A New Woman’s Exile in Buenos Aires
Grete Stern’s Photomontages between Feminism and Popular Culture
The focus of this article will rely on the work of the photographer Grete Stern, who had to flee Germany in 1933 due to her Jewish background, and later emigrated to Argentina. Special attention will be given to her photomontage series Sueños (Dreams) for the women’s magazine Idilio, which the artist produced between 1948 and 1951, and which played an essential role in the modernization of Argentinean photography. Moreover, today these photomontages are known for having had a fundamental influence on the dissemination of psychoanalysis in Argentina, as well as on feminist art in general. As these photomontages were published together with the psychoanalytic column “El psicoanálisis te ayudará” and negotiated different aspects of psychoanalytic theory, they were often interpreted within the tradition of surrealist photography. In this article, however, I would like to propose an alternative, perhaps complementary reading of these images and embed Stern’s Dreams in a broader context—the context of her experience as an exile in Argentina, the context of the magazine, and the context of Peronist visual culture. As I will argue, this allows these photomontages to be read as multilayered aesthetic, political, and feminist interventions in a time when more and more restrictions dominated artistic practices in Argentina. In the following, I will provide an insight into Stern’s formation and work in Germany, and the ideas of femininity that influenced her art before and after emigration. After that, I will discuss the politically enforced changes in the field of Argentinean visual culture. And finally, I will analyze Stern’s photomontages in the context of the magazine and their impact beyond, on the modernization of photography in Argentina.
New Women and New Vision
In 1929 something remarkable happened in the Berlin art scene: Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach, two young women in their early twenties, founded a photo and design studio called ringl+pit. Yet it was not the fact that they were female photographers—in fact, they joined the ranks of Lucia Moholy, Ilse Bing, and Marianne Brandt as some of the many female photographers in the 1920s and ’30s—rather, it was their innovative approach to photography that made their work exceptional. Stern and Auerbach, or Ringl and Pit, as they were called when they were kids, developed such a strong way of collective seeing, designing, and practicing photography, that later they did not even know whose finger had operated the camera and whose hand had been photographed.
This approach to photography was probably a result of their years of studying with Walter Peterhans, who in 1929 was appointed professor of photography at the Bauhaus University in Dessau. As Stern described Peterhans’s teaching methods later, “We didn’t have any books, but he made us see the things—Er lehrte uns das Sehen [He taught us to see].” And so Stern and Auerbach, equipped with their cameras, began to study their surroundings, movements and perspectives, forms and bodies and, above all, the dominant gender norms of their time. Circulating in film, photography, magazines, or advertisements—almost all the media channels of popular culture in the 1920s and ’30s—the figure of the New Woman became a recurring protagonist in ringl+pit’s work. Yet, despite the New Woman’s independent, modern, and sexually emancipated character as it was developed and distributed by the media of popular culture, Stern and Auerbach preserved in their artwork a critical distance to this figure. Even though as working women for whom photography became the basis of their economic and personal independence—they themselves represented the emancipative ideals of the New Woman—Stern and Auerbach frequently criticized at least some of the female stereotypes that this viral and popular figure still kept reproducing.
A photomontage that shows ringl+pit’s playful, yet analytically precise visual approach to the New Woman very well is Pétrol Hahn (1931) (fig. 1), a commissioned advertising work for a beauty products supplier, through which Stern and Auerbach positioned their art right in the center of popular culture. The photomontage shows a young, smiling woman with a pixie cut, dressed in rather conservative nightclothes, who holds a bottle of shampoo in her hand. As the famous Dada artist Hannah Höch did in her photomontages, Stern and Auerbach also combined body elements of dolls with human limbs. The large-eyed mannequin with its particularly feminine countenance, as it is incorporated in Pétrol Hahn, raises not only the question of beauty ideals but also of socially acceptable forms of femininity. While the mannequin’s short-cut hair alludes to the emancipatory character of the New Woman, it is contrasted with prudish clothing and a feminizing floral wallpaper in the background. Even though the figure of the New Woman was quite progressive for that time, her visual appearance was not yet completely freed from a male gaze and conservative gender norms.  This, of course, affected her emancipation process. Pétrol Hahn, by introducing exaggerative elements, such as the widely opened, dreamy eyes and floral patterns, parodies an old-school stylization of sensitive and beautiful femininity. And, in pointing out the contrast between new and old gender norms, both of which still defined the New Woman, Pétrol Hahn articulates a critical commentary on the visual representation of this figure in popular culture. But interestingly, through the technique of photomontage the artists added an important activating element to the static mannequin: a human hand, which can be read as a subtle suggestion to explore other forms of female agency—a concern that would remain central in Stern’s oeuvre, including during her years of exile.
Dis/mantling a Happy World
Due to National Socialism’s rise to power in 1933, many Jewish and left-wing artists were forced to flee Germany. Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach were among them, and so the collective project ringl+pit came to an end. Auerbach emigrated first to Tel Aviv and later to New York. Stern, on the other hand, spent two years of exile in London before settling in Buenos Aires, together with her husband, Horacio Coppola (an Argentinean photographer who had come to Germany to study at the Bauhaus). Despite being forced into exile, both Stern and Auerbach managed to continue their photographic work in their new surroundings.
A shift in style and photographed subjects can already be recognized in Stern’s London work. While in Germany the artist mainly worked in advertising, in London she dedicated herself more to portrait photography. Stern’s portraits are not only fascinating because of the remarkable sensitivity and the emotional directness they transmit but also because they are an astounding photographic collection of faces and people that were forced into exile, and who remained in London for longer or shorter periods. These portraits show, for example, Bertolt Brecht, Helene Weigel, Paula Heimann, Karl Korsch, and many other artists and intellectuals, and in this way became a photographic archive of exile that allows us some insight into Stern’s surroundings in London.
After leaving London, Stern’s quick social and professional establishment in Buenos Aires definitely benefited from the fact that Coppola was already well connected in the local art scene. Yet it was also Stern’s expertise on modern art and her formation in Germany that facilitated her arrival in Buenos Aires, where she faced an environment that was not only culturally diverse, as artists from all over the world participated in it, but also very receptive to new ideas and movements. Already in London, as can be recognized in her portrait series, Stern’s work became more serious and showed deeper intimacy, while the experience of exile seems to have caused her to turn away from the lightness and cheerfulness that ringl+pit once captured in their art. In addition, her feminist agenda became more and more relevant, and began to follow other priorities, especially when she moved to Argentina. This, too, might have been a result of her experience of exile and the social changes she lived through in leaving a rather progressive city with emancipatory ideals, as the 1920s and early ’30s Berlin was, and settling in a relatively conservative country where, even though there existed a strong feminist movement, patriarchal order and macho culture still dominated large parts of society.
In her essay “Notes on Photomontage” (1967) the artist describes how in this process she had drawn on her Berlin experience in Buenos Aires, and how not only surrealists but above all Dada artists had influenced her work. Of course, as this article was published in 1967, more than thirty years after Stern’s arrival in Argentina, it has to be understood as a retrospective discussion of her own work, a reflection on how she used certain techniques and aesthetics to express herself and create artistic and political action spaces in her new exilic environment. Still, it is a fascinating source that illustrates how Stern, through her own experience of exile, by crossing borders and by practicing art, became a mediator between different artistic traditions as much as a cultural translator by introducing, transforming, or dismantling certain techniques, motives, and aesthetics.
In this text, Stern clearly highlights the Dadaist’s political motivation in Berlin, as well as their entanglement with the media of popular culture. Artists like John Heartfield, George Grosz, Hannah Höch, and Raoul Hausmann played a central role in the politicization of the arts after World War I. They pursued the goal to create a visual counterpart to the rationalizing aesthetics of capitalist society through the techniques of collage and photomontage, and later revolted against emerging nationalist movements. It was strategies like satirical exaggeration, parody, and gestures of rejection that the movement of Dada filtered through the art scene, in order to decipher circulating myths and notions and to induce a more analytic view on social and political developments. A matter that, as I argue, Grete Stern also pursued in her photomontages for Idilio, even though, considering the threat of censorship, she could not be as explicit as Dada artists in Berlin once were. Complementing this with her feminist approach and modifying it due to her exile experience, in the Dream series Stern created a visual counterpart to the Peronist image propaganda and introduced the technique of photomontage to an Argentinean audience as a promising visual and political tool.
While large parts of Argentinean society applauded Peron’s presidency (1946–1955) with euphoric enthusiasm, others, especially left-wing, anti-fascist artists and intellectuals such as Grete Stern, remained skeptical and worried about announced reforms and searched for forms of resistance to react to the emerging restrictive and reactionary developments. Especially the state’s actions to monopolize Argentinean image production and the establishment of a wide-ranging propaganda apparatus led oppositional thinkers and artists to develop alternative spaces to create independent art.
Already in 1943, during a provisory military government, the Subsecretaria de Informaciones y Prensa (Subsecretary for Information and Press) was founded as part of the Ministry of the Interior. This new subsecretary later, under Peron, employed a team of photographers whose primary task was to visually document the government’s work, events and celebrations and, above all, the official appearances of Juan Domingo and Eva Peron. In so doing, the work of the Subsecretaria de Informaciones y Prensa led to a massive increase of visual material, photography, and film that, for the first time in Argentinean history, was extensively used for propaganda purposes.
The emerging Peronist image propaganda pursued primarily the goal to visualize progress and economic growth and to stage the “shirtless worker” (descamisado) as a key figure in this process. Besides that, the creation of a harmonic framing was of central importance, because by visualizing harmony the propaganda apparatus intended to silence ongoing social and political conflicts and let oppositional thinkers become invisible. Even though the political contents transmitted via the propaganda apparatus can be easily decoded, the visualization of these aims was derived from a complex composition of absolutely diverging visual traditions, ranging from fascist to Soviet elements, from religious to anarchist motives, etc. Besides the arising cult of personality around Juan Domingo Peron, the intentional iconization of First Lady Eva Peron was of particular importance and had a drastic impact, especially on the construction of femininity and gender norms. Yet the Peronist image propaganda did not just copy traditional macho culture images. Especially the visual representations of women and families remind more of the American tradition of the New Deal, which, even though it presented economic progress and modernization, still kept reproducing conservative gender norms.
Paradoxically, one of Peronism’s earliest legal reforms was a fundamental and past-due change to the electoral system, through which women would obtain the right to vote in 1947. However, it was frequently criticized that the introduction of women’s suffrage was used as a strategy to establish a broader Peronist electorate. More than that, the already existing political debates around female suffrage were taken over by Peronism while systematically making invisible pioneers in the fight for women’s rights that had been mobilizing in that area for decades. Without doubt, the introduction of women’s suffrage was a very important achievement; still, taking a closer look at the political developments, especially within the frame of visual culture, it becomes evident that the Peronist regime showed no further interest in supporting female emancipation than that. Female action spaces, especially those created within the image propaganda, were reduced to the private sphere. Domestic, charitable activities and motherhood became the main topics that women should be concerned with. Even in cases where women chose to have a career (e.g., in care work professions, as a nurse or a teacher, which were the female equivalents to the male descamisado), their real purpose was to raise and educate the future generations of Peronists.
In 1945 Grete Stern joined the anti-Peronist and anti-fascist arts collective Madí, whose founding member, Gyula Kosice, particularly appreciated Stern’s knowledge on modern art movements. Besides Stern, many other émigrés participated in Madí, such as Martin Balszko, Estéban Eitler, Marie Langer, and Renate Schottelius. By providing her house in Ramos Mejía, a suburb of Buenos Aires, as a work and exhibition space, Grete Stern became a central figure in this émigré and migrant circle of artists and intellectuals. Her position as a hostess for cultural gatherings and as an established artist with broad knowledge on modern art might have been a factor as well in the offer to collaborate in the column “El psicoanálisis te ayudará” in 1948—an opportunity that the artist again would use to create a visual counterpart to the state-driven propaganda and its restricting ideas of femininity.
Feminist Interventions in Popular Culture
On October 26, 1948, in the middle of the ongoing political and artistic debates, the newly founded women’s magazine Idilio (fig. 2) appeared on the market. The name says it all: Idilio (translates as “idyll” or “romance”) was the content line through which the magazine turned to its audience. But as harmonious and peaceful as the pictures in the magazine might seem, there was at least one disobedient counterpoint among them: Grete Stern’s photomontages, which accompanied the psychoanalytic column “El psicoanálisis te ayudará” (“Psychoanalysis will help you”).
César Civita, an Italian émigré who had lived in Buenos Aires since 1941, was the founder of Editorial Abril, a prestigious Argentinean publishing house of international reputation or, as Paula Bertúa described it, a “cultural embassy.” Civita, as well the publisher of Idilio, invited several anti-fascist and anti-Peronist exiles to participate in the Editorial Abril, including Grete Stern and Gino Germani, who together with Enrique Butelman were responsible for “El psicoanálisis te ayuradá.”
As of Idilio’s first edition, the column formed a fixed component and was received with great interest by the magazine’s readers. This, to some extent, can be explained by a general interest in psychoanalysis in Argentina since the early 1940s, which led to the foundation of important institutions like the Asociación Psicoanalítica Argentina (APA) in 1942. In parallel to this official institutionalization process of psychoanalysis, an increasing presence of self-help literature, psychological tests, and psychological health counselors could be recorded in the media of popular culture as well. The publishers of Idilio also jumped on this bandwagon, and with “El psicoanálisis te ayudará” they successfully introduced a format that offered textual and visual dream interpretations combined with basic information on psychoanalytic theories. The production procedure was as follows: each week, Idilio’s female readers would send narrations of their dreams to Dr. Richard Rest, the pseudonym used by the column’s author duo. Then they selected the “case of the week” and offered an elaborated interpretation that was illustrated by one of Stern’s photomontages. Other letters were answered briefly, and Richard Rest’s advice was printed next to an information box that explained psychoanalytic terms or concepts (e.g., Ego, Id, repression, etc.).
Even though Germani and Butelman were responsible for the psychoanalytic dream interpretations, Stern’s visualizations themselves offered an analytic approach that often went beyond the writers’ analysis. Her Dream photomontages in this sense cannot be understood as a mere illustration, but much rather have to be read as a complementing element of the column that not only recognized the female specificities of these dreams but also approached them from a feminist standpoint. Interestingly, through her photomontages Stern not only managed to raise the dreams’ topics to a collective level that goes beyond an individual experience, to a level on which it was possible to debate gender norms and ideas of femininity during Peronism, but also to create a visual space to share her own experience of exile and let it become part of the Argentinean visual culture. As I will elaborate in the following analysis, Stern includes in these pictures several elements, motives, and aesthetics that refer to her former life in Germany, her experience of crossing geographical and artistic borders, and of being an exile in Argentina who struggles with the restricting gender norms in her new surroundings.
It was strategies like parody, alienation, and shock effects, as much as the technique of photomontage, that Stern used to create for herself a scope for action in exile, to approach the topics of the Peronist propaganda, and through which she, as mentioned before, intended to induce a more analytic view on social and political developments. Same as the Peronist propaganda in general, Idilio also often reduced female agency to marriage, motherhood, and domesticity, and framed these topics in a peaceful and happy atmosphere. This framing was of fundamental importance in the Argentinean image propaganda, because in contrast to other forms of propaganda (e.g., Italian Fascist or German National Socialist), the Peronist model was based on the principle of harmony that, more than on the degradation of enemies, built on the complete exclusion and occultation of such others. Yet Stern’s photomontages disturbed this harmony by visualizing far-reaching collective fears and women in situations of crisis and, in this way, revealed it as an illusionary construct. Embedded in the rather superficial, almost trashy women’s magazine Idilio, which in general reproduced traditional female stereotypes and focused on housework, relationships, and beauty, the Sueños photomontages marked a strong contrast to the visual mainstream of that time.