Grete Stern

Galerie 213

Even without knowing the facts of Grete Stern’s long life—she was born in Wuppertal-Eberfeld in 1904 and died in Buenos Aires in 1999—one could discern her itinerary from the photos on view: the composition studies and portraits in the unmistakable Bauhaus style that marked her beginnings in Dessau and Berlin (1927–33); a lone advertising design evoking her three years in London, where she went with fellow student and future husband Horacio Coppola following Hitler’s election; and a more extensive group of portraits, nudes, cityscapes, landscapes, and other works from Argentina where she disembarked with Coppola in 1936 and spent the last forty years of her life. While the pattern is typical of the ’30s Weimar diaspora from Nazi Germany, Stern’s long years in Argentina set her apart. And indeed, the remarkable group of works that made up the centerpiece of this show, forty-six photomontages known as the “Sueños” (Dreams, 1948–51), demonstrated the singularity of this encounter between the culture of the Bauhaus and the country of Borges. These small black-and-white images convey a world in which, to paraphrase Goya, the dreams of women produce monsters. The dreamers themselves, portrayed as the model housewives of Argentina’s middle class or their younger sisters, thus find themselves in nightmarish situations—confinement, loss of control, physical danger, domination, lack of identity—evoked through the magic realism of the photomontage, with its composite figures and backgrounds, its manipulations of scale, perspective, and lighting. In Botella del mar (Bottle from the sea), Sueño no. 5, 1949, for example, the dreamer, incongruously dressed like a preppy college student, is trapped in an outsized glass bottle deposited on the beach; in Artículos eléctricos para el hogar (Electrical appliances for the home), Sueño no. 1, ca. 1950, she becomes the base of a table lamp turned on and off by a male hand at the switch; in Quien será (Who she will be), Sueño no. 7, 1949, she discovers with horror the fragmented repetitions of her reflection in a mirror.

In fact, this encyclopedic exploration of the female unconscious—some 140 photomontages in all—was commissioned as a series of illustrations for the weekly column “Psychoanalysis Will Help You” in a Buenos Aires women’s magazine that invited readers to submit their dreams to the analyst-in-residence, Richard Rest (the joint pseudonym of two prominent intellectuals blacklisted by the Perón government). The idea of using photomontage came from Stern, who had explored the same technique two decades and two countries earlier, when she and Ellen Auerbach founded the ringl+pit advertising studio. With much the same ironic humor that the budding designers had applied to female stereotypes of German advertising, Stern subtly undermined the upbeat tone of the interpretations through her complex counterimages of women who were not only victims of male domination but also willing believers in consumer society’s myths of female identity. This double subversion went largely unnoticed at the time, as did the creativity behind these images, constructed week after week out of posed shots of Stern’s family and friends, props from her home, and photos from her personal archives. Indeed, it was only in 1967 that she decided to exhibit them and discovered that the publisher had not kept the originals; the forty-six on view were those she had photographed before submitting them. Today, like her ethereal Dandelions from Berlin, her portrait of an iconic Brecht exiled in London, or that of Borges in Buenos Aires before he went blind, the Sueños remain tenaciously present.

Miriam Rosen