New York

Foldout from ringl+pit’s artist’s book Ringlpitis, 1931, closed: 7 7/8 × 7 7/8". From “Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola.” Estate of Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires © Estate of Horacio Coppola.

Foldout from ringl+pit’s artist’s book Ringlpitis, 1931, closed: 7 7/8 × 7 7/8". From “Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola.” Estate of Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires © Estate of Horacio Coppola.

Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Foldout from ringl+pit’s artist’s book Ringlpitis, 1931, closed: 7 7/8 × 7 7/8". From “Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola.” Estate of Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires © Estate of Horacio Coppola.

Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola are not household names in photo history, but an exhibition of their work from the 1920s through the ’50s at the Museum of Modern Art, on view through October 4, demonstrates that they should be. Curators Roxana Marcoci, Sarah Meister, and Drew Sawyer have drawn deeply from archives on three continents to assemble “From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola,” a magnificent exhibition of more than three hundred images, both still and moving, of breathtaking scope and quality, including vintage photographs and photomontages, advertisements, and experimental films. Accompanied by a scholarly and richly illustrated catalogue, the show tells the story of Stern and Coppola, artists on the cutting edge of the twentieth century’s most important artistic and cultural movements: Bauhaus, New Vision, Surrealism, and Concrete art as well as communism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. “From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires” doesn’t falsely meld Stern and Coppola, even though they were lovers and sometime spouses, who collaborated for several years. Rather, this elegant chronological survey maintains a clear distinction between the artists’ practices, allowing their respective stories to unfold through crisply demarcated chapters and revealing the ferocious engagement with the modern that brought the two of them together.

Trained as a graphic designer, Stern moved to Berlin in 1927 to pursue photography and became the first student of the technically exacting Walter Peterhans, soon to become the Bauhaus’s photography professor. Stern’s meeting with Peterhans’s second student, Ellen Auerbach, was equally decisive. The two women opened the studio ringl+pit for advertising and photography, the establishment’s name incorporating their playful (and not conspicuously Jewish) childhood nicknames. Their studio doubled as their apartment in economically depressed but culturally vibrant early-’30s Berlin. There they developed a stylized and fragmented iconography of the New Woman and a range of delightfully weird compositions of each other. One of these, a two-page spread from the Ringlpitis book that Auerbach made for Stern in 1931, has them cavorting through space as sassy flapper angels and in drag as bearded sailors. Ringl+pit also created stark yet intimate portraits of their friends. Portraiture remained one of Stern’s great strengths throughout her life; the poet María Elena Walsh would later call her photographic portraits “facial nudes.”

By the time he left Buenos Aires for Europe in 1930, Coppola had already experimented with abstract photographic self-portraits and photos made while strolling the Argentinean city with magical-realist writer Jorge Luis Borges. While in Europe for a second time in 1932, Coppola met Stern and joined the Bauhaus to be schooled in Peterhans’s precision. He fled Nazi Germany in 1933 to wander Prague, Paris, and London, producing photographs and experimental films—four are in the show—that attest to his skill as a visual poet of the urban specificity of these cities and their denizens’ struggles and foibles. In 1935, he returned to Buenos Aires with Stern and rediscovered a city that, far from the turmoil of ’30s Europe, had become a cosmopolitan metropolis suitable for his monumentalizing New Vision photography. Characterized by their vocabulary of hard lines and noirish shadow, these works saturate Buenos Aires’s elegant skyscrapers, cafés, and storefronts in an atmosphere that is by turns optimistically modern and strange or even foreboding.

The show ends with Stern’s gloriously Surrealist “Sueños” (Dreams), photomontages made from 1948 to 1951 for the popular women’s weekly Idilio (Idyll). Stern had been deeply involved with psychoanalysis since her Berlin years, but the movement came later to Argentina and only began to coalesce with the founding of the Agrentine Psychoanalytic Association in 1942. The Sueños accompanied articles which disseminated aspects of psychoanalytic thinking to a broad, mostly female public in articles that also, the exhibition’s curators suggest, offered a subtle critique of the government of Juan Perón. Always centered on a female character, these dreamscapes play out fears and desires with shocking, absurd, and witty photographic realism. In Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home, 1949, a smoldering beauty in a pinup pose is revealed to be trapped as the base of a table lamp. She gazes wistfully aside while a giant male finger stretches toward a button on the lamp’s base—to turn her on, as it were. Or is it off? The “Sueños” harness photography to make manifest psychoanalysis’s view that an uncanny world-out-of-joint is teeming just below reality’s surface; they also reveal Stern as an insightful feminist and visionary in yet another critical cultural movement for which she helped illuminate the way.

Elizabeth Otto