“In 1964 I had an X-ray made of my skull while wearing earrings, chain and rings”
– Meret Oppenheim
Coinciding with Meret Oppenheim’s retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, her first in North America in over 25 years, we explore her self-portrait, X-Ray of M. O.’s Skull (1964). This particular print is the first iteration of what would become an iconic image for the artist, one of possibly three copies made but the only one now known. Oppenheim originally gifted this print to Wayne Harrison, who exclusively represented her work in New York during the 1970s; it would remain out of sight until its reappearance in the market in 2014. Now with Peter Freeman, Inc., this print has been exhibited several times in recent years, first in collaboration with Fraenkel Gallery during a showcase of self-portraiture at ADAA in 2015; in Paris, 2016, at the Museé d’Art Moderne as a part of Jan Dibbets’s show on the history of photography, La boîte de Pandore: Une Autre Photographie; and in Thomas Houseago’s exhibition Untitled, 2020: Three perspectives on the art of the present at Punta della Dogana, Venice in 2020.
“In 1964 I had an X-ray made of my skull while wearing earrings, chain and rings,” wrote Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim (b. Berlin, 1913–1985) in her ledger of personal artworks.¹ Oppenheim’s matter-of-fact language parallels the simplicity of her image’s composition, yet fails to capture how hypnotizing it is: a skeleton in profile from the shoulders up, outfitted with large hoop earrings and a chain necklace, with her hand adorned with two rings—one on her ring finger and another on her pinky—splayed for the x-radiation. To create Röntgenaufnahme des Schädels M. O. / X-Ray of M. O.’s Skull, the artist made a contact print directly from the original negative, inverting it into a positive print that perfectly matches the x-ray’s dimensions. While archival records suggest that as many as three such contact prints may exist, this print is the only located example.² Oppenheim produced a second round of prints in 1978 and a later edition of 20 was printed in 1981 by Levy Galerie in Hamburg, 17 years after the original x-ray and contact prints.³ These edition prints have been widely exhibited, including in Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition, currently on view at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.⁴ But in contrast to the original contact print, the editions are considerably smaller, at 10 x 8 inches compared to 15 7/8 x 12 inches for the original, and the image is more sharply defined, particularly around Oppenheim’s hands and external features like her nose, lips, and chin. As an object, the 1964 contact print is singular in its rarity and physical qualities.
As a documentation of the self, Oppenheim’s x-ray speaks to her creative process, specifically her exploration of identity. When considered from a certain angle, the formation of an x-ray can be read as an act of artistic production, its creation similar to photography: in this case, the medium captures data generated by exposure radiation from an electromagnetic wave, resulting in a negative. While the waves captured by traditional cameras are normally perceptible to the human eye, x-ray waves are shorter, and thus beyond the visible spectrum. X-Ray of M. O.’s Skull is a direct result of such production and a confluence of Oppenheim’s visible exterior and her concealed interior, an embodiment of her complete physical self. Oppenheim’s portrait exemplifies this notion of x-ray imaging as a creative process: compared to the practical clarity of medical x-rays, her skeleton appears distorted. Typical details—teeth, vertebrae, shoulders, even her skull—lack definition. Her jewelry, something ordinarily removed before radiation, stands out sharply amidst her profile. Without it, a sense of androgyny pervades. Even a cursory glance at the image reveals how prominent each piece is against the stark transparency of her body, details which appear even more discernable upon viewing the original x-ray. In addition to the jewelry, the negative’s sharp detailing of the hand’s bone structure compared to the body and skull suggests it may lay on a different plane, as it is rendered more in focus than her head, neck, and shoulders. Such a minute detail points to the notion that her hand remains a valuable aspect of her identity: a part necessary for a self-portrait.
With this enigmatic and likely deliberate placement of her hand, Oppenheim may also be referencing the earliest imaged x-ray. In 1895, German physician Wilhelm Röntgen accidentally discovered x-radiation while experimenting with various electrical discharge tubes, each emitting a different electromagnetic wavelength, within a light-blocking, enclosed space. After unexpectedly seeing his own skeleton while testing objects under fluorescent light, he reified his breakthrough on 22 December 1895 by using a photographic plate to capture his wife Anna Bertha Ludwig’s left hand (the first radiograph). Despite its poor quality, the registering of Ludwig’s bones is unmistakable, but perhaps the most prominent and surprising characteristic of the radiograph is the outline of her ring marked by a circular black protrusion on her ring finger. Röntgen later took a clearer image of his friend Albert von Kölliker’s hand, whereupon his ring is even more defined. Röntgen’s discovery caused a seismic impact on both the scientific community and the cultural consciousness, with the image of Ludwig’s hand emblematizing x-rays as a whole. Although Oppenheim was born almost twenty years after these events, she would have been keenly aware of their existence, especially as the daughter of a German physician. In her portrait, Oppenheim takes this iconic detail to the extreme, adorning herself with several pieces of jewelry, including an extra ring. In this case, however, it is a decisive and intentional marker of self-expression rather than an unexpected result of newfound medical imaging technology.
Beyond a personal exploration of her body, Oppenheim’s self-portrait fits within a long genealogy of artists who deemed x-rays as either a subject of or method to create art. Marcel Duchamp, who was a close friend and a major inspiration to Oppenheim, began exploring the x-ray’s artistic potential early in his career. According to art historian Jean Clair, Duchamp would have been aware of x-ray technology through his brother Raymond, who served as a radiograph intern under the French medical and x-ray photographer Albert Londe.⁵ Not only that, Clair has posited that Duchamp was aware of the x-ray as early as 1910 based on his early painting Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel.⁶ Dumouchel was a student of radiography and a childhood friend of Duchamp’s. The artist aptly depicted him with a glowing aura around his left hand, a clear allusion to Ludwig’s radiated hand.⁷ The radiographer’s bony fingers, particularly in comparison to his thick neck and head, only amplify the idea of seeing what lies underneath the skin. While it is unlikely Oppenheim saw the original painting, as it belonged to Dumouchel himself until 1950,⁸ she would have known of it: a black-and-white facsimile of the work was produced as one of sixty-nine meticulously crafted miniature reproductions for the many editions of Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1936–1941), which Oppenheim helped Duchamp sell during her time in Paris.⁹ In black and white, this reproduction only further emphasizes the aura around the hand, as well as the bony quality of the subject’s hand, making it significantly closer visually to an x-ray than the original color painting ever was. Like so much of his work, Duchamp alludes to the potential of his subject, in this case x-rays and their ability to reveal the invisible, rather than unveiling the meaning behind it.
In an attempt to categorize Oppenheim’s uneasily contained output, critics and scholars historically associate her with Surrealism, though she denies identifying with the movement.¹⁴ In this respect, her biographical details, along with her “esprit de rebellion,” connect her to the Surrealists more than her work itself.¹⁵ In 1932, a not yet eighteen-year-old Oppenheim moved from Basel, Switzerland to Paris, France, to “halfheartedly” study art at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière.¹⁶ Immediately upon her arrival to France, Oppenheim began to frequent the Café du Dôme, a Surrealist hub at the time, where she formed friendships with a constellation of artists, including Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Sophie Taeuber, and Hans Arp. For some of these artists, particularly those involved in the Surrealist movement, barriers between the conscious and unconscious, the sleeping and waking world, and the subjective and objective were intentionally blurred, if not fully dissolved.¹⁷ Oppenheim refuted these principles: “I was hardly ever tempted to work from life, to copy the shapes of visible reality. In dreams, we see the ‘internal’ reality. I wasn’t tempted to copy this reality either.”¹⁸ Instead, she focused on what she referred to as “the comprehensive reality,” which encompassed “the reality that surrounds us, what we know, read, experience and in addition what our subconscious ‘knows’ or ‘thinks’…memories and premonitions that are far behind and far ahead of the time in which the individual who we are now is living.”¹⁹ Certainly, looking at her varied output including objects, poetry, drawings, and paintings solidifies her attempt to eschew categorization. What critics term her “Surrealist era" was a mere backdrop against her larger body of work, and she stands out as a singular figure within the movement.
Despite her objections, however, there are several precedents in Surrealism that may have informed Oppenheim’s x-ray self-portrait. The leading Surrealist photographer, Man Ray, created works that resembled the negatives of x-rays through his popularization of the photogram, a subgenre of photography. Man Ray’s photograms (which he dubbed the “rayograph”) expanded the tradition of creating a photographic image by directly exposing objects to light without a camera, usually multiple times, to produce overlapping imagery and introduce solarization. One of Man Ray’s foremost rayographs, The Kiss (1922), enshrines the artist and his muse, Kiki de Montparnasse, kissing in profile with outlines of hands and darkroom trays intermixed within the composition. This intermingling of body parts embodies the Surrealist ethos in that it warps our perception of photography as a factual medium, revealing “an image without a real-life model to which we can compare.”²⁰ Though such an emphasis on the more abstract and dreamlike qualities of these body parts seems contrary to Oppenheim’s straightforward recording of her body, The Kiss shares her notion that the head and the hand are vital components of portraiture.
While Man Ray’s photograms may have been devoid of “a real-life model,” much of his portrait photography captured live models as subjects, including Oppenheim herself.²¹ In fact, Man Ray created several dozen portraits of her, primarily in the nude and in a wide array of poses. Perhaps the most notorious of these photographs, entitled Érotique-Voilée, materialized from a photoshoot at Louis Marcoussis’s studio in either late 1933 or early 1934 and ignited a scandal after being published in the fifth issue of Minotaure.²² The image features a nude Oppenheim posed behind the wheel of a printing press, her arm raised coyly above her head and blackened with ink. Invoking scandal was the Surrealists’s modus operandi and the erotic nude was the ideal way to do so, with Man Ray later recalling: “Meret was one of the most uninhibited women I have ever met…it was very disturbing, a perfect example of the Surrealist tendency towards scandal.”²³ To Man Ray, Oppenheim’s impetuous nature personified Surrealist beauty, prompting him to name the portrait after his quote, “Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial or it will not be”²⁴—a clear reference to the title of one of Andre Breton’s manifesto chapters, "La Beauté sera convulsive." Beauty and eroticism, along with the feelings they evoke, were the primary reasons the Surrealists appreciated women, thus reducing them to sexual objects, even peers such as Oppenheim. Indeed, one of the reasons Oppenheim refuses the Surrealist label is due to the lack of acceptance she received as an artist from many men in the movement.
In this context, Man Ray’s portraits of Oppenheim cannot be read in the same manner as her self-portraits. As Nancy Spector points out, “her relegation to the role of mute, passive model by her peers (as well as by subsequent art historians) has eclipsed more complex readings of her very visible presence in the annals of Surrealism.”²⁵ These “more complex readings” reveal themselves as one delves into Oppenheim’s personal account of the shoot. For one, the scandal evaded the artist for some time and she “only learned about it much later,” a clear refutation of Man Ray’s account of it as a “perfect example of the Surrealist tendency.”²⁶ Also, Oppenheim’s role as model was neither mute nor passive. According to the artist, the staging of the image was fairly spontaneous, as was her mysterious smile—for her, the entire fabrication of the narrative was tinged with humor. Likewise, she claims that what is quite possibly the defining feature of the portrait, the placement of her hand along with its smattering of printer ink, was impulsive and self-directed. Taken together, these inconspicuous details imprint her own personal artistic mark on a portrait often viewed as exploitative. As Spector notes, “the ink stain on her arm became the leitmotif of a series of images that critically challenges the traditional view of the female body as passive witness to the artistic process.”²⁷
Not only did Oppenheim manage to imbue a sense of personal identity into Man Ray’s work, but such a stunt marked the beginning of her personal interest in using her body, particularly her hands, to explore identity. Later that year, in 1934, she started to design jewelry, eschewing trendy or classical fashion in lieu of a blend of morbidity and levity. While most of these works live only as sketches, several later materialized as objects—more artistic rather than functional—with some not coming to fruition for decades. One of these “drafts,” Design for Glove with Veins (1942–1945), envisions a stylized mapping of veins onto the surface of the glove. Over forty years later the design took shape as a real fashion accessory in a collaboration with Parkett magazine as a set of light blue, goat-skin gloves with red painted veins and piping. In addition to veins, bones become a recurring motif as well. Stencil for Gloves (1936) imagines the hand garbed with an outline of its skeleton, simultaneously recalling Ludwig’s exposed hand and anticipating Oppenheim’s self-portrait.³⁰ In another example, the presence of bones extends beyond allusion: between 1934 and 1936, Oppenheim designed a necklace comprised of white bones, presumably vertebrae, tied together with rope. These works function as premonitions for the future as Oppenheim’s (or the wearer’s) body ages and varicose veins begin to invade the hands, and, in time, decompose and turn to bone. Despite this grim sentiment, there exists a layer of humor and levity within all of these examples, as the artist toys with her own understanding of “the comprehensive reality”—investigating the hidden realm of the interior and subverting it, turning the supposed invisible visible. From the artist’s perspective, these works do not just explore the macabre: they reveal a broader understanding of our bodies and identities.
While Oppenheim continued to regularly produce art over the next ten years, she did not revisit her hands as subject again until a series of five monotypes entitled Imprint of my Hand (1959). Unlike her previous sketches, these prints abstain from the grotesque and peculiar; instead, the artist grounds them in reality, depicting her hands true to scale. To create them, Oppenheim covered her hands in ink and pressed them onto a flat surface, with the ensuing pressure indexing how light or dark each characteristic appeared. This process necessitates a uniqueness in each print, a result that can never be replicated. Stylistically, the rich black spots adorning each hand directly recalls the ink stains in Érotique-Voilée, empowering Oppenheim to finally take complete agency over how her ink-stained hands are portrayed. Returning to the subject after such a long gap, particularly when one considers her varied output during those years, reinforces the idea of hands as a central tenet of Oppenheim’s work. As an artistic endeavor, these monotypes recall a self-portrait, showcasing her hands as one of the artist’s key tools. Considering these works in tandem with her jewelry designs demarcates a clear path to her x-ray self-portrait, where she bears the most concrete example of “the comprehensive reality”: her bones themselves.
Indeed, X-Ray of M. O.’s Skull captures not just a factual representation of Oppenheim at the time, but also an image depicting her future, posthumous self. The image serves as Oppenheim’s personal memento mori—what will remain of her are her bones, teeth, and belongings. From the very first x-ray, the implications of seeing one’s skeleton were apparent: upon seeing the bones in her fingers, Ludwig recognized her mortality, crying, “I have seen my own death!”³¹ Oppenheim, however, understands these connotations and flips them on their head, turning her image of her death into her identity. From this lens, embracing morbidity is Oppenheim’s ultimate act of agency, as she displays and reclaims her body in a manner to which she was not previously afforded. She publically divulges the most private aspect of her identity, her interior, baring her reality in a way her previous work had only explored through sketches and objects. Beyond her body of work, the portrait is situated within a lineage of exposed portraits of Oppenheim, though, in spite of its simplicity, her skeleton is arguably more complex, shocking, and revealing than the nude portraits taken by Man Ray.
Yet, contrary to all of this, Oppenheim imbues her work with her trademark wit. In a 1978 letter to her friend and representative, Wayne Harrison, Oppenheim humorously foretold her death:
“This night I had a funny idea: I have calculated, that I probably will die before the year 2000. If I am still alive, I should (attain?, reach?) 86 years and 3 months. This is not sure at all. But how Modern it would be to die after in 2000! So I thought – to push the legend – to make a joke and make a little forgery: To print under the X Ray photo: Meret Oppenheim born 1913 died 2000…When people read this now, they must take it as a joke, it just may create a little entanglement. If really I die after 2000 (even perhaps completely sick and gaga – I hope not) that would be great. But if not – dates are soon forgotten, some historians will certainly repeat: died 2000. Of course, the photographs will be signed by me-! Very Mysterious!”³²
It bears repeating that the year of this letter is no coincidence, as it marked the second round of prints created from her x-ray. At some point between the first and second round of prints, her written tone about the work shifted from straightforward in her ledger to humorously fabricated in her letter. Such a letter reveals that, even in her daily life, Oppenheim constructs her own narrative, changing the date of her own death and foreseeing the historical repercussions for doing so. Whether this is the result of being miscategorized as an artist throughout her life is unclear, but it is apparent that Oppenheim can create levity out of even the most macabre subject matter. With X-Ray of M.O.’s Skull, Oppenheim transcends Surrealism while bringing its macabre attitude along for the ride, imbues her work with Duchamp’s wit and humor, and lays the blueprint for more overtly feminist works by Genzken and Hammer. Though Oppenheim died in 1985, it is obvious that her innovative use of technology in her x-ray portrait, as well as the legacy that she left behind, exemplifies the “Modern” attitude she hoped to attain.
Written by Kevin Geraghty
¹ Since around 1960, Oppenheim kept a catalogue of her own works for personal use. The catalogue consisted of five notebooks and this note would have been in notebook no. 2, a brown notebook for works from 1961–1976.
² See the Certificate of Authenticity for Röntgenaufnahme des Schädels M. O. / X-Ray of M. O.’s Skull.
³ Levy Galerie has represented Oppenheim’s estate since her death in 1985.
⁴ Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition will be on view at The Museum of Modern Art in New York from 30 October 2022 to 4 March 2023.
⁵ Jean Clair, "Marcel Duchamp et le dernier tableau," in Marcel Duchamp: la peinture, même (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2014), p. 289.
⁶ Jean Clair, Duchamp et la photographie (Paris: Chêne, 1977), pp. 19–25.
⁷ “Portrait of Dr. Dumouchel,” Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, accessed 26 October 2022, https://philamuseum.org/collection/object/51417.
⁸ See object provenance at above link.
⁹ “Marcel Duchamp, Paris an Meret Oppenheim, Basel,” letters dated 25 April and 8 May 1936 in Lisa Wenger and Martina Corgnati, eds., Meret Oppenheim: worte nicht in giftige buchstaben einwickeln : das autobiografische album "Von der Kindheit bis 1943" und unveröffentlichte briefwechsel (Zürich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2013), p. 209.
¹⁰ “Booster,” Art in Context, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, accessed 26 October 2022, https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/artwork/booster.
¹¹ For a more in-depth exploration of the work's iconography, see “Autobiography,” Art in Context, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, accessed 26 October 2022, https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/art-context/autobiography and "Autobiography," Artwork, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, accessed 26 October 2022, https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/92.278.A-C/.
¹² “Sanctus,” Landmarks Video, The University of Texas at Austin, accessed 26 October 2022, https://landmarks.utexas.edu/video-art/barbara-hammer.
¹³ Sonia Shechet Epstein, “Barbara Hammer and the X-rays of James Sibley Watson,” Sloan Science and Film for the Museum of the Moving Image, accessed 26 October 2022, http://scienceandfilm.org/articles/2710/barbara-hammer-and-the-x-rays-of-james-sibley-watson.
¹⁴ This is particularly true towards the end of her life, with Oppenheim saying in 1984: “I hate labels. I especially resist the term ‘Surrealist’, because since World War II its meaning has changed. I think that what Breton said about poetry and art in the first manifesto in 1924 was more beautiful than anything else that has been written on the subject. By contrast, just the thought of everything that is associated with Surrealism today makes me feel ill. I will certainly never participate in a ‘Surrealist’ exhibition again.” See Josef Helfenstein, Meret Oppenheim und der Surrealismus (dissertation, Bern 1991), Stuttgart 1993, p. 25.
¹⁵ Bice Curiger, Meret Oppenheim: Defiance in the Face of Freedom (Zürich: Parkett Publishers and Cambridge, Massachusetts.: The MIT Press, 1989), p. 43.
¹⁶ Ibid., p. 15.
¹⁷ Franklin Rosemont, ed., What is Surrealism?: Selected Writings (New York: Monad, 1978), p. 5.
¹⁸ Quote from interview with Alain Jouffroy in Meret Oppenheim: Mirrors of the Mind (New York: Kerber and D.A.P., 2013), p. 9.
¹⁹ Ibid., p. 15.
²⁰ Quote from curator John Szarkowski, "Rayograph," Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, accessed 26 October 2022, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/46405.
²¹ Oppenheim elected to pose for Man Ray due to her appreciation of his work. Her admiration lasted well after these photo sessions, as she later contributed to a portfolio entitled “Hommage à Man Ray” in 1981.
²² Minotaure, 5, 1934, p. 16.
²³ Man Ray, Self-Portrait (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1963), p. 252.
²⁴ Originally written in French as “La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixe, magique-circonstancielle ou ne sera pas," published in Minotaure, 5, 1934, p. 16.
²⁵ Nancy Spector, “Meret Oppenheim: Performing Identities,” in Beyond the Teacup, (New York: Independent Curators Incorporated and D.A.P., 1996), p. 36.
²⁶ Interview with Meret Oppenheim in Meret Oppenheim (Paris: ARC - Musée d'Arte Moderne de la ville de Paris, 1984), p. 17.
²⁷ Spector, p. 38.
²⁸ Sabine Breitwieser, “The Characters of Isa Genzken: Between the Personal and the Constructive, 1970–1996,” in Isa Genzken: Retrospective (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2013), p. 14.
²⁹ Ibid., p. 40.
³⁰ The inscription in French reads “pochoir pour main d’os blanche sur gant de cuir noir [stencil for white bone hand on black leather glove].”
³¹ Gottfried Landwehr, Röntgen centennial: X-rays in Natural and Life Sciences (Singapore: World Scientific, 1997), pp. 7–8.
³² Letter from Meret Oppenheim to Wayne Harrison, 31 May 1978.