A woman as a lamp – and a man with a turtle’s head? Welcome to the surreal world of Grete Stern

Detail from Dream No 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home, Grete Stern (1950)
Detail from Dream No 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home, Grete Stern (1950) - The Estate of Grete Stern, Courtesy of Galería Jorge Mara - La Ruche

Readers leafing through the Argentinian women’s magazine Idilio (“Love Affair”) in 1949 were in for a shocking sight: a kneeling woman, waiting for a man with a giant finger to turn her on – or, possibly, off – like a human lamp.

The picture’s title? Dream No 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home. The coming months brought yet stranger visions to the magazine’s readers: a woman unimpressed by a male companion who happens to have the face of a snapping turtle (Dream No 28: Love Without Illusion); a girl watching, intrigued, as a phallic train – its engine also replaced by a turtle’s head – roars towards her across a frothing sea (Dream No 40: The Dreams of Trains).

Freaky: Dream No 28: Love without Illusion (1951)
Freaky: Dream No 28: Love without Illusion (1951) - The Estate of Grete Stern, Courtesy of Galeria Jorge Mara

These Freudian images, all photo­montages, were created by the ­German photographer Grete Stern to accompany a regular column in the magazine called Psychoanalysis Will Help You, which promised to interpret readers’ dreams. The strangeness and satirical bite of her pictures struck a very different note to the straight-laced, paternalistic advice of the column’s agony uncle “Professor Richard Rest” – the pseudonym of two male intellectuals who deigned to collaborate with Idilio on condition of anonymity.

Born in Wuppertal in 1904, Stern had honed her craft at the Bauhaus, where she met Ellen Auerbach, with whom she founded the mis­chie­vous, surrealist advertising agency ringl + pit (named after their childhood nicknames – they thought Auerbach & Stern would sound too much “like a Jewish clothes manufacturer”).

Message in a bottle: Dream No 5: Sea Bottle
Message in a bottle: Dream No 5: Sea Bottle - The Estate of Grete Stern, Courtesy of Galeria Jorge Mara

Stern was a fine portraitist, whose subjects included such celebrated authors as Brecht, Borges and Neruda, but today her reputation rests on the Sueños (“Dreams”): 140 images, all published in Idilio between 1948 and 1951, and now recognised as a landmark of proto-feminist, surrealist art. Whitney Otto, the novelist, has called Sueños “perhaps the most brilliant and telling psychological document ever made of the inner lives of women of that era”.Stern, who died in 1999, was the subject of a 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which placed her work alongside that of the Argentinian photographer Horacio Coppola (whom she met at the Bauhaus, married in 1935 and divorced in 1943, following the birth of their two children). This month, highlights from Sueños will appear in an exhibition on ­psychoanalysis and Latin America, at the Freud Museum in London.

Today, Buenos Aires has more psychoanalysts per capita than any other city on Earth. But being a Freudian – or, indeed, a surrealist – in 1940s Argentina was tricky. “Perón was against all of it,” as ­Roxana Marcoci, one of the curators of the MoMA show, has pointed out. “The psychoanalysts were blacklisted. [Sueños] could only appear in a women’s magazine.”

Long way down: Dream No 20: Perspective
Long way down: Dream No 20: Perspective - The Estate of Grete Stern, Courtesy of Galeria Jorge Mar

Stern’s work for Idilio put her at one remove from the art establishment, according to Jamie Ruers, curator of the London exhibition. She suggests that if a work of art “is never in a frame on a wall, it will never be held in as high regard”. But, for Stern, pursuing commercial work “was an extremely savvy thing to do” – and her unique magazine brief allowed her to get away with imagery that was “challenging and quite progressive for the time”.

It seems that Sueños – only 46 negatives of which survive – caused real trouble for Stern on just one occasion, when a montage showed a girl looking at her hand, in which each finger was replaced by a different man. The artist needed someone “short, fat, and without a hat” for Mr Thumb, so imported a face from a group photograph of workers she’d seen years earlier – and was aghast when the man’s widow turned up at the magazine’s offices, “very offended”, to complain.

Freud and Latin America is at the Freud Museum, London NW3 (freud.org.uk), Jan 17-July 14

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