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Dreams as a Portal to Feminist Consciousness: The Photomontages of Grete Stern

Grete Stern's seminal series Sueños is currently on view in the Carmen Thyssen Museum in Malaga. In this reflection on the exhibition, The Debutante co-editor Tasmin Petrie uncovers the psychoanalytical underpinnings of Stern's photomontages, exploring how they became a crucial reference point for developing a feminist consciousness within the Argentine avant-garde and beyond.


The photomontages Sueños (Dreams) created by Grete Stern between 1948-1951 are a series of visual interpretations of moments experienced in the dreamscape. However, the works themselves are firmly rooted in the social, political and cultural concerns faced by women in Argentina during the Peronist regime of 1946-55. Currently on view in the Carmen Thyssen Museum Malaga, as part of the exhibition Fervor de Buenos Aires, Stern’s photomontages were borne out of the dreams experienced by readers of the feminist magazine Idilio, fused together with images from quotidian Argentinian life during a period of rapid modernisation for the country.[1] This confluence of the dreamscape and the daily reality faced by women in Argentina allowed Stern to grapple with the psychoanalytical concerns of women and visually represent them in her works.


Stern developed the technique of photomontage at the Bauhaus during the late 1920s, which shaped her understanding of the fast-developing nature of the medium of photography as a result of the accelerating technological advances of Weimar Germany of the period.[2] Later, in 1935 as an exile in Buenos Aires, Stern continued to implant the techniques learned at the Bauhaus to the Argentine contemporary art scene, crystallising her position as one of the pioneering voices of the Argentine avant-garde.


Not only that, Stern was also a key figure in expounding a feminist consciousness within Argentinian print publications during the Peronist era, which she set forth in her photomontages featured in Idilio magazine in a characteristically ludic and provocative style. A pressing theme addressed by Stern is the role of the "modern woman" propelled by conservatives and the Peronist government. Despite some progress in women’s rights and gender relations during the Peronist regime, the expectation of women to inhabit the role of mother and wife, or “angel of the home” still remained.


It is precisely this tension between an increasing feminist consciousness and women’s role as the core of the nuclear family that characterises the rising “modern woman” figure in Argentina during the period; Stern was addressing this discourse through her photomontages. In particular, ¿Quién Será? (Who Could It Be?) 1949 and Artículos eléctricos para el hogar (Domestic appliances for the home) 1949, encapsulate the power of photomontage to disrupt the viewer’s embedded expectations by playing with opposing images and symbols of the role imposed upon women in Argentina as wife and mother. Stern juxtaposes scenes from domestic life and appliances found in the home with women figures at ease and with agency. The women appear to smirk, as if the conflicting role imposed on them within Peronist society causes them some degree of amusement, given their developing feminist consciousness that a new dimension exists for women outside of the gender roles established within Argentine society.



'Articulos electricos para el hogar' (1949)

Stern’s ability to provoke through her visual language is perhaps made even more innovative through her merging of the domestic and the dreamscape. In tandem with the rise of the “modern woman” figure in Argentina, there was also increasing interest in the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and the field of sexology. Undoubtably, Stern transposed visions of the dreamscape to her photomontages to unlock a discourse surrounding female desire and eroticism which was more challenging for women to access and openly discuss within the realm of the conscious. Photomontages such as Cuerpos Celestes (Heavenly Bodies) 1949, serve as a revelation, an act of ascending to a place in which we can access thoughts, notions and reflections that allow us to reach pertinent conclusions about our lives, which would be more challenging to achieve in a waking state. In this sense, Stern imbues the domestic space with some degree of magic, suggesting that the dreamscape allows women to access an area of their imagination and subconscious that may otherwise have had to be repressed in their daily lives out of necessity to conform to the status quo.



'Cuerpos celestes' (1949)

What Stern demonstrates most successfully in Sueños is the power of the medium of photomontage to provoke the viewer whilst simultaneously uncovering a reality that has remained concealed due to social norms and expectations. Just as photomontage is replete with contrasting symbols that visually disrupt entrenched ideals and expectations, so too does Stern reflect the contradictory position of women during the period. It is perhaps in this dreamscape depicted by Stern, although set within the backdrop of the social reality of 1940s and 50s Argentina, that implores women to access the world of the subconscious mind in order to reveal more about their own lived reality.



References:

[1] María Laura Rosa, “Una mirada decisiva. Tensiones entre libertad y emancipación femenina en la serie Idilio de Grete Stern,” Lectora 20 (March 2014): 192. [2] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Illuminations ed. by Hannah Arendt translated by Harry Zohn, from the 1935 essay (New York: Schocken Books, 1969): 2-6.

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