What to say about a hairy cup?
Breakfast in Fur (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), Méret Oppenheim

What to say about a hairy cup?

2018, Aug 01    

Vacation starts to kick in and my mind is wandering.

A while back I was taking two semesters of art history at Stockholm University. Never fully finished the course but my intention is definitely to do so at some point. One of the exercises that I thought was fun and interesting was formal analysis of art pieces. This procedure came into practice during the 19th century when art history became more of a scientific discipline. “Scientific” is here a much less conservative and more allowing term compared to when it is used to describe for instance natural science disciplines. One of the points is however to disconnect the object from the artists persona and intentions and “blindly” apply certain criteria and characteristics to it. I thought I’d give it a try with Méret Oppenheim’s famous piece “Breakfast in Fur”. I do break the rules a bit though as I find it very hard not to ponder on the workings of the mind and intentions of an artist while creating an art piece. Anyway, here it goes:

What strikes me at the first glance of the piece is a strong desire to lift it up and touch it with my hands. I imagine what it feels like to put the cup to my mouth and stroke my fingers over the coat. Humor and playfulness are very present. An absurd and almost childish humor. Playfulness in a way that suggests that the artwork came into existence by chance in a studio where a tea cup just happened to have been placed next to a piece of fur that was meant to be used for other purposes. Two widely different worlds have been linked in a surprising way. A sophisticated, artificial and human with a wild, animalistic and organic. A play with shape and function. An object originally designed primarily on the basis of functionality has been rendered completely unfit for its original use.

The fur blurs the otherwise clear contour of a hard and homogeneous porcelain cup and causes it to diffuse into the surrounding void at some places. With some of Wöllflin’s pairs of opposed or contrary precepts, one can say that the closed  form has been replaced by openness, linearity  by fuzziness  (paitelyness), the flat hard surface of the porcelain contrasts to the depth of the fur. Unity  has been transformed into multiplicity .

The color comes naturally from the type of fur the artist has chosen to use and probably has not been the primary focus in the creation. However the austere type of fur that to my mind seems to come from a wolf or a reindeer probably has been. It exhibits an organic accommodative behavior where the hair in many places helpfully follows the curves that make up the natural shape of the objects. You get the feeling that, in an alternative reality where tea cups actually had fur, it would probably look something like this. Hence the impression of an obvious naturalness in the midst of the absurdity. The selected fur type also introduces broken symmetries to the object. The rotational symmetry of the plate has been removed and it has been given a specific rotational direction which follows the fur’s natural growth. A different choice of fur type, say from a sheep or lamb, with a higher degree of homogeneity in both color and form, had created a less anxious and dramatic effect.

The composition of the piece with the spoon lying on the dish in a grip friendly position gives the impression of a welcoming table setting and a warm invitation to a pleasant gathering. This however strongly contrasts with the items total lack of functional usability. Thus there is an irony, almost a subtle cruelty or intimidation in the work, something reinforced by the predator like fur. Here too the choice of another type of fur would have been important. White lamb fur had changed the threatening mood in the situation to humor and cuteness.

The weight of the cup and plate gives the impression of having diminished. Despite the fact that the artist has actually supplied more material to it. This is probably because one imagines the interior to consist of bone rather than of porcelain. But also through the fuzziness of the surface.