May 9: Is photography therapeutic?
Grete Stern is a well-known mid-century photographer. Born on this date in 1904 in Elberfeld, Germany, she attended primary school in England before studying graphic arts in the Kunstgewerbeschule, Stuttgart (1923-25). Deciding to make photography her career and, relocating to Berlin, she took private lessons from Walter Peterhans who later was the sole photography teacher at the Bauhaus (though there was no distinct photography course there), where later (1930-33) she continued to study with him.
In the meantime in 1929 she met and set up an advertising studio with Ellen Auerbach named Ringl+Pit after their childhood nicknames to hide the fact that they were Jewish. Their productions from this period are unusually experimental and the results sometimes quite bizarre, like this advertisement for Petrole Hahn, a hair tonic company whose innovative publicity during the time ranged across the art nouveau, art deco and emerging modernist styles. The human hand emerging from the costume of this shop mannequin must surely have seemed surreal and quite likely it was never published.
Dora Maar produced this likewise surreal, but more appealing, idea for the same company only a few years later. This too does not appear in the surviving German magazines of the period to which I can get access.
With the rise of Hitler the pair abandoned their studies at the Bauhaus and set up in England where their advertising imagery was still eye-catching and experimental but less disturbing, and aligned more closely to the emerging New Objectivity.
In 1935 Stern married Argentine photographer Horacio Coppola and made her first trip to Buenos Aires, where they together exhibited and laid out South magazine. The following year, their daughter Silvia was born, and the family settled in Argentina, moving in 1940, the year son Andrew was born, into a Modernist house built on the outskirts of Buenos Aires by architect Wladimiro Acosta.
During gatherings in her home Stern used the opportunity to photograph her visitors, including Jorge Luis Borges, Clément Moreau, Renate Schottelius and others and worked for major publishers and advertising agencies. She held her first solo exhibition at the Müller Gallery, Buenos Aires, in 1943, separating from Coppola that year. In 1945 the Madi arts group (Movimiento de Arte Concreto Invención) exhibited for the first time at her house.
Stern’s most intriguing, and astonishing, work after the end of World War II are her Sueños (Dreams)
They were a series of photomontages that she contributed between 1948 and 1951 on a weekly basis to the column El psicoanálisis le ayudará (‘Psychoanalysis will help you’) in the popular women’s magazine Idilio (‘Idyll’).
Each dream selected from those submitted by readers would be interpreted by Gino Germani, then a professor of sociology at the University of Buenos Aires, and later a professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard, and psychologist Enrique Butelman, writing together under the pseudonym Richard Rest.
Freud’s The Interprepretation of Dreams by then had been widely published and had his ideas had filtered into the mainstream and psychoanalysis was made a popular interest internationally by womens’ magazines postwar which glorified the domestic sphere above all other pursuits.
In the relatively liberated United States in 1956, Look magazine celebrated the housewife as ‘this wondrous creature’ who ‘marries younger than ever, bears more babies, and looks and acts far more feminine than the emancipated girls of the 1920s or even the 30s … she gracefully concedes the top job rungs to men.’
Divorce was illegal in Argentina until briefly in 1954 under President Juan Domingo Perón, who was in conflict with the Church and had divorce law passed for the first time, but when he was forced out of the presidency one year later the succeeding government abolished the law. Divorce was not made legal until 1987.
In the time of Stern’s Sueños, resolving issues within marriage would have pressed heavily on the minds of the readers of Idilio who had no refuge in employment and no income of their own, and if their marriage failed and they separated, they could not remarry. The interest in dreams and psychoanalysis was therefore not idle curiosity.
Though Stern created up to 150 of her montages for publication in Idilio, only 46 negatives of these works survived to printed and exhibited by the artist subsequently, only because during the first year Grete Stern photographed almost all photomontages before delivery, a routine that became impractical given the pressure of keeping the deadline over a prolonged period.
Stern made the woman, the dreamer, the central subject of each of her photomontages, always using a model who was young and attractive to appeal to readers. In making the photomontages, her own marital experience, her independence and her unusual professional status has come into play; they are not neutral in their interpretation.
The use of montage that draws on Stern’s long practice in surrealism enables the viewer to enter a credible world of anxieties, vividly frightening evocations of vertigo, loneliness, paranoia, or pain. She expertly constructs the emotional logic of dreams from her own visualisation of the readers’ letters in which she condenses events and connections into one powerful and still readable image; witness the way that the chimney above is given a teetering reverse perspective which she painstakingly designs by repeating images of the bricks from the left onto the right and from top to bottom. The insertion of an extra brick at the back of the chimney where the woman, who was photographed from above to fit, balances, is the key to how the distortion of the architecture is achieved.
The therapeutic value of these ingenious imaginings is that it is left quite clear that these are artificial worlds, peopled by paper dolls. These are more than interpretation of dreams; they offer empowerment by encapsulating the cause of disquiet and thus clarifying and objectifying it. For the woman who in Stern’s interpretation is depicted as a table lamp, expected to turn on at the flick of her husband’s finger, to see her dream published would be a revelatory identification of her relationship. She may then have felt justified and supported in resolving it. Few photographers have deliberately achieved work that works therapeutically in this way, apart from Grete Stern and Jo Spence, who later was to coin the term ‘Photo Therapy’.
The protagonists of the photos were friends, family and neighbors, and for additional images, the landscapes, backgrounds, objects and secondary characters, Stern drew on her own archive; an example being the mouth-, or fish-shaped cloud behind the woman on the chimney which is also part of the sky in the montage of the turtle-headed train rushing from the sea.
To deliver a photomontage weekly, the work of shooting in the studio and on location, and assembling combined cut-and-paste and darkroom imagery, was intense. That left little time for revision, which explains why Stern amended at least four photomontages after publication, so consequently there are now two versions of each of these dreams: the Idilio file and that of the photographer. There can be few, apart from Angus McBean and John Heartfield, who have sustained such an unbroken, continuous publication schedule of manual photomontage.
Despite being published weekly for almost three years, the photomontages were ignored as ‘serious’ art because such magazines were considered unworthy of intellectual consideration. Nevertheless the series was introduced in teaching by the Faculty of Psychology at the University of La Plata in the mid-50s, and its first exhibition was held in Buenos Aires in 1967 in collaboration with the poet Elva Loizaga. In 1982, a large sample was exhibited at FotoFest, Houston, in the United States.
Thereafter, the notoriety of the series expanded rapidly and it has been the subject of numerous exhibitions; Dreams. Grete Stern, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Valencia (1995); Grete Stern. Photographic work in Argentina, presented by the Goethe Institut in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Germany, Colombia and Ecuador (1997/8) and Grete Stern. Dreams, Staatliche Galerie Moritzburg, Halle and Suermondt Ludwing Museum, Azchen (1999). After continuing her photographic work in Argentina, Stern died in Buenos Aires at 95 years of age on 24 December 1999. Posthumously the most important show to include the Sueños series was From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola presented at The Museum of Modern Art May 17– October 4, 2015.