From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola

MoMA | May 17 – October 4, 2015

Collaboration can be a strange affair. Some tantalize with the right combustion of kindred spirits. But some go no further than creating two distinct, if complementary, halves of a work clearly produced by their respective artists. Argentine Horacio Coppola and German-Argentine Grete Stern, the focus of MoMA’s exhibit of photography from the 1920s to 1950s, fall into the latter category; they do not form an outstanding collaborative couple. Instead, the exhibit leaves its two subjects on parallel paths, travelling together but never truly intersecting. Coppola and Stern were married from 1935 to 1945 after meeting at the Bauhaus and fled Hitler’s Germany together, eventually for Argentina. Yet the two do not come out as equals in this show. In fact, Stern steals the exhibit, outpacing her ex-husband in formal inventiveness and psychological depth and disturbance.

Horacio Coppola, Still Life with Egg and Twine, 1932. Gelatin silver print, 8 1/8 ̉ 10 1/8 inches. Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Thomas Walther Collection. ̩ 2015, Estate of Horacio Coppola.

Coppola’s work exemplifies the Bauhaus impulse to experiment with light, line, and the geometric play of surfaces and volumes, while also hinting at a surrealism of city life in the off-kilter perspectives of his photographs of urban spaces. Simple but beguiling, a still life of a sinuously looping string and an egg in Still Life with Egg and Twine (1932), and another luminous print of glass bottles filled with light in Transparencies (1928) complement his photographs of Buenos Aires. The best of these capture intimate scenes of shadow and pattern in city life, as in Untitled (Staircase at Calle Corrientes) (1928), but there are, too, dramatic studies of architecture, as in his images of and around Buenos Aires’s Obelisco or in the diagonal perspective of Untitled (Entrance to 440) (1931), in which a massive edifice swells up like a modernist ocean liner on rough seas.

However, Coppola’s experimentation with light, perspective, and volume does not prepare the viewer for what awaits in Stern’s photographs. Coppola’s own Surrealism, however restrained, comes through in his images of street scenes and perhaps most strongly in a portrait of a woman’s torso from behind (1934) that recalls a chaster version of Man Ray’s La Prière (1930). What Coppola does not push in terms of transgression and invention, Stern takes to the next degree, staging a formal practice not only of outstanding collaboration but also of psychological precarity.

The first intimation of Stern’s greatness comes in the encounter with her friend, Ellen Auerbach, who she had met in Berlin in 1928 and with whom she devised the moniker “ringl + pit.” Their work together is one of those moments of collaborative combustion. The ringl + pit studio produced photographed collages like Komol (1931) that advertised products while sticking to an avant-garde aesthetic. In one image, Soapsuds (1930), soapy hands are photographed suspended above a bowl of sudsy water. One hand grasps the other at the wrist. We cannot say if the hands belong to the same body, or if someone holds fast to someone else. The image embodies the creative alchemy between collaborative partners exemplified by ringl + pit but lacking in the dialogue established between Stern and Coppola’s photographs.

ringl + pit, Soapsuds, 1930. Gelatin silver print, 7 × 6 1/4 inches. © 2015, Estate of Horacio Coppola.

Mirror images become increasingly important to Stern in her solo photography, as they had in the French Surrealist Claude Cahun’s idiom. (The French writer and photographer feels more than relevant, here, in an exhibit concerned with adding a new chapter to “transnational modernism,” especially since it has much to say in the feminist history of that movement.) Stern’s reflections cleave close to the mirror as a technology of estrangement and psychological crisis. In a portrait of Gyula Kosice (1945), Stern’s subject holds a mirror that doubles his face and covers the lower half of the picture plane. Margarita Guerrero (1945) poses against a mirror, reflecting her body in profile as well as the scene in front of her, while miraculously the mirror avoids any capture of her photographer. The portraits in this second to last gallery culminate in Stern’s own self-portrait.

In the self-portrait (1943), Stern catches her face only in a small, round vanity mirror. She has rouged her lips, and upturned thumbtacks menace from the tabletop where they are scattered beside abstract shapes resembling an architect’s triangular set square. The image registers some of the shock that reverberates in the work of Clarice Lispector (an earlier exile to Brazil from a Europe made inhospitable by war and revolution), especially in the strangest of her short stories about the daily domestic lives of women in Family Ties (1960).

Grete Stern, Autorretrato (Self-Portrait), 1943. Gelatin silver print, printed 1958, 8 11/16 × 11 inches. © 2015, Estate of Horacio Coppola.

Stern’s self-portrait, though, is just a prelude to what follows. The next and final gallery comprises 28 photomontages from the Sueños (Dreams) series, as well as issues of the women’s magazine Idilio in which it first appeared to accompany articles on psychoanalysis from 1949-51. The Sueños series speaks to either side of the modern divide of the 20th century, back to the avant-garde work that preceded it and forward to the “post-modern” work that would follow. In one image, a woman huddles inside a perfume bulb. It is impossible not to imagine her trapped in Duchamp’s Belle Haleine, eau de Voilette (1921). In another, a woman stares out a window. With the curtains drawn back in this photomontage, and the general tenor of shellshock that recurs in these images, Stern seems to presage the more overtly political montages of Martha Rosler in which she draws back the domestic curtain on the horror of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. In Dream No. 7: Who Will She Be? (1949), a woman looks in a mirror in shocked surprise at a series of her own reflections receding infinitely into space. The montage suggests that most dangerously combustive of collaborations—that with one’s own selves.

Contributor

Phillip Griffith

PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City. 

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