This essay explores the relevance of the chosen visual method, photo montage, for depicting inner reality, in this case dreams, in relation to prevailing ideologies of Western society, specifically to patriarchy and capitalism. This involves analysing Grete Stern’s body of work Sueños (Dreams), through examination of the visual language used in illustrations, societal context of their creation along with modes of circulation of the work itself, originally published in magazine Idilio (Romance).
“However, there was the great dish still lying at her feet, on which she had
tried to cut the plum-cake, ‘So I wasn’t dreaming, after all,’ she said to
herself, ‘unless–unless we’re all part of the same dream. Only I do hope it is
MY dream, and not the Red King’s! I don’t like belonging to another person’s
dream,’ she went on in a rather complaining tone: ‘I’ve a great mind to go
and wake him, and see what happens!’ “
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (1872)
How can we portray inner reality? If there is nothing that can be seen, does it mean that it does not exist? Psychoanalytic theory is founded on the premise that most of what defines us, is subconscious. The iceberg of hidden forces, that lead our lives, regardless of our understanding of ourselves. This language of subconsciousness, of our deepest desires, reveals itself in dreams, symbols, myths. But who is knowledgeable enough to understand it but ourselves? Is it possible for someone else to interpret our inner reality for us?
When Sueños were published at the end of 1940’s, Argentina was navigating between tradition of Catholicism, growing infatuation with psychoanalysis, and sweeping changes of President Juan Domingo Perón, stubbornly defying rigid religious dogmas. Woman suffrage, prostitution, and divorce became a popular public topic, exposing foundations of deeply rooted machismo. (Galeano, 1971, p.176)
Most prominent figures in art, photography as well as social sciences at the time, were male, firmly revolving around sexualisation of the female body, seeing women as human beings that need to be controlled and led. A female intervention, such as Grete Stern’s Sueños, provides for an especially notable realm of cultural production, positioning her among other subversive female photographers of that time and place, like Gisèle Freund, Annemarie Heinrich, and Hildegard Rosenthal. (Laxton, 2020, p.39)
Grete Stern, a German designer and photographer who fled the Second World War, arrived in Argentina in 1935. The young Jewish immigrant left Europe in horrors of Holocaust, but still managed to use her artistic voice before she left for Latin America. Opening the Ringl & Pit Studio in 1929 with her childhood friend, photographer Ellen Auerbach, they produced images that “subtly subverted Nazi myths of domestic Aryan women,” (Rexer, 2007, p.60) and “quickly became known of their unconventional depictions of women” (O’Connor, 1997, p.66). Both trained in with Walter Peterhans and the Bauhaus school, thoroughly acquainted with Bauhausbücher textbooks (Bauhaus books), their view on artistic expression developed hand in hand with the practical approach of the Bauhaus school. (Rexer, 2007, p.61)
But Bauhaus school was not the only attempt of reconciliation between complex expressions of human experience, such are art and science, and practical life. Developing Gestalt psychology, founded on the premise that the effect of the whole is more than the mere sum of its individual parts, and emphasising the importance of patterns and colours, strongly impacted the Central European artworld at the beginning of 20. century. Personal connections between members of both Bauhaus and Gestalt schools were recorded, and “ultimately, both proposals were intended to function as ways of reconciliation between man and his environment beyond the specific activity (scientific or artistic) that made it viable.” (Grassi, 2016, p.61).
A plethora of avantgarde movements started to evolve all around the European continent after the inhumane destruction of the 1st World war, implementing the idea of deconstruction and reconstruction deeply in Stern’s mind. Gaining familiarity with the photomontage technique through her connections with different artists and intellectuals, she referenced the impact of De neue Sacalichkeit (The New Objectivity), dadaism, and surrealism, on her work herself. Mentioning Hannah Höch, Georg Grosz, John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters, and Man Ray as key influencers for the series Sueños (Sibbald, 2005, p.246), reveal Stern’s broad understanding of the visual language. Not limiting herself to photography, she did not restrict her creative process to pure documentation. Stern’s intention was political first, with the desire to shock the public, to discover aesthetic renewal and somehow find objectivity without any sentimentality – to create “the union of different existing photographs, or the ones taken for that purpose, building a completely new photographic composition” (cited in Sibbald 2005, p.246). Through a collage, where repetition, combination, suppression, and distortion dismantle the medium creating a new optic, reality ceases to be the referent for the art form (Sontag, 1979) – the new meaning emerges, deeply subconscious and symbolical.
Collage as an art form was not easily accepted into the world of high art, often seen as some kind of impurity or indecency, as something discarded, unwanted and overlooked, a paradox and perplexity itself. The first use of collage in high art production is ascribed to the French Cubist movement, most notably Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in 1912, both of them using papier collés as the new transfer of meaning, an emerging relationship between low and high culture, using a dichotomy between space and matter as a unique expression of modern sensibility (Taylor, 2004, p.26). But, as soon as collage became a valid mean of artistic expression, it became a popular tool for social and political commentary, often seen as the only appropriate art form in the times of growing censorship and newly evolved mass media.
The artistic school which keenly accepted collage as a legitimate art form was Russian Constructivism, firmly intertwining words, and images, all in the name of the newly discovered Soviet experiment along with the illusionist idea of the technologically progressive and unified future. Among “social engineers, who tried to reshape optical experience” (Taylor, 2004, p. 35) was Aleksandr Rodchenko, the artist who first used only photographic sources for his work, creating a distinction between photo-collage, the original work, and photomontage, the printed reproduction. Photography gained a fresh appreciation, on the basis that “it freed artists from inherent aesthetic ideas, especially perspective and the other techniques used to render the world as it is, rather than as it might be.” (Warner Marien, 2002, p.239)
Equally active, but with quite different goals, was the Dadaist movement, evolving between Zurich and Berlin. According to Raoul Hausmann montage was used to “say in images what could not legally be said in words – or what would not easily escape the censorship of wartime.” (cited in Taylor, 2004, p.40). The most relevant artist – for the purpose of this essay – of Dada movement was certainly Hannah Höch. Educated in applied arts and working as a dress designer, Höch became familiar with Dadaism through a destructive (and abusive) relationship with Hausmann and soon became the only female member of the group. By combining her specific female perspective with the general feelings of anxiety and horror caused by rising totalitarianism, she created an emotional body of work focusing on the New Woman (Lavin, 1993) and her female perspective of the crippled world – broken on the inside as well as on the outside. She juxtaposed images of smartly dressed women with women in typical female occupations, mixing indigenous art, ethnographic works, and symbols of modernity along with Western materialism (Warner Marien, 2002, p.243). By this she conceived “grotesque bodies that reject the reconciliation … a fascinating feminine and ethnological visualization of otherness,” (Balsach Peig, 2017, p.100) drawing parallel lines between industrialization, patriarchy, and psychoanalysis. By intentionally using images circulating in media, advertising, and popular culture she created a series of abstract forms, firmly planted in real imagery. Through subversion of the original meaning of the images, Höch’s photo montages exist in this new, symbolic reality, subliminally addressing the viewer. (Balsach Peig, 2017, p.87)
Stern was acquainted with Höch work, as well as with her immediate social and cultural reality. The full impact of Höch art on Stern remains unknown, but both Höch and Stern focused on similar topics, specifically the position of women in society, through a creation of subversive visual images.
Each of 150 photomontages in the series Sueños was constructed with a specific, practical purpose. Published in women’s magazine Idilio between 1948 and 1950, Stern’s photomontages became a part of many bourgeois households. Although Idilio was published for women readers, the magazine promoted typical ideas of patriarchal ideology. Photomontages served as an accompanying illustration to the self-help column, where Enrique Butelman, an editor and Jungian devotee, and Gino Germani, the founder of modern sociology in Argentina, wrote analysis of women’s private thoughts. The magazine published a questionnaire consisting of twenty-eight questions, regarding death, fantasies, childhood memories and dreams. The answers women sent were the written basis of Stern’s visual responses, which differed from the responses, written by both men (Rexer 2007, p.63): “The motivating semiotic principle behind Grete Stern’s photomontages is the need to create a language for women’s dreams; this language may be, in the first place, sympathetic toward repressed and oppressed women, and in the second place, critical of the psychoanalytic project regarding women’s experiences” (Foster, 2014, p.1).
Stern’s visual interpretations were somehow limited by precise instructions from Butelman and Germani, who briefed her with a layout direction and advised what kind of forms and activities should be presented in her photo collages (Foster, 2014, 19). This exact dichotomy between the artist and the therapist (Sibbald, 2005, p.233), between a woman and a man interpreting female’s perspective, is one of the most crucial aspects of Stern’s Sueños: at the time being, she did not have the complete freedom or access to the source of her inspiration. The angle was already tainted, and distorted by the predominant perspective of patriarchy, carefully wrapped up in the cloak of western rationalistic psychoanalysis.
Nevertheless, afore mentioned restraints did not stop Stern from creating exactly what she wanted. Many of Stern’s photo montages depict a reasonably well-dressed female figure, alluding to and identifying with the predominant readership of Idilio. Different objects confirm the bourgeois social status of the dreamers, familiar with commodities such as car, telephone, decorative items, and fashion accessories. These objects, however, do not serve only as a reference point to accustomed reality, but take their own meaning in the frame of the artwork. They often attack, confine, limit or somehow differently threaten a female figure, merging with the rules of the social class in which they are used, converting into the oppressive force of consumption oriented middle-class lifestyle itself. A glass ornamental vase becomes a human aquarium, a living room turns into the pond full of piranhas, chess figurines substitute friends and acquaintances. Modes of transport never signify freedom, on the contrary, freedom evaporates in the moment when a woman is faced with the decision, where to go. Origami ships are made out of paper, trains turn into monsters, carriages carry only as far as illusions do. Outside spaces are often cut in two by roads, ending in the empty distance, tunnels are hidden in a giant mouth of broken porcelain faces. Since psychoanalysis is often described as a journey, one could interpret these depictions of different paths (especially tunnels) as ironic portrayals of psychoanalytical process itself. Roads to nowhere, initially paved with artificial constructions of male’s mind.
Portrayed landscapes often seem surrealistic. A woman either standing in the globe in the middle of a rock scenery or freely flying through the universe, raging ocean waves encompass female figures, rising or climbing out of the water. The basic premise of psychoanalysis is the construction of desire, which is “not given in advance, but something that has to be constructed – and it is precisely the role of fantasy to give the coordinates of the subject’s desire, to specify its object, to locate the position the subject assumes in it” (Žižek, 2000, p.6). Could these surreal landscapes be a metaphor for this eluding psychoanalytical concept of reproduction of desire, which diminishes any kind of longing or connection to an already destroyed relation, when getting closer to an object of desire inevitably ends in a total destruction of oneself? (Žižek, 2000, p.8) Ego driven person will be always on the lookout to possible dangers of inner crumbling, completely incapable of any authenticity or vulnerability, masking it under the disguise of rational selfishness. Stern’s female experience of the world was quite different of those of her male contemporaries, as well as Sigmund Freud’s, Jacques Lacan’s or Slavoj žižek’s, did she translate this with the help of dreamlike sceneries, where women find themselves positioned in a variety of completely unrealistic positions? According to Lacan (Žižek, 2000, p.18), truth is structured like fiction, human beings do not have the capacity to face the reality, every intrusion of the real results in psychosis, and subconsciousness must act as a barrier towards chaos of life itself. The position of a woman in society, serving as a personified pandemonium of otherness, the ultimate Other (De Beauvoir, 2011), is violently pushed into this surrealistic place, understandable only to a man. Stern’s women, who find themselves “lost in space,” give the impression of finding themselves there by chance, curiously observing peculiar surroundings. When they do decide to escape these dream worlds, they treat it as a necessary inconvenience, not as the end victory of final destination.
Since many “male Surrealist painters and photographers often used female forms as symbols of the primitive, the mysterious, and the erotic … picturing women’s bodies caged, distorted, or dismembered, as if they were primal forces to be trapped, observed, or punished” (Warner Marien, 2002, p.255), Stern followed this practice in her own work. But stoic appearance of her depicted females reveals some kind of confusion these “femmes fatales” posses, captured in cages, glass, mirrors, nature and even mouth. Distortion is omnipotent, found in deformed points of view, twisted proportions, or incomprehensible sense of self.
The main intention of collage or photo montage is to dismantle traditional visual perspectives, to break out of the idea that reality can be only found in some kind of order. Individuals, who can sustain themselves in the world of fantasy, are artists, fools, and children alone. Stern was well acquainted with the iconic literary works by Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, often referencing the adventures in Sueños. A woman, trying to unlock a door closing a path in the middle of nowhere, a threating king figure stepping out of French-suited playing card, women giants overgrowing their domestic surroundings. But, similar as Alice could only find her way out of wonderland herself (Carroll, 1865), the readers of Idilio were those who held keys to their own freedom: “escape from their senseless “Wonderland” existence is possible only if the woman takes charge of her own life and Stern’s irony underscores both how women were not only victims of male domination but also willing believers in consumer society’s myths of female identity” (Sibbad, 2005, p.251).
The expansion of consumeristic desire was greatly impacted by the advance of mass media, as well as advertising. The time of the Ringl & Pit Studio was also the time of the mass-produced images. The birth of the modern pictorial press, as we know it today, resulted in numerous publications, circulating thousands of photos, seen by millions of people. Berlin, specifically, soon became a European centre of newly discovered visual culture. Features, photo-essays and other photographic material triggered the public desire to see more of the unknown, especially after the demolition of the 1st World War: “Between the two world wars, the average person in the industrialized nations saw more photographs then his or her late nineteenth-century counterpart” (Warner Marien 2002, p.234) According to Carlebach (1997), the visual power of images was already well understood at the time, “as conclusive proof both of declining literary standards and a nefarious plan to exploit hopelessly naïve and illiterate people” (cited in Warner Marien, 2002, p.235).
Visually enriched mass media soon spread to other continents, and just in time Stern arrived at Argentina, swept over the country as well. Her choice of collaborating with Idilio was not unusual, since her practice was based in practical Bauhaus principles, fashion, and graphic design experience, already connecting functional and artistic. Combining art and advertising was considered “a meritorious photographic pursuit” (Werner Marien, 2002, p.258) in Europe at the time and many art photographers took photojournalistic jobs to survive (Werner Marien 2002, p.234). Art production was not limited to closed circles and high-end galleries but seen as a vehicle for social change. Entering the fields of consumerism and media industry, art may lose its unattainable status, but gained power of influence. But the process took place in both directions – psychological impact of images, ideological narratives and subliminal messages entered the lives of humanity on a massive scale and have not left it since.
Photographic medium has a certain ability to visually capture and record what is, and it is often seen as the most objective and truthful instrument to record reality (Eastlake, 1857, cited in Wells, 2009, p.16). But manipulation of the photographic medium firmly evolved through the evolution of the medium itself. Collage and photo montage were one of the numerous possibilities of dismantling the mechanism of seeing, recording and framing facts of existence. Binary opposition between subjective and objective, right and left brain hemisphere, is still relevant today, basing our perception of our environments on arguments of rationality, measurements and claimed objectivity. What is real, has a value, and what we perceive as not real, is the domain of fantasies.
But what is the price for achieving this objectivity? Since the 1990s, digital imaging became “a taken-for-granted part of the media landscape,” (Wells, 2009, p. 313), in an industry where many people until this day still believe they are served with facts. The intrusion of different image manipulation practices in digital imaging did raise concerns in professional and academic circles, most based on the argument that this will create, according to Ritchen (1990) “the world in which images would no longer be trusted to reliably inform us about the wider world” (cited in Wells, 2009, p.317) But, as Ritchen forgot, the modern society was never built on the objective, it is built on distorted principals of repressive systems of different kind, whether it be colonialism, industrialisation, capitalism, or patriarchy. The world that we live in was a lie from the start, catering to those on the positions of power, fuelled by greed and death. Sarah Kember (1998, cited in Wells, 2009, p.322) writes about historical investment in objective realism, based on the Western cultural view, revolving around its subjects, the rational axis of the world, founded on distance and dissociation, the key elements of Enlightenment philosophy. Rationality always belonged to men, while the disorder of women was seen as a natural force, containing no real meaning. The real problem in digital manipulation, today taken over by Artificial Intelligence, is the loss of sovereignty of a man, firmly positioning himself on the top of the world. By losing his grip on the objectivity and predominant points of view, he risks losing his own subjectivity, firmly imposed on the society. Robins (1996) emphasis the rationality of the vision, which upgraded its measuring skills, encompassed in camera, with such detailed recording, that is capable of creating and imagining reality better then real life itself – but again only with the help of data, collected through rational, scientific approach: “Strangely, we seem now to feel that the rationalization of vision is more important than the things that really matter to us (love, fear, grief …). Other ways of thinking about images and their relation to the world have been devalued – we are being persuaded that they are now anachronistic.” (cited in Wells, 2009, p.324)
What will be the value of the image in the era of post-photography, perhaps post-society as well? If avantgarde movements and their unusual ways of seeing broke the Victorian point of view, could there be something in their approach to visual art that could be used today? Maybe by documenting experiences, that are not perceived as real, or reimagining knowledge through affecting different parts of the human being than his logical brain. Images were always a part of humanity since the prehistoric ages, but how these images were perceived or used in the ancient societies is still mostly unknown. Could there be more value in the image, than a simple portrayal of the supposedly real?
Grete Stern was well acquainted with psychological theories of the gestalt theory as well as psychoanalysis, possibly others as well. She internalized understanding of the world based on subliminal powers, working their own way in the human psyche. Affected by experiences of holocaust, war, immigration, but also industrial destruction in the name of progress, technocratic culture along with patriarchy and the predominant culture of Latin America’s machismo, she created a series of artwork, which deeply embedded all these forces.
The depth of her reflection can be seen in the semiotic excess of meaning in Sueños, targeting several prevalent positions at once. Despite the fact that photo montages are created as illustrations of dreams, visually following the psychoanalytical dream meanings, she managed to include criticism of psychoanalysis itself, by creating images that speak directly to a woman’s mind – something that is completely absent from the usual psychoanalytical process. By suggesting a parody of the conventional forms of the masculine gaze, she somehow hid these meanings right in front of male’s eyes, still following the instructions from Butelman and Germani, but incorporating her own interpretation of their psychoanalytical answers. But, at the same time as Stern included commentary on the one-sided psychoanalytical process, she evaluated the role of women in the reproduction of the repressive system. Expressing an ironic stance towards bourgeois values, she transferred part of responsibility to women themselves, blindly following the arbitrary roles and perpetuating the powerless position.
Finally, mass circulation of Sueños, published in the magazine, could be seen as subversion itself. Idilio’s general appeal reached much wider audience, than a selective group of progressive individuals, so subliminal messages of photo montages could potentially have a much bigger impact – reaching even those who were not prepared to contemplate on their meaning. In line with Bauhaus principles of combining aesthetics with everyday function, photo montages served several purposes – not only illustrating section of the magazine, but also commenting on biased text as well the lives of the readers.
Women learnt how to code their meanings, lives, and experiences long ago. In the societies, where female point of view was neither accepted nor valued, they developed systems of meanings, comprehensible only to other females in the group. How to protect themselves, how to flee, how to survive. This “imaginary” world served them as a reference point for their reality, for them just as real as anything else. Surrealistic distortion could be one of the few perspectives that include this fantastical way of being, magical realism of existence, still alive, after centuries of constraints. Subliminal messages, hidden in absurd, may be the last drop of sanity humanity has, trapped in self devouring fists of numbness, hatred, and emptiness. In the downing era of total control, will there be space any space left for anything else?
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