I believe that, in any society, the poet should be the exponent of the imagination in that society.
— Wallace Stevens
It is the artists that do society’s dreaming.
— Meret Oppenheim
Wallace Stevens, American poet. Born October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania. Composed the quintessential Modernist poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” published 1917. Meret Oppenheim, Swiss artist. Born October 6, 1913, in Berlin. Created the quintessential Surrealist object, Breakfast in Fur, exhibited 1936.
2. Their Century
The year is 1900. Wallace Stevens is turning 21. The century ushers in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1905, 1917). Darwin’s long shadow. God’s demise. Cubism (1907–1914). The Armory Show in New York: Duchamp’s urinal (1913). Art’s demise. Oppenheim’s birth (1913). The Armenian genocide (1915). Chinese brush painting working its way into a Wallace Stevens poem:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the black bird.
The century ushers in World War I. Meret Oppenheim’s father, a physician, attending Jung’s weekly seminars. Jung, his notion of animus and anima, the male and female within each person. Oppenheim recording her dreams daily, from age 14. The Great Depression (1930s). Surrealism. Stevens, asked whether he intended his verse to be of use: “Perhaps I don’t like the word useful.” Oppenheim, rendering her teacup useless by covering it in gazelle fur. Oppenheim as a poet:
Quick, quick, the most beautiful vowel is voiding.
The century ushers in World War II. The Nazi genocide. The atom bomb. Hiroshima. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: Observers altering the observed. Subjectivity. Subjectivities. Stevens’s belief that for nonbelievers brought up religious, poetry is the religion. Stevens, delivering a lecture in 1951 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) titled “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting.” Stevens receiving the National Book Award. At midcentury, in 1955, the poet Wallace Stevens dies of cancer. Oppenheim, now 41, is entering her productive decades. Artwork as dreamwork, figure as archetype, bird as flight of fancy. Nineteen sixty-eight: Vietnam. Revolution in the streets of Paris. Second-wave feminism in the 1970s and its elevation of Oppenheim to icon. Dream as sphinx: At age 36 Oppenheim dreamt a half-full hourglass. Exactly thirty-six years later, in 1985, the artist Meret Oppenheim dies of a heart attack.
3. His World
I am thinking Reading, Pennsylvania, the coal-fired world of slate and brick that Wallace Stevens was born into in 1879. I am thinking the Schuylkill River, the coal-carrying Schuylkill Canal, horses clopping down stone-cobbled streets, coal trains, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, railroad bridges and iron tracks and the Reading Iron Co. I am thinking apothecaries, dry goods, saddlers, shoemakers, shirtmakers, harnessmakers, printers, house painters, blacksmiths, stonemasons, brickmakers, bricklayers, tinmen, tanners, tailors, farriers, cabinetmakers, carpenters, and cutlers. I am not thinking poet. I am thinking of Stevens’s mother, Pennsylvania Dutch, reading the Bible every night to her five children. I am thinking of a saloon on every corner and a church on every other corner. An industrious, virtuous, religious, slightly inebriated town, a manufacturing town, urban center to coalfields and cow fields and steel mills, a town where commodities, not poems, are produced, transported, purveyed. I am thinking of Stevens’s father, a lawyer descended from Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, writing to his 20-year-old son, “I am convinced from the Poetry (?) you write your mother that the afflatus is not serious—and does not interfere with some real hard work.” No wonder then, that Stevens would later defend the maleness of writing poetry in an essay titled “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet.” No wonder he would assert, “The centuries have a way of being male.” From whence he came, real men did real work and manufactured real things, useful things—not poems—and in the process, made real money. And so, no wonder he wrote, in defense of the imagination, in defense of the artist, “The Man with the Blue Guitar”: “The man bent over his guitar,/A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.” Shearsman: one who shears sheep, a farmer, a real worker doing real work.
4. Her World
Meret Oppenheim was the granddaughter of Lisa Wenger, a suffragette, a well-known writer and illustrator of children’s books. Meret’s aunt, Ruth Wenger, was briefly married to Hermann Hesse. The maternal, Wenger side of the family was Swiss. Meret’s father was a German physician. He informed Meret that “women have never done anything in art.” At age 19, in 1932, she went to Paris to study art. At age 20 she had a passionate affair with Max Ernst. This lasted for a year, but thereafter she continued consorting with the Surrealists and other Paris artists—Picasso, Dora Maar, et al. Her own output included drawings, collages, assemblages, and plaster models of sculptures. Meret was brought up Protestant but in 1936 her family, due to its Jewish name, moved out of Germany to Switzerland to live with her grandmother and on her grandmother’s income, since in Switzerland her physician father was barred from practicing. In Paris, Meret, forced to become self-supporting, brought in income by designing clothing and jewelry. She entered into an intimate relationship with Man Ray (who famously photographed her). She became infatuated with her fellow Swiss artist, Giacometti, twelve years her senior. (Giacometti did not return her infatuation.) Her first solo show took place in 1936. Her work at this time, writes art critic Bice Curiger, exhibited “astonishing artistic maturity, not in the sense of ’consolidation,’ but of extreme self-possession.”
5. Making Art while the World Burns
Consider the year 1936. We are deep into the Great Depression, into the great diaspora of the down-and-out, mendicants spreading out across America, across Europe. In Europe, fascism looms. Oppenheim is 23, rather beautiful, living in Paris, studying art, making art, vulnerable, subject to melancholy, determined to live “a life unshackled by social conventions.” Once, at a Paris café, in a wacky Surrealist gesture, she peed into the hat of a haughty gentleman. The artworks she made that year included a fur-lined bracelet. After talking fur at a café with her friends Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar, Oppenheim fabricated a fur-lined tea service. Andre Breton invited her to participate in an exhibition of Surrealist objects and Breakfast in Fur was exhibited in Paris, Alfred Barr purchased it for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and it was exhibited in MoMA’s Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936–1937), where Wallace Stevens, very much involved with the visual arts, with the New York art world, undoubtedly saw it. For her part, Meret Oppenheim became an instant celebrity. Meanwhile Stevens, age 58, a three-piece-suited vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, was writing poems on the train commuting from Hartford to New York, writing poems on his long solitary walks. In February 1936, on vacation in Key West, he got into a drunken brawl with Hemingway and whacked Hemingway in the jaw so hard that he, Stevens, broke his hand in two places. Stevens was a huge man, called “the giant,” a successful insurance executive who succumbed to episodes of drunkenness. He spent numerous days and weeks away from Elsie, the Reading girl he’d married, who resented his literary career, who believed his poems were her poems, written for her (as at first they were), who felt their publication as betrayal. That year, 1936, Knopf published Stevens’s second book of poems, Ideas of Order, and critics began to acknowledge him as a major American poet.
6. After the Teacup
In the late 1930s, the war coming on, Oppenheim returned to Basil, Switzerland, and lived at her parents’ house, a small dwelling behind her grandmother’s house, which was now being rented out. Oppenheim brought in income by designing clothes and she learned the craft of art conservator. She was in the midst of a crisis, a severe depression and loss of direction that would plague her for 17 years, until 1954. She made art but in a directionless manner, stacking works in corners, destroying works. It was a crisis of “shattered confidence,” as she later described it. She felt “as if millennia of discrimination against women were resting on my shoulders, as if embodied in my feelings of inferiority.” Meanwhile Stevens was hitting his stride, both as a poet and in the insurance business, while around him the world was falling to pieces. He quietly and freely gave away money, supporting literary magazines and various artistic endeavors and persons. From a mutual acquaintance he learned that, in Europe, Hermann Hesse was in financial straits. He quietly arranged to buy some of Hesse’s watercolors. He recorded in his notebook, “The world without us would be desolate except for the world within us.”
7. Comments on the Teacup
In 1948 Stevens recorded in his notebook: “Some objects are less susceptible to metaphor than others. The whole world is less susceptible to metaphor than a teacup.” In 1970 Oppenheim made a collage on paper, a kitschy image of a saucer, a stubby fur-colored spoon, and a fur-colored teacup. This she titled Souvenir of Breakfast in Fur.
8. Meret Oppenheim Becomes Meret Oppenheim
In 1945 Oppenheim met businessman Wofgang LaRoche and in 1949 they married, remaining a couple until his death in 1967. In 1954 she regained confidence, established a studio, and during the next thirty years went on to make more than a thousand artworks. In 1975 Oppenheim stated: “I think it is the duty of a woman to lead a life that expresses her disbelief in the validity of the taboos that have been imposed upon her kind for thousands of years. Nobody will give you freedom, you have to take it.”
9. Imago: Meret Oppenheim
Oppenheim, the art conservator, manipulated an eclectic range of materials to make a body of work full of dream figures, insects, personas, birds, clouds, masks, and snakes (to Oppenheim snakes represented “creative force, an attribute of female divinity, evolution, nature”).
She made Mask with Tongue Sticking Out of wire mesh with overturned plastic bowls for eyes and nose, with the word “Bah!” inscribed on the pink-velvet tongue.
She sculpted the enigmatic White Cotton Wool Mask out of cotton wool with magical many-lashed wire-and-sequin eyes and a curling tail-length tongue made of wire and fabric.
She made a stiff, ominous-looking persona, Octavia, out of wood, plastic, and a tree saw.
She cut dragonfly wings out of tin, put a screw for the thorax, and mounted the insect Dragonfly Campoformio in a wood box.
She made The Raven out of oil paint and wood and molded fungus.
She made a terrifying swollen red head, Oaf, out of traditional gouache.
She made Enchantment, an otter swimming in red ochre suns and pale moons, an above crescent moon mirrored in a below crescent moon, from oil paint on cardboard glued on wood. The otter, made of oil paint on wood, is screwed out from the picture plane so that it swims freely in high relief among the suns and moons. Enchantment is not about enchantment, it is enchantment.
She made At a Grave with colored pencil. This tender, sad drawing shows trees, stones, two abstract figures on a leaf-brown ground. She made it and she named it and the next day she learned that Giacometti had died.
She made the erotic, vaselike, full-wombed, two-breasted Primeval Venus out of terra cotta and oil paint, with a little stalk of straw for a head.
She made Old Snake Nature out of anthracite coal, wire mesh, and rugosit. Rugosit may be related to Rugosa, a Paleolithic coral. The coils of a thick glittering black snake curl up out of a burlap-looking bag. The head, turned toward you, is white, with a strange blue-green eye, staring.
She painted a car muffler to make Queen Termite.
She used her own body, once an X-ray of her head, a memento mori showing skull and earrings and ringed fingerbones (X-Ray of M. O.’s Skull) and once a photograph over which she sprayed a tattoo, using stencils (Portrait with Tattoos).
Portrait with Tattoos is a powerful imago-like image, a head-and-shoulders self-portrait with the face painted like war paint so that the figure appears like a warrior or a spirit from a dream. Imago: an image or condensed perception of a person, often parent, that we carry in our unconscious from childhood. This imago then, Meret’s imago, is like a primitive image carried to us from the beginning of time, the imago of a witch, perhaps. It is not the imago of a supplicating muse, not the imago of a woman preparing supper, not the imago of a lover or a mother. No. This imago is fearful, singular, self-contained, almost dreadful, like the sudden vision of a god. It is the imago of a ruler, of a queen, regal in her bearing. It is the imago of an artist at the height of her powers, gazing at us with defiance. It is the primeval imago of a powerful creator.
10. Libra: The Scales of Justice
Stevens was born on October 2. Oppenheim was born on October 6. Libra, sign of balance, the scales of justice. A libra “would make a good lawyer, judge, or politician.” Or a good artist. The balance between receptivity and bull-headedness, between imagination and the critical powers, between dream and waking reality, between masculinity and femininity. Oppenheim believed that the “androgyny of the spirit and intellect” was the core dichotomy possessed by the artist, by herself. The balance between perception and reality. Between the inside world and the outside world. Stevens wrote a poem titled “Not Ideas about the Thing But the Thing Itself.” Oppenheim strove to create works that were “not simply a picture of an idea, but the thing itself.” Collapsing the dichotomy between image and object, between being and knowing, between making and being. An Oppenheim drawing, Scales. A Head in One Tray, shows a beam balance. The tray on one side holds a human head. The tray on the other side holds nothing, emptiness. The two sides are in balance, equal.
11. Wallace Stevens: Titles of Works
- Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
- Gray Stones and Gray Pigeons
- The Man with the Blue Guitar
- Study of Two Pears
- The Blue Buildings in the Summer Air
- Yellow Afternoon
- Man Made Out of Words
- Mountains Covered in Cats
- Large Red Man Reading
- A Dish of Peaches in Russia
- The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain
- Dutch Graves in Bucks County
- How to Live, What to Do
12. Meret Oppenheim: Titles of Works
- A Blackbird
- Snake and Black Stones
- Old Snake Nature
- One Person Watching Another Dying
- Three Black Pears
- Oh, Too Bad, I Eat Sorrow Out of Tin Cans
- Well, We’ll Live Later, Then
- The Ancestor with Two Noses, Called Bird-Egg
- Red Courage Hunts in the Woods
- Hat for Three Persons
- The Night, Its Volume, and What Endangers It
- Who Risks It, Who Tries Again!
13. Holy Magic
Stevens, the poet who loved painting, who searched for meaning within his own interior world. Oppenheim, the artist who loved words, who searched for meaning within her house of dreams. They stood for the imagination, for enchantment, for the man with the blue guitar. They created in defiance of the worlds they were born into. They created despite wars, despite practicalities, despite obstacles and depressions and difficulties. Stevens wrote of how poets piece the world together with holy magic. Oppenheim, asked how one of her paintings came about, replied, “Strange things happen on the moon.”
Priscilla Long (www.historylink.org/PriscillaLong and www.PriscillaLong.com) is a Seattle-based writer who teaches writing and serves as senior editor of the online encyclopedia of Washington state history. Her work appears widely in publications such as The Southern Review, The American Scholar, Ontario Review, and Passages North, and her awards include a National Magazine Award. She is the author of Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America's Bloody Coal Industry.