As the world celebrates one hundred years of dadaism, it is worth looking at how this “anti-art” art movement that started in a café in Zurich during World War I resulted in an iconic artwork involving that most humble object of tableware: the teacup.
In 1936, a 23-year-old Swiss artist named Meret Oppenheim bought a teacup, saucer and spoon from a department store in Paris and wrapped them in the cream-and-tan pelt of a Chinese gazelle. Her hirsute little offering became a defining artifact of surrealism — the art movement that sprang from dadaism’s flamboyant entrails.
Part of the sculpture’s appeal lay in the conversation that led to its creation.
One day in 1936, Oppenheim met her friends Pablo Picasso and his new lover, Dora Maar, at the Café de Flore, the modish Paris coffeehouse that was a regular haunt of artists. Beautiful, witty and fiercely independent, Oppenheim had been living in Paris for the last four years. She had scarcely managed to sell her art, but made a modest income by designing jewelry and accessories for the trailblazing fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, known for her shoe-shaped hats and telephone-shaped purses. As part of the surrealist set, Oppenheim had posed nude for Man Ray’s camera and had recently ended a passionate yearlong love affair with the German painter Max Ernst, suddenly calling it off over lunch at a café.
Cafes would play an important role in her life. The story goes that at the C…