Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola shared eight years of marriage, photography, and a dream. MoMA calls their exhibition "From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires," but the connections run every which way.
It begins and ends in Argentina. Yet it moves between London and Germany, formalism and Marxism, graphic design and film. The Argentinean called a film produced in Berlin Der Traum, while the German called a series produced in Argentina after their divorce Sueños. At least language was not a barrier to dreaming. Nor was it for Ellen Auerbach, whose photographs with Stern launched their careers. Soon after, Elisabeth Hase learned from the Bauhaus as well, but also from a woman's image in Nazi Germany.
The Modern has already asked how much Latin American architecture learned from Europe. Yet things were crazy all along. While Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola are just one node in the dizzying nexus of Modernism, their more than three hundred works will keep anyone reeling. They met at the Bauhaus, where she introduced him to its director of photography, Walter Peterhaus. Stern, born in 1904, was two years older, and the show's subtitle puts her first, but the alternate rooms for each open with Coppola. He had a precocious start.
As a young man, Coppola walked the streets of Buenos Aires with Jorge Luis Borges, claiming it as his own. He found the city intimately familiar, increasingly modern, and utterly strange. From 1928 to 1931, he subjects it to photograms, prisms, dizzying vantage points, and still life that might have spilled out of the unconscious. A shadow bisects his face, while reflected light stands in for hair and eyes. In Der Traum from 1933, a mysterious encounter with a black hat leads to an attack and then an escape. Surrealism for him expresses fear but releases possibilities.
On his return home with Stern in 1936, the city seems plainer, but also darker and brooding. His photos came on commission, to commemorate the city's four hundredth anniversary, but they look none too celebratory. Eyes stare out from a billboard, and lifeless mannequins pose for the latest fashion. Buildings in converging perspective dwarf multitudes. Night scenes deny the light of day. Another short film attests to modernization, but the tower under construction threatens to crush its workers.
Coppola was ever the contrarian, just as Surrealism for him exuded optimism. Then, too, he had been to Berlin, where he photographed Joan Miró, and he had fled with Stern from the Nazis. The twentieth century was not so much fun after all. He had also begun to take politics seriously. When he caught up with Stern in London, he portrayed it as a civilization in denial—the site of empty turnstiles and abandoned realty, slaughterhouses and empty clothing, and crowds too wrapped up in casual entertainment to care. A blind man reduced to begging holds a sign reading Success.
Stern follows the reverse path between Europe and Latin America, toward Surrealism, without once giving up her pride and her hopes. At the Bauhaus she met Ellen Auerbach, with whom she opened a studio. As ringl + pit, after their childhood nicknames, they worked in design and portraiture, which both photographers then continued on their own. If their advertising and book covers include severed heads, the heads dream of the full range of modern design, from vibrant typefaces to shuffling color fields. Portraits, including Coppola's and Bertolt Brecht's, allow for introspection, dignity, and rest. They also place women on a par with men.
Women come even more to the fore in the photomontage of Sueños. Produced from 1948 through 1951 for Idilio, a fashion magazine, they are anything but idyllic. A man with a lizard's head threatens sexual assault, a figure lies atop ladders supported only by one another, a couple get in their last kiss in a graveyard, and a woman faced with her own reflections must ask, Who Will She Be? Still, she has the courage to ask, and only the men look foolish. What happened to Stern and Coppola for the rest of the century, before her death in 1999 and his in 2012, and what happened to Auerbach period? The exhibition does not say, but then nothing within it runs in straight lines. Maybe, like short stories by Borges, the museum should have called it "Labyrinths."
Ellen Auerbach grabs attention even before the beauty sets in. It may take all the beauty to overcome the shock. Views from a porch deck in Maine, in 1941, and of walking a dog at Big Sur, in 1950, have the intoxicating stillness of boats without visible need for mooring and of a long journey with nowhere to go. When people travel, they take breaks even from leisure. The photos are gorgeous to the point of sentimental, backgrounds disappearing into mist. Yet a wooden seagull might be about to take off, and the dog walker may end up swallowed whole by rain gear and rocky woods.
They also share a sense of place while a continent apart. Auerbach was always on edge, always on the move, and always at home. A Jew, she came to America with her husband to escape the Nazis, and she kept moving. Plenty of photographers have crossed America to document its people, its landscape, and their inner restlessness, like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Mark Steinmetz, and Matthew Jensen. Yet none has her affinity with Surrealism and portraiture. Her subjects look within, without forgetting where they once belonged.
If Auerbach is known at all, it is mostly for her work in Berlin with Stern. They already focus on private lives and public wit, in advertising as well as portraiture. People have an inner life, behind veils and eyelids, but in front of their shadows. The photographers themselves have one, in a double self-portrait with eyes wide open, simply by looking past one another. Yet the photos, like the times, have a way of disturbing lives. In one ad, a doll's head takes over from a model, who holds up a liquor bottle small enough that she could down it in one gulp.
MoMA's joint survey of Stern and Coppola tosses Auerbach aside like a casualty of art and war. One would never know that she kept going, not just with a career, but also to the Americas. She later worked in Chile, Argentina, and Mallorca as well as Palestine, London, and the United States, culminating in studies of Mexican churches alongside Eliot Porter in 1955. The museum and gallery shows overlap, and it takes a checklist to know where collaborations begin and end. Auerbach met other exiles as well. Photos show Bertolt Brecht at work, with a hazy typewriter and a mean cigar, and Willem de Kooning in his studio, with all his charm and self-possession.
Not everyone is so lucky, but no one entirely gives in. Slum dwellers in New York have a mean stare. A ballerina on a city roof leaps high into the air. A nude rests her head in a towel and hands in a sulfur bath, even as sulfur badly stains the tub. A woman in Mexico clutching lilies might be a corpse—but her lidded eyes, like the flowers, have come newly alive. A photo of the Statue of Liberty falls prey to a junk shop, and cormorants settle into a tree in Maine, but Liberty and the tree have the last word.
Auerbach sets them apart from ordinary life while asserting where they belong. She also continues the theme of doubling, going back to ringl + pit as not so identical twins. The doubling is both unsettling and reassuring. Two thick, gnarly trees greet one another like friends, and so do wooden saints in a Mexico church. One raises his hand as if to make a point in conversation. The show ends with that sharp turn to color in Mexico, but she died some fifty years later in New York, at ninety-eight.
An artist in Germany had to be careful as the Nazis rose to power—even more so as the Allied bombs fell. It was only natural to put aside worldly matters and to look within. Could that be why Elisabeth Hase looked so often to herself? Her self-portraits take exquisite care, but they may look at first ever so carefree. She catches herself asleep, in the shower, at ease, and in tears. She throws herself to the wind and up a staircase, only to fall headfirst, her Sunday best in disarray and her purse lost by her side.
Of course, each is only a pose. Hase could not have fallen asleep in front of her camera, and not many showers rain down in the middle of a room, leaving a woman in shock at the cold. She did not inadvertently trip both the shutter and herself. Her poses can be self-assured or troubling, from a measured look straight forward to her face buried in a handkerchief while a man in a black robe, seen from behind, looks on. He could be her judge or her mirror. And who knows what lies within a cage between her hands, if not another reflection of herself?
Maybe a truly modern artist had to adopt a disguise back then, but Hase has no end of them. Her pose as a scientist peering into a microscope could be right out of a life of Marie Curie, only that movie had yet to be made. She can put her very role as an artist on the line, training her box camera on a flower, like a weapon way too massive for its innocent subject. Yet she began the series by 1927, barely into her twenties, and her first show in America all but skips right over World War II. She lived from the age of the zeppelin, which she photographed, to 1991. It also points to her stubborn consistency.
It divides in three, including the self-portraits, and each third can leave one guessing what came early and what came late, although it leaves her last forty years unspoken. A sewing kit, a glorious swirl of feathers, the bridge of a musical instrument, and apricots like planets in a dense universe all date from 1931, but she returns to still life after the war. She began her city views early, too, and she gained permission from the occupying U.S. Army to do so again. The ruins of Saint Paul's church testify to change, and one could read change into other photographs as well. Maybe sugar cubes piled high speak to shortages. Cars before the war look oversized and quaint, but one after the war, Hitler's beloved Volkswagen, goes up in flames.
Regardless, Hase has her poses all along, along with edgy points of view. She peeks out from behind someone else, reflected and distorted in a sphere, like the one that Man Ray used for his Laboratory of the Future. Sunlight suffuses the city from behind, casting a mother and child in shadow. A double amputee eyes a wild animal in its cage, whether to seek redress or to sympathize with a fellow prisoner. For all the horror, they belong to the ordinary human comedy, like workers chipping away at the ruins or three children of disparate heights crossing the street with umbrellas. They look like an early version of Abbey Road.
In fact, much looks like photography today. The self-portraits anticipate Cindy Sherman and Untitled Film Stills, although Hase is franker and more on the line. Two eggs holding out intact against a wire beater and their shadows look ahead to the kitchen still lifes of Jan Groover, although in black and white, and a calla lily has the pristine beauty of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1984. Still, Hase belongs to an older world of Bauhaus photography, like László Moholy-Nagy, and urban shadows, like Alfred Stieglitz. She was also a woman with, as the show's title has it, "An Independent Vision" and its costs. In a close-up of an eye, her lens is wide open, but the eyelid could almost be sewn shut.
Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola ran at The Museum of Modern Art through October 4, 2015, Ellen Auerbach at Robert Mann through August 14. Elisabeth Hase ran at that gallery through May 7, 2016. The reviews of Auerbach and Hase first appeared in a slightly different form in New York Photo Review.