Grete was a graphic artist and photographer who developed the surrealistic art of photomontage. She and her colleagues lived in Berlin in the shadow of Nazism, studying at the Bauhaus until it was forced to close in 1933. Before this, with her good friend Ellen Auerbach, she opened her own advertising business, ringl and pit -- named after their childhood nicknames. They worked for the many thriving Jewish companies in Berlin that were later sold way below market to Aryans Germans or closed entirely. Their advertisements are one of the few records of the thriving Jewish business life of the time.
She also was a subversive feminist in much of her advertising. One is an advertisement for a hair tonic. It shows the eerie smiling face of a manikin with a real human hand holding the hair tonic, suggesting that if you buy (into) this stuff and use it, you too can be objectified. Yet the manufacturers used these advertisements, either because they didn’t see the joke or because they liked her work so much, they didn’t care.
To escape the political climate in Germany, she and Horacio fled to London in 1933. There she joined the artistic life and photographed many luminaries, including playwright Berthold Brecht, actress Helene Weigel, Marxist philosopher Karl Korsch, and her psychoanalyst Paula Heimann, also feminist in her leanings.
In 1935, the couple married and fled to Argentina. She left most of her belongings behind, taking only her photography equipment. She and Coppola set up long careers in Argentina, immediately joining the cultural and intellectual life of Buenos Aires. She continued in photography; later he stopped making art and turned to teaching and developing his theoretical perspectives on photography. They divorced in 1943.
One of her most interesting contributions is a series of photomontages she contributed to the women’s magazine Idilio from 1948 to 1951 for a column called “Psychoanalysis Will Help You”. Housewives would send in their dreams, which were analyzed by the editors and then illustrated by Stern. Stern did not comment directly on the analysis but rather gave a feminist commentary on the dream. One example is of a table lamp that is composed of a sensuous, dream-like lady shown with a huge male hand that can turn it on and off (reproduced below). This body of work amounts to a collection of very intimate accounts of women's lives in still another dictatorship, the Peronist government. Her daughter frequently served as her model.
Personally, she survived many dislocations and tragedies. Her mother, who remained in Germany, committed suicide with the rise of Nazism and the threat of internment and likely death. Then later, in 1965, her son also committed suicide. She was also said to suffer from depression. Nevertheless, she created a huge body of work, well into her 80’s, until her eyesight began to fail. She died in 1999 at the age of 95.
Image from: From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola, Marcoci, R. and S. Herman, 2015, New York: The Museum of Modern Art.