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Grete Stern: photography as art

German by birth, Argentina by choice, the photographer expanded the world of images with avant-garde photos that disrupted the boundaries of the visible in portraits, landscapes and photomontages. In Stern's works there are out of the frame that does not stop.

Art and Literature
Grete Stern

 A German photographer escaping Nazi barbarism arrives in Villa Sarmiento, Morón, and with her husband, also photographer, revolutionizes the artistic environment . Victoria Ocampo crosses the capital to attend its meetings. Jorge Luis Borges up at night to sing zambas, and tangos, in the voice of Maria Elena Walsh. Gyula Kosice and other artists pergenate Madí art in their living room, and perform there the first exhibition of this advanced plastic trend. Alberto Greco begins to dream his performances in the gardens of Wladimiro Acosta's rationalist house.  And everyone recognizes the singular genius of the hostess, Grete Stern, who from her studio on Tucumán Street builds a new look at advertising, newspapers and galleries. Either travel to the country we do not look, or just to the courtyards of our houses  “In my photos things are not by chance: I discover around me what interests me and, if it is inside what I want to do, I record it; if not, I correct it or wait for the conditions that will make you see what I want to show.  My photograph is not objective: it shows what I want it to be seen,” said Stern to Panorama magazine in 1970, Grete, artist, feminist, cultural agitator, visionary of Argentine art.  

Grete Stern was born in Wuppertal-Elberfeld, Germany, on May 9, 1904. Daughter of traders and industrialists linked to the textile industry, she spends her training years in England, and her hometown, where she would work in advertising design and learn drawing and music. There he integrates youth groups that spread German folk songs in remote villages, a traveling spirit, and contact with nature, which would be a constant in Grete. Deeply impressed by the creative possibilities of photography, influenced by American photographers Edward Weston and Paul Outerbridge, she decided to study with Walter Peterhans in Berlin, who would later be responsible for the  Bauhaus photographic department. In many respects Stern as a pupil/creator advances the reformist rationalism of the famous school, with those grays characteristic of the German avant-garde . When his teacher departs Desseu, in the company of a partner, Ellen Auerbach, he set up his own studio,  Ringl & Pit , his children's nicknames — with Peterhans teams that ended up in Buenos Aires. They quickly became known in the graphic media, and advertising, for their unconventional representations of women in the times of the “new woman”, of the ephemeral Weimar Republic, a liberated from patriarchal mandates. In 1933, in Brussels, the photographers won the first prize for an advertisement of a lotion, with the models behind the camera, something unusual for that time . Another of the selected ads showed a woman tied to a bridal corset, the antecedent of the disruptive Dreams series. A year earlier, on a Bauhaus course, I would meet the Argentinean  Horacio Coppola .  

The terror of Hitlerism, and the dissolution of the German art school, caused Stern and Coppola to migrate to England, where Stern accredited legal residence. There he wanted to refloat the study with Auerbach, he  even took shots to notables like Bertolt Brecht with his inseparable Linhof 9x12,  but the refusal of the English authorities to grant Ellen the visa — who would later live in the United State- prompted that Grete and Horacio's marriage enfiled Buenos Aires Oh, Aires. Immediately the circle of the magazine Sur de  Ocampo  hosted artists, Coppola was an old acquaintance, and organized with his works, in the middle offices, what is considered the first photography exhibition in these parts, in 1935. The following year alone Grete would return to London, vacate the apartment, and light up his daughter Silvia, model of several of her photographs.  From 1936, Argentina would be the home of Stern.  

Although she was quickly integrated into Buenos Aires's cultural life, Grete was an excellent conversationalist, it cost almost a decade her integration into the market, partly because of the scarce development of commercial and advertising photography at the end of the 30s, which she promoted in publishing houses and printing houses.  Notable is the series of portraits of intellectuals and artists that began in 1937 until the 1980s and which constitute an invaluable contribution to the country's cultural history (Spilimbergo,  Pettoruti,  Berni, Sábato,  Sábat,  etc), in addition to its artistic quality. From their first exhibition, in a gallery on Florida Street in 1943, they surprise these portraits with the “gray faces ”, in the words of an exceptional colleague, Sameer Makarius, who praised his measured lighting in front of the dramatism of Buenos Aires photographers.  Like his incunabal portraits, Stern launches himself by his will to photograph the city and its surroundings, loopards, grids, piletones and stretched clothes, make up an urban symphony that can well complement, with a confessional sensitivity , the porteñas series of her husband Coppola, from whom he separates in 1942. Only in 1953 would Grete's photos be known by the publisher Peuser.

Morón's house inaugurated in 1940 is an epicenter of the cultural move of the forties and fifties. There culture and modern art are discussed with the moderation of the hostess; and much of the abstract and concrete movements of the middle of the last century are born in Stern's living room. Working for various architectural studios, including Williams, the massive publishing house Abril asks Stern to illustrate the “Psychoanalysis will help you” section of the popular magazine Idilio, a pioneer in photonovels. The readers told their dreams and interpreted by Richard Rest (the name of an old couple of sociologists Gino Germani and Enrique Butelman, Germani modernizing Argentine sociology). 140 photomontages were published between 1949 and 1951, of which there were only 46 negatives, which the photographer fortunately kept for retouching, although thanks to the archives of the National Library we can appreciate the complete work. A  masterpiece , on cheap paper and for all classes, and that would be valued forty years after Stern's last dream of the  pulp Idyll.

Grete Stern


 Journey into the depths 

“A solicitous woman balancing on the ledge of a chimney, begging mercy on a viper train that looks out from the sea, dragging a mountain up a tied stone, levitating between floating planets, sailing on a paper boat daily, removing a nail from the sole of her foot on a beach, climbing a washboard, enclosed in a cage, caged in a jar,” describes Matías Serra Bradford from Stern's latest show in 2020 at Jorge Mara — La Ruche gallery, “These are images—he sketched them beforehand by pencil—and created —by means of shots and   successive collages—  , and in this regard are placed closer to the painting.  As if long before the iconographic explosion in the world (where thousands of photos look alike and any cell phone owner is photographer), Stern would have decided to make pictures that no one else could capture... there is no instant nostalgia for things about to disappear  & ndash; classic topic of this art — perhaps because they haven't happened yet, are about to happen. Tonight, in the dream of an impressionable viewer”, reflects the writer for  www.clarí . Aimed at a mostly female audience, the artist dreamlessly explores various ways of oppression of women, ironically, yes, but firmly “ In the series of Dreams the artist and avant-garde woman who was Grete is vigorously expressed ,” specialist Luis Priamo, in the catalogue of a remembered exhibition at the Recoleta Cultural Center in 2003, and adds, “ she led her life with the same spirit of radical independence, with respect to the approved female values and customs, which expose her photomontages.   In the whole of his work, Los Sueños represent the chapter where his opinions... are present with greater clarity. These opinions are not explicit in an “intellectual” way — to use a word Grete always used with a critical sense — but through his strength of plastic, visual conviction,” Priamo argues, and considers  Stern's series as the first and most important photographic work afia argentina that addresses the issue of oppression and manipulation of women in the society of the time, and the alienating consequences of consensual subjugation. We add ourselves, from any time . Simultaneously, Grete enters the National Museum of Fine Arts in a very new department of photography, which would leave retired in 1970.

 Similarly emancipating can interpret the work he undertakes with “Aborigines del Gran Chaco Argentino”, a monumental photoreporting carried out between 1958 and 1965 in Chaco, Formosa, Salta and Jujuy . Stern had already photographed the Interior, Bahía Blanca and the Buenos Aires Delta, places of his breaks, and Patagonia, but from an invitation from the University of Northwest of Resistencia, institution where he would teach in 1960, is impacted by the lacerating marginality of tuffs, wichis, pilagá ; s, mocovíes and guaraníes, on the banks of cities or inland.  One thousand five hundred shots of the inhabitants of the region made by Stern, which include daily life and arts, is the largest national photographic contribution to the native peoples.   Within the abstract aesthetic of the Bauhaus, Stern's work is perhaps his best exponent in terms of the posture of the social function of art. Little appreciated at the time in the local media, it had an unnoticed inaugural exhibition at the San Martín Cultural Center in 1965 and, then in La Plata in 1971, in which Stern was concerned  with spreading the miserable conditions of the natives without appealing to denuncialism, over time in Europe they were considered a high exponent of humanistic photography.  

During the seventies he made trips around Europe and America, there he was recognized Machu Picchu series, and continues his essential record of portraits of Argentine artists and writers, which unfortunately end when a progressive affection in the sight prevented him from working in the early 80's.  The first major retrospective of his work at the San Telmo Foundation in 1981 fired several awards worldwide, one of the top five Argentine photographers according to the Konex Foundation in 1982, and the main contemporary art institutions acquire their photographs for their collections.  In 1995 she assumed Stern status as an international artist with an exhibition at the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, and a documentary awarded in the United States in 1999 about the initiatic  Ringl+Pit . He died in Buenos Aires on December 24, 1999 “ The image must be composed in the eye rather than in the viewer,” said Grete Stern, the artist from the old continent who discovered the new Argentina in the folds of the faces.  

Grete Stern


 Says Grete Stern 

“Photographing is seizing, appropriating an alien image, overcoming the resistances that everyone can feel in front of someone who observes it. Something like getting into a particular world in which others, strangers, have no right to penetrate — which many photographers don't always remember. When someone overcomes these resistances, he can achieve a very beautiful, subjective reflection of a man's personality and his environment”, in  Siete Días Ilustrados magazine, August 1972, Buenos Aires.


 They say about Grete Stern 

“The sense of graphic rhythm that prevails in Stern's portraits derives from his persistent search for situations that satisfy his perception. On one occasion he wanted to photograph Alfredo Bonino but ended the session without having made the shot because he did not find what he wanted to convey. The action took place in the gallery located opposite Plaza San Martín, in Buenos Aires. At the time of saying goodbye, already on the exit staircase, he saw how his model stopped right in front of a mirror: Here's what I want, he said resolutely. And he smiles as he remembered that he forced the gallerist- Bonino to wait patiently until he reassemble the team and record the scene” Jorge Ben Gullco in  Argentine Painters of the 20th Century. Complementary series: Argentinean Photographers of the 20th Century.  Latin America Editor Center. Buenos Aires. 1982.

Publication Date: 09/05/2021

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