspaper column derided Surrealism as the goofy offspring of Dada, using Object as proof: “‘What Next?’ cries the surrealism-beset world. Just as though things weren’t dada enough, the surrealists had to come to America with their fantastic art. The fur lined cup and saucer with spoon thrown in for good measure gives an idea of all the goofiness started by the surrealist art exhibit in New York.”
But Barr knew that the fervor around Oppenheim’s work meant his instincts were right. This was great, impactful art. Two months after the exhibition closed, he wrote: “Few works of art in recent years have so captured the popular imagination…the ‘fur-lined tea set’ makes concretely real the most extreme, the most bizarre improbability. The tension and excitement caused by this object in the minds of tens of thousands of Americans have been expressed in rage, laughter, disgust or delight.”
Even before the show closed, Barr proposed Object for MoMA’s collection. But his idea was met with dissent from the trustees, led by the museum’s then-president, A. Conger Goodyear, who considered the piece among the exhibition’s “ridiculous objects,” and the proposal was rejected. Not to be discouraged, Barr decided to buy it himself. After another failed attempt to convince the museum to buy the piece in 1940, the trustees finally agreed in 1946.
But the fur-lined tea set’s struggle for legitimacy wasn’t over yet. It was first classified as part of MoMA’s “study collection,” which meant it could be viewed by appointment but was not displayed in the museum’s galleries. It languished without being publicly shown from 1943 (when it was part of Peggy Guggenheim’s “Exhibition by 31 Women”) until 1961, “when it was shifted from institutional exile to institutional display,” according to Lanchner.
Today, Object is synonymous with MoMA’s high-profile collection, which still skews male but is increasingly attuned to its gender imbalance. The piece is also a—if not the—poster child of the male-dominated Surrealist art movement and a celebrated precursor to the feminist art movement. Indeed, Oppenheim’s tea set subverts traditional gender roles by transforming a domestic object into a form that bristles with female power and sexuality, one that challenges norms just as it resists any modicum of function.