Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Sexual Surrealism of Meret Oppenheim and Man Ray

Meret Oppenheim, Objet (Le dejeuner en fourrure)
Gustave Courbet, l'Origine du Monde
Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985), was a German-Swiss Surrealist artist and model, best known for her Objet (Le dejeuner en fourrure), a fur-covered teacup, saucer and spoon that is Western art’s most purely cunnilingual image since Courbet’s The Origin of the World (l'Origine du Monde). She was a more pointedly powerful surreal objectifier than the equally important but much better known (because compulsively self-promoting) Salvador Dali.



My Nursemixed media sculpture by Meret Oppenheim, 1936. (Permanent Collection, Moderna Museet, Stockholm.)

From the side, it looks like a Thanksgiving turkey on a metal serving tray. Its upturned legs are covered with those curlicue-topped paper stockings, like tiny chef’s hats, often used to adorn the drumsticks of sumptuously prepared poultry. When we move closer, however, and look down through protective glass at Oppenheim’s object in its museum vitrine--our downward gaze symbolizing the backward glance into deepest childhood--we see this strange bird (old, old Britslang for female) transformed into something that solicits a very different and more urgent desire to stuff. A pair of white leather women’s shoes, upturned and bound together with twine, are positioned in the middle of a metal tray. The spike heels are both concealed and emphasized, like stockinged legs, by the white sheaths that blunt their threatening tips into soft spirals of papery fantasy. Every element of the piece is a commonly fetishized object (your shoes, mon amour, that I sniff for your scent and rub against my cheeks and squeeze my cock between and fuck hard like your cunt your mouth your ass; your heels that I caress and kiss and suck like twin clitorises grown to cocks; the leather cooler and smoother than your skin but as exciting, in its way, as my fingers sinking into the flesh of your ass; the worn brown soles the shape and color of those turds you squeeze onto my forehead, warm and falling like my semen on your face; the twine that binds me to the bedposts, tied so tightly, mon amour, I wear the red marks like bracelets for days), and these individual objects come together, sum automatically like integers in an equation, to produce an outsized icon of the female genitalia. The tray is the labia majora; the central curving leather sides, invitingly open vaginal lips; the vertical seam, the entrance to the vagina’s unobservable depths; and the (w)hole is sewn together, sutured like the pseudo-hymen of a phony whorehouse virgin, by lengths of light brown twine that fray into tiny, almost invisible fibers of lovely blonde pubic hair. But beware those upturned spikes: Do not fall for their papery disguise; for they are aimed always at your Oedipal eyes. And the spikes are also trophies of the genital they adorn, a Castor-Pollux pair of castrated phalloi guarding the entrance to Cybele’s cave. And the entire ensemble, this desired and devouring vulva, this toothless dentata, this thing that destroys the ones who love it, is also exactly what a small child sees when staring up the skirt of a dominant female: past fantastically foreshortened white stockinged legs, a massively magnified pudendum: Mother: first object: creator and destroyer: the only deity we can know or need: Brahma-Shiva to whom memory plays Vishnu and preserves. And also--but not finally, for Oppenheim’s object is a bottomless bottom--the silvered tray that reflects at its edges the shadowy contours of the viewer’s head represents an antique oval mirror, a quaint and most monstrously distorting glass in which each face sees itself reflected as the impossible object of its deepest desire.



Veiled Eroticphotograph by Man Ray, 1933. (Private Collection, Paris.)
In Man Ray’s great photograph, the nineteen year-old Meret Oppenheim, her hair cut boyishly short, stands nude behind the large wheel of an antique printing press. Her right hand, its arm mostly lost in shadow, curls like a masturbator’s around the thick iron circumference of the wheel. The strange gesture of her left arm--raised, bent at elbow and wrist, and covered in black printer’s ink that flattens it, producing the illusion that it is pressed against the picture plane like a face flattened against window glass--exists somewhere between the stylized gestures of kabuki and the emotive overacting of grand opera. Her face, by contrast, is subdued, thoughtful, her gaze lowered to the axle of the wheel. Around her neck is a tight metal ring, thin as the cut of a guillotine's blade, that belongs more to the world of machinery than jewelry, more press than person. The already thin line between woman and machine, along with other, more time-honored barriers, is definitively blurred farther down her slender body. Below her navel, the wooden handle of the press wheel juts out into the viewer’s space like an erect, uncircumcised penis. Below and behind it, Oppenheim’s alluringly luxuriant pubic bush doubles as a shadowy scrotal sac.

The handle-penis attracts our attention so powerfully that we might fail to notice the other two phalluses more directly attached to Oppenheim’s body. Her left arm is elaborately phallicized: held erect, stiffly frozen, transformed by ink (bloody liquid of poison pen(i)s) into a magical organ of fertility that reproduces its image upon everything it touches, everything it presses. (For this image also teases us into thoughts on the erotics of printing, and more generally, on the eroticization of mechanical things and the mechanization of eros. We are not far from the world of J. G. Ballard’s Crash.) The arm’s esoteric gesture, a fleshy triangle with the back of the palm pressed against the forehead, will remain forever uninterpretable, its meaning as lost as the memories of earliest childhood, the time before language. It has become the sign of an enigma. In sharp contrast, Oppenheim’s obscured right arm is easily interpreted as a flaccid phallus. It hangs limply from the shoulder, proposing no mystery, provoking no interest. It is a phallus asleep, dream-breeding the techno-scientific monster of metal and wood that rises from below. (Maybe Mary Shelley's unsacred monster is also not far away from Man Ray's image.) With this robotic handle-penis--its double identity soliciting a doubled desire to touch--we pass from the enigmatic to the impossible. It is a phantom out of Freud, the phantasmatic maternal penis imagined by the child-hero of Sigmund’s grim tale. (Psychoanalysis is the best commentary on Surrealism because Surrealism is the greatest of all commentaries on Psychoanalysis; mutual misunderstanding ideally adds complexity and nuance to their mutual misreadings.) The Freudian boy’s first fleeting glimpse of mutter’s pussy, that Oppenheim Nurse with its heels broken off, induces a castration anxiety so intense that the word ‘anxiety’ seems far too weak; call it ‘castration certainty.’ The child seeks metonymic compensation for the missing maternal penis by investing nearby objects--legs, stockings, feet, shoes--with libidinal power, and the fetishist is born. (And anyone who is not a fetishist is not an interesting person.) Man Ray’s surrealist collision of a woman’s beautifully boyish body and a femininely curved press wheel thus comes to climax with an image of the ultimate unseeable: Mommy’s hard cock, begging to be sucked like a nipple (that first lost object) until it fills your mouth with warm white milk. It is an image of the impossible object of every desire that lies in the caverns under childhood.

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