Julia Schirrmeister

Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1936. Fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Figure 1. Meret Oppenheim, Object (1936), Fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

While fetishism, in the popular use of the term, may conjure a variety of extreme sexual practices, this critical concept belongs to two and a half centuries of theoretical discourse.  A fetish is generally defined as an object to which a person (a fetishist) gives an irrational overvaluation. Fetishism is the belief in the fetish, or the pathological displacement of erotic power or devotion to it.  In order to deconstruct and attempt to define the ‘confusing hydra’ of fetishism it is necessary to examine the range of approaches to the concept: the anthropological critique of religious fetishism, Marxist theory of commodity fetishism, and psychoanalytic theories of sexual fetishism.1

The term “fetish” has been imbued with misdirection stemming as far back as its etymology. Fetishism comes from the Latin word factitius or “made by artifice.”  Early Portuguese navigators exploring West Africa as early as 1436 applied the term feitiço to objects they believed the Africans worshipped and treated as magical.2

Charles de Brosses introduced the term fetishism to anthropology in eighteenth-century Europe.  Europeans used fetishism as a means to define what was considered not to be civilized culture; fetishism was at the root of so-called “primitive” societies.  The idea of African “object worship” was not only a European construction, but it also cultivated the misconception that African spiritual practices were materialistic. Europeans failed to realize that what they referred to as fetish objects were not valued because of their materialistic qualities, but rather because of the spiritual force residing within the object.

The late nineteenth century saw a decline in the use of the ethnographic term fetishism in anthropology and the rise of new developments in the understanding of fetishism as understood by the philosopher and economist Karl Marx.  His theory of commodity fetishism in his first volume of Das Kapital (1867) examined the social relationships between commodities and humans.  Commodity fetishism stemmed from the fact that economic relationships between things were replacing social relationships between people. He located the mystical character of commodities in their misplaced overvaluation, and argued that the subjective, abstract value of commodities was being replaced by a belief in their intrinsic value. 3

Fetishism would continue to be explored in the early 20th century by European sexologists and psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, who would import the ideas of fetishism conceived in the colonies by Europeans back to mainland European society. In 1905, Freud began to take an interest in eroticized objects in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.4 A fetish as defined by Freud is a non-sexual object (such as a foot or a glove) that is the focus of abnormally intense erotic feelings.  According to Freud, “the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and […] does not want to give up […] Thus fetishism serves as a defense mechanism, alleviating his fear by creating a substitute for the absent penis”.5  Fetishism at its heart is a dialogue between three players: the fetishist, the fetish object, and the viewer.  In the end it is about the ability of one person, the viewer, to define someone else, the fetishist, as culpable of irrational behavior and overvaluation.

Meret Oppenheim, a young female artist in the Surrealist movement, created Object (Luncheon in fur) [Figure 1] in 1936 for the first Surrealist exhibition devoted to objects.6 Meret and her teacup became an overnight sensation.7The teacup was originally associated with teatime and notions of female propriety and civilized behavior, but the ritual has been disrupted and mocked by the addition of sensuality and repulsion in the form of fur.  The Chinese gazelle fur manifests sensual pleasure and the dark animalistic side of humanity; fur has often been used as a prop in heterosexual pornography.  Meret’s addition of the fur, which evokes the obsession tied to sexual fetishism, to animate a basic commodity like a tea cup, successfully evokes the ideas of both Freud and Marx.  By self-consciously fetishizing the object, Meret is critical of conventional social order and preconceived norms of gender and sexuality. She also successfully reminds us of our primal, often obsessive relationships to things, which in this case, renders them useless. 8


  1. Roy Ellen, “Fetishism,” Man 23:2 (1988): 220.
  2. Robert Pool, “Fetishism Deconstructed,” Etnofoor, 3:1 (1990): 114.
  3. Karl Marx. Capital [electronic resource] : a critique of political economy. Vol. I, Book One, The Process of Production of Capital. Trans from the third German edition (1867) by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (London: Electronic Book Company, 2001): 104-105.
  4. Ibid., 117.
  5. Ibid., 128-129.
  6. Mary Ann Caws. “Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Teacup.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. 11:3 (2011): 25.
  7. Jacqueline Burckhardt and Bice Curiger. Meret Oppenheim: Beyond the Teacup. (New York: Independent Curators Incorporated and Distributed Art Publishers, 1996), 26.
  8. Ibid., 46.