Whisperings from the Wormhole with @talluts

Dear Grete Stern

Grete Stern, Autorretrato (Self-Portrait) 1943, Gelatin silver print, Estate of Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires

Today, I’m sending out a Valentine – a non-valentine’s Day Valentine, a good-for-eternity Valentine – to the feminist photo montage artist, Grete Stern. Because who else slyly slid their radical societal critiques into photomontages that they made for a light and airy 1950s women’s magazine (chock full of romance serials, crosswords, and lipstick ads)? Grete Stern, that who.

The tragi-comic feminist photo montages of German Argentinian artist Grete Stern might be a bit of a deep cut. In fact, I hadn’t heard of her until recently, even though her work was shown in From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern & Horacio Coppola at MoMA in 2015 alongside her photographer husband. I don’t even really remember where I first heard of her, except that when I did, I felt the irresistible urge to write her a Valentine and dedicate an entire essay to her.

First things first, who was Grete Stern? Stern was born in Germany in 1904 and studied at the Bauhaus in Berlin. When Hitler and the Nazis came to power, she fled and settled in Buenos Aires. Many other artists also emigrated there and merged with the local artists to create a vibrant art scene. She sometimes collaborated with other artists (such as Ellen Auerbach or her own husband, Horatio Coppola), but here we’re going to focus on her solo work: a series of photo montages called Sueños (Dreams) that she created for a popular Argentinian women’s magazine called Idilio, (Idyll). Her pieces were commissioned to illustrate readers’ dream submissions and accompany a column about psychoanalysis (Freud was very on-trend at the time). The magazine itself was a bit of fluff that appealed to the 1940s-50s housewife that offered beauty, fashion, home tips, and serialized romance stories paired with beautiful images. But the dream illustrations that Grete sneakily sifted into these frivolous pages veered away from the magazine’s tone and presented a witty critique of patriarchal modes of thinking.

An open newspaper with a picture of a child

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Idilio Magazine’s El Psicoanalisis Le Ayudara column (left), featuring Grete Stern’s photomontage illustration Sueño No. 24: Sorpresa (Dream No. 24: Surprise) (March 15, 1949 issue)

This was a radical act because at the time the country was under the dictatorship of Juan Perón. The political atmosphere was such that a woman artist critiquing societal norms would almost certainly have been silenced. Under Perón’s iron fist, many university faculty were fired en masse, including scholars, physicists, artists, and even a Nobel laureate. Perón had a sick sense of humor, too. Subject to the regime’s censorship, Jorge Luis Borges, noted short story writer, was fired from his post as the head of the National Library of Buenos Aires and then insultingly offered the job of poultry inspector at the city’s wholesale market in exchange. He, of course, refused. The environment was so oppressive that many even fled to parts north like Mexico.

But back to our girl, Grete. How, in this atmosphere, did she sneak through her radical photocollages? Interwoven in between the romance stories and cleaning tips, they hid in plain sight. Ironically, the frivolous created a powerful smokescreen for critical thought, because, as a matter of course, women’s publications were dismissed as unimportant and nonthreatening by Perón’s watchdogs. Female lowbrow was, and still is, seen as so cringe-inducing that it became the perfect camouflage for anything subversive. Lol Grete.

Her photomontages were made to accompany a column called El Psicoanalisis Le Ayudara (Psychoanalysis Will Help You). At the time, Freud and his dream analysis technique were all the rage, and the magazine wanted in on the action. They encouraged readers to send in requests for advice along with their dreams for two “experts” (psychologist Enrique Butelman and sociologist Gino Germani under the single pseudonym “Richard Rest”) to analyze. “Richard” would then publish his responses in the column. To illustrate the letters sent in by the female readership, Grete would create custom photo montages. She made 150 in total, but sadly only 46 survive.

Grete Stern, Sueño No. 28: Amor sin ilusión (Dream No. 28: Love Without Illusion) 1951, Gelatin silver print, IVAM, Institut Valencia d’Art Modern
Grete Stern, Sueño No. 36: Fracturas (Dream No. 36: Fractures) 1949, Gelatin silver print, Collection Alexis Fabry, Paris

In the MoMA catalog for the show, Scholar, Ana María León, is quoted as saying that Stern’s illustrations in the column operate “as mediators between the experts, mostly men, and the primarily female audience, presumed to be the typical readers of Idilio, that was assumed in need of instruction and guidance.” Who doesn’t love dream interpretation? Like horoscopes, it’s all a bit of light fun. But in Grete’s hands, a shrewd female perspective of is offered: an act of compassionate and winking understanding that counteracts the patriarchal tone. She gives them (and us) an illuminating view into women’s deepest fears and feelings of oppression. “Grete Stern pushed back on traditional values and concepts in Idlio magazine by inserting feminist critique of Argentinian gender roles and the very psychoanalytic project she was illustrating” (Wikipedia). Grete’s critique of the good patriarchal mother often surfaced in her depictions of motherhood as frightening or imprisoning and her depictions of women as objectified, like literal household objects. The protagonists in her photomontages (often cast with images of her daughter, her friends, or her neighbors) were shown transformed into things like lamps, zippers, or stuck into bottles. The images were so peculiar and funny and horrifying all at once.

Allow me to geek out a bit about how she made them. The strangeness of the images, made by hand with sophisticated and painstaking darkroom techniques, led me down a deep photography rabbit hole. Her photomontages were essentially seamless photographs of hand-made, glued-down photo collages. First, she would draw a pencil sketch of the image she wanted to make. Then she’d go about finding photos to match the elements in the sketch. She’d make prints of the elements in the dark room, sizing them up or down on the enlarger to fit the composition she had in her mind. Next, she’d gather all the printouts, cut them up, arrange them, and paste them with glue into one image. And finally, she’d photograph that collage and, by re-photographing it, she would arrive at a single seamless photograph. An alternative way she made them was to create a freestanding 3D layered scene of cutout photo parts, either sandwiched between glass or propped up on sticks like a shadow puppet theater. The cutout pieces in that case could be in focus or out of focus because they were staggered in actual distance from each other. And like with a stage set, you could add lighting, darken things, and shift focus between near and far. The resulting image of this “set” is a single seamless photograph, also a photomontage.

Grete Stern, Sueños No. 7: ¿Quién será? (Dream No. 7: Who Will It Be?) 1949, Gelatin silver print, Maison de l’Amérique Latine

The column in Idlio was difficult to find online in any kind of legible form, beyond a few small jpegs. But through careful image manipulations on my part, and using Google Translate, I was able to glean a clearer picture of the whole endeavor. The column was about dream interpretation, yes, but it also functioned like a Dear Abby advice column. The reader wrote in to ask for advice about a specific problem and included extensive personal info: their age, sex, marital status, job and descriptions of their childhood, current life, relationships, amusements, love life, fantasies and worries. They were also asked whether or not they feared death and if they had any recurring dream themes. For example, a pharmacy student might write in asking if they should quit school because they failed a couple of crucial tests and can’t help comparing themselves to their star-student friend. Richard Rest would analyze the hopeless student’s info and the subconscious desires perceived in the dream and tell them what to do (stay in school, but go on more dates to achieve better equilibrium in life) and Greta would provide the illustration for the feature (in this case, Sueño No. 36: Fracturas – Dream No. 36: Fractures 1949, a despairing elephant-legged woman taunted by a billboard image of womanly perfection).

Grete Stern, Sueño No. 16: Sirena del mar (Dream No. 16: Mermaid), c. 1950, Collection Léticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

Grete’s photo montages however weren’t typical illustrations. They didn’t simply recreate the letter writer’s dream, nor did they illustrate the analysis of “Richard Rest.” Instead, she gave a third thing: a commentary. For example, in Sueño No. 24: Sorpresa (Dream No. 24: Surprise), in the March 15, 1949 issue of Idilio, a reader wrote in that she had a recurring dream where she saw a doll and felt both averse to looking at it and attracted to it. Richard Rest (aka. Butelman and Germani) saw her dream as a child hoping to acquire life. They suggested that the dreamer’s unconscious was telling her that she was ignoring her desire to be a mother, which prevented her from leading a “full life.” In the written column, the reader’s ambivalence about motherhood was swept right under the rug in favor of a more traditional view that a woman’s place is at home bearing children. In the illustration, Grete offered her own alternative take on the reader’s dream: A woman walks along a street along a fenced overpass and covers her face in fear as a large looming baby (or is it a doll?) toddles in from the foreground. Its arms are extended in a plea to be picked up. Grete’s own interpretation of the same dream shows the baby as a specter, a hulking obstacle that blocks the reader’s chosen path with its neediness.

In another work, Sueños No. 7: ¿Quién será? (Dream No. 7: Who Will It Be?) In August 1949, we see the back of a woman’s head looking into a guilt-framed mirror. Her reflection appears with a look of shocked horror and multiplies three more times. In 1949’s Sueño No. 1: Articulos Eléctricos para el hogar (Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home), a man’s arm in a suit reaches into the frame to turn on a table lamp. Under the light is a seated woman in a party dress, holding up a pleated floral lampshade. In Sueño No. 5: Botella del mar (Dream No. 5: Bottle from the Sea) 1950, we see a woman daydreaming and trapped in a bottle on a beach in a skirt and sensible pumps. In 1950’s Sueño No. 16: Sirena del mar (Dream No. 16: Mermaid), we see a disembodied lady butt emerging from the surf. Two male arms also come out of the water to almost grasp the flesh with twiddly fingers.

Grete Stern, Sueño No. 5: Botella del mar (Dream No. 5: Bottle from the Sea) 1950, Gelatin silver print, Collection Eduardo F. Costantini, Buenos Aires

There are just so many good ones, but I’ll just squeeze in one more. We see in 1951’s issue, Sueño No. 28: Amor sin ilusión (Dream No. 28: Love Without Illusion), a man with a turtle head, clad in a suit, smoking a cigarette and bloviating on some grand topic, while a young woman in a floral dress and white gloves clasps a black portfolio or purse in her arms. She leans away from the turtle man, staring worriedly at his chin. There are bars on the window.

I just love the biting wit in all of them – the gallows humor and the jokes embedded in all these cackling images. Who among us doesn’t feel weighed down by endless domestic duties and expectations? Or who hasn’t been trapped in a conversation with a blowhard turtle? In every case, they’re still as relevant today as they were then.

Her interest in the slipperiness of interpretations (like how her dream works seem to innocently illustrate women’s fantasies but actually secretly offer a critique of culture) may have come from her earlier work in advertising. Her friend, Ellen Auerbach, had long collaborated with her on advertising projects in Berlin. In the 30s, under the umbrella of their boutique two-person photography studio called ringl & pit, named for both their childhood nicknames (Grete was ringl). They produced magazine ads that used mannequins and wigs, and other feminine accessories, which gave the images an avant-garde subversive flavor. In the advertising photomontages, the Metropolitan Museum of Art says that “Stern and Auerbach worked to question the artifice and masquerade of feminine identity.” Grete, in her own words, describes a ringl & pit ad from 1936 that ran in a women’s clothing magazine: “We see the oval of a face cut from smooth fabric. Threads of knitting wool form the hair, two buttons in place of eyes. Another thread suggests the nose, and a small, semi-open zipper is the mouth.”

Grete Stern, Sueño No. 2: En el andén (Dream No. 2: On the Platform) 1949, Gelatin Silver Print, Private collection, Paris

The caption of the ad says “Most slide fasteners suffer from exposure” and the translation isn’t easy, as it gives way to double interpretation. It can mean that most common zippers, as a matter of course, will wear themselves out (versus the ad’s better made versions). Or the meaning could be that very active zippers suffer and break down for being too active (Tighten up those loose zippers, ladies!). The sexual innuendo and the inherent judgment of women contained in the ad copy isn’t lost on us, and especially was not lost on Grete. It gives us insight into how she loved playing within the well-worn advertising trope of double entendre, and how she ultimately weaponized it against her tightly controlled, Perón-ist society in her secretly revolutionary work.

Grete Stern, Sueño No. 18: Café concert (Dream No. 18: Café Concert) 1948, Gelatin Silver Print, Private collection, Paris

In closing, I offer a fan letter:

Dear Grete Stern,

I’m your number one fan. May I please have your autograph to hang in my room and gaze at every day? And I understand if you can’t respond right away because I know you must be very busy. But if you can, I’ve enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope with Buenos Aires as the return address.

Sincerely yours,


About the writer: Amy Talluto is a mixed-media artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.