Dreaming in Feminine
Grete Stern's Photomontages and the Parody of Psychoanalysis
Las mujeres hicieron la fotografía en la Argentina. Somos suficientes; yo incluida.
—Sara Facio, "La fotografía. Género: femenino"
I would like to propose that 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 with regard to women's experiences.
Stern's Sueños was published at a time when there was still a considerable amount of interest in the Freudian concept of dreams, and Stern, who was born in Germany in 1904 and worked in Argentina from 1936 until the late 1990s (she died in Germany in late 1999), was undoubtedly quite familiar with psychoanalysis, both as it had been promulgated by Freud in Europe and as it put down deep roots in Argentina (Vezzetti; Plotkin; see Bécquer Casaballe for an overview of Stern's career; other published volumes of Stern's work are cited in my Works Cited list). Moreover, Stern was, like Freud, Jewish (her mother committed suicide in 1935 because of growing anti-Semitism), and she would have had the Jewish artist/intellectual's interest of her day in sociocultural analysis (and in photography as an important form of Jewish cultural production). The introductory note to the published collection of the Sueños describes their origin: "Grete Stern publicó en la revista Idilio [entre 1948 y 1950] cerca de 150 fotomontajes de la serie dedicada a los Sueños. De esa obra sólo existen, en la actualidad, 45 negativos fotográficos—de éstos se conserva un único ejemplar—que la autor entregaba a la redacción de la revista" (59).
Idilio was a woman's magazine typical of the sort published in the mid-twentieth century, which mixed images of traditional roles for women with images of bourgeois modernity, although, from the perspective of today, it would still be called essentially a masculinist version of women's lives, with the sort of coverage of women's lives provided in the postwar United States by the Ladies Home Journal. Stern's photomontages appear in a section of the magazine called "El psicoanálisis le ayudará" (Psychoanalysis will help you), a formulation that represented the popularization of psychoanalysis during the Peronista prosperity of the period beyond the highly professionalized and elitist confines of clinical practice and research undertakings. Apparently, the practice was for women to submit to the magazine the text of the dreams, and Stern would create a photomontage to accompany their publication. The fact that over two-thirds of the originals have disappeared and that the magazine is virtually impossible to locate indicates the ephemeral nature of the enterprise, and one wonders to what degree Stern saw it as centrally related to her oeuvre as a photographer.
Yet there has been exceptional interest in this dimension of Stern's work, and one could easily maintain that, were it not for the Sueños, Stern would be counted as just another of the legion of photographers who have done fine work in Argentina since the emergence of professional photography as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. One is reminded of the contemporary work of the French émigrée in Buenos Aires Giselle (Gisèle) Freund, who is best remembered in Argentina as one of the most important photographers of Eva Perón, a body of legendary images (they are prominently featured in Alicia Dujovne Ortiz's biography Eva Perón) that has overwhelmed any other work Freund may have.
Stern, however, was an exceptional artist and renowned portraitist, and her work is very much in the same vein as that of subsequent women photographers like Alicia D'Amico and Sara Facio (the director of La Azotea Editorial Fotográfica) and, among younger photographers, Adriana Lestido and Gabriela Liffschitz (Lestido is a Guggenheim fellow, and her project, Madres e hijas, has just been published by Facio; see the various studies by Foster). There are several hundred web pages on the Internet with Stern's photography, and the most frequently visited ones that I have consulted all included prominently the Sueños. I think it is clear that the importance now accorded the Sueños has very much to do with the feminist analysis of culture, both in the way in which Stern's work can be seen to intervene in cultural production (male-dominated photography in this case) from a (proto)feminist perspective, and the way in which Stern's photographs lend themselves to a feminist reading as part of a feminist survey of cultural productions regarding women's lives. Certainly, Stern's work enjoys intertextual relationships with other feminist work of the same period, and one recalls the psychoanalytic dimensions of the Catalan/Mexican Remedios Varo's surrealist paintings in general and, specifically, the anticipation of the feminist critique of classic psychoanalysis in her 1960 Mujer saliendo del psicoanalista (Varo 71 [Woman leaving the psychiatrist's]).
There is an entire gamut of undoubtedly classical psychoanalytic motifs in Stern's Sueños, intertwined with widely recognized motifs of the particular traumas of women's lives. Indeed, in the latter sense, Stern's photomontages are something like an inventory of topoi of women's lives as regards their repression and oppression by masculinism. Moreover, these works figure a bourgeois patriarchy, such that the control of women through the principles of decency and propriety is particularly evident. Although none of this work alludes recognizably to a questioning of heterosexism or even to female erotic imagination—perhaps this is part of the hundred lost images; perhaps letters from women of this sort were not forwarded to Stern for illustration—it is not preposterous to propose that such dimensions are as much a part of the silent text of women's lives as what is overtly portrayed belongs to what is allowed by the circumstances of the production and publication (and archival survival) that made the Sueños possible.
A survey of what is included in Sueños reveals the following details. In terms of circumstances of women's lives (and I repeat, this is a universe of women whose clothing, grooming, and body language adhere to middle-class respectability—which perhaps only makes the images all that more eloquent), we see women engaged in paradigmatically female/feminine activities such as cleaning house (a singular activity of the domestic sphere), staring dreamily off into space (the evocation of women's purportedly superior emotional sensitivity, or, conversely, their inability to focus on the practical and pragmatic), displaying their availability as sexualized bodies (thereby fulfilling the injunction to seduce men into procreative activity), performing for the cultural edification of an audience (women as accomplished decorative beings), and engaging in maternal care (the paradigmatic role of women as the key figures in patriarchal reproduction). In all of these images, women are properly and discreetly dressed in ways that confirm their middle-class stature.
Since Stern did photograph among the rural and suburban populations of Argentina, these photographs cannot be alleged to reveal any class bias. Rather, they capture the social identity of the women who were the presumed typical readers of Idilio, those who would be in a position to submit to the editors texts describing their dreams. It is in only some of the photomontages that the subjects are engaged in characteristically womanly activities. In the majority they are seen only in terms of confronting threatening situations: dreams as the site of the representation of conflict and its attempted resolution, even if only absurdly. What is important to underscore here is the fact that in no cases are women seen engaged in activities that would be considered unfeminine by the strict bourgeois standards of Argentina of the day (only in a handful of cases are women directly eroticized, but always in the context of their submission to a male prerogative, as in No. 16, Sirena del mar [Sea siren]).
Indeed, Idilio may have received texts that would have been considered sexually transgressive by the standards of the day, and may or may not have chosen to publish some of them (unfortunately, a complete run of Idilio from the period is not available for this study). Additionally, Idilio may or may not have chosen to forward them to Stern for illustration, and she may or may not have chosen to undertake that illustration. The point is that the surviving dossier of illustrations includes none that can be called sexually transgressive. What is significant about this point is the fact that one of Freud's great contributions was the specification of what the highly charged sexual fantasies and dreams of women contained—that is, eroticization of the female body, an eroticization that displayed alarming deviations from bourgeois decency and heterosexual parameters and, moreover, identified the potential for women to engage in what was coming to be identified as sexual perversion.
By the early 1950s, Peronista Argentina had reaffirmed a commitment to a regularizing sexual hygiene, and this was a period of open persecution of public sexuality, especially anything that could be perceived as deviant (Sebreli, "Historia secreta" 313ff.). Hence, it is not surprising to find that Stern's photomontages reflect women in psychologically distressing situations, but never in any that manifest any sort of compromise with imposed female sexual boundaries: no prostitution, no female sexual activism, no polymorphous perversity, and, certainly, no lesbianism. Thus, in the main one could assert that these images represent the dreams of the real-life women who chose to submit them in a textual form to Idilio. Yet, at the same time, Stern represents dreams in her photomontages only insofar as they maintain women strictly within the confines of patriarchal heteronormativity, leaving one to speculate on the queer representations that must naturally occur in an uncircumscribed world of female human experience, whether represented by these women in their letters or by Stern in her montages.
What is the nature of the threats to which these women claim to be exposed, as they perceive them in the fantasies of their dream experiences? If one holds in mind that the narrative perspective of these photomontages is that of women telling their own story, the compromising situations in which they find themselves are those that are imposed upon them by the world in which they live. Thus, it is not surprising to find that the vast majority of them emphasize women directly or by implication exposed to the power of men—and in some cases, a society as a whole—that are controlling, threatening, and violent. A partial thematic inventory would be as follows:
1. Woman's body at the disposal of the hands of men: this is the aforementioned Sueño No. 16, Sirena del mar (Sueños 74; Sea siren), where a set of hands of a man emerges from the water as though about to massage the metonymic buttocks of a woman on the shore (no other part of the woman is seen but her buttocks). One of Stern's most amusing photomontages, Sueño No. 1, Artículos domésticos para el hogar (Sueños 61 [Domestic appliances]), involves a man's hand holding the base of a lamp; the lamp's pedestal is the body of a languid woman, who holds up the lamp shade with her upraised arms.
2. A demurely posed woman is overwhelmed by the reptilian presence of a debonair (macho) man: if his suave masculinity is confirmed by the perfect manipulation of the cigarette in his hand, his menace is represented by the open maw of a tortoise head that replaces his human one (image No. 28, Amor sin ilusiAmor sin ilusiónoacute;n [Sueños 89 (Love with no illusions)]).
3. Woman as an artifice of man—Eve as derived from Adam, woman as defined by the male patriarchy—is represented by the figure of a woman emerging from a broad paintbrush manipulated by a male hand. Her hair replaces the bristles of the paintbrush (Sueño No. 31, Made in England [Sueños 93]).
4. There are several images of women enclosed in the manner of the woman in the gilded cage: in one image, it is a literal cage; in another, it is a corked glass vessel. In the former case, the woman displays the conventional happy face women are supposed to display to the world, while in the latter, an enigmatic glance is partially hidden by a demure fan.
Not only does such confinement emphasize the harem-like circumspection of women, but it underscores their ideal femininity. What is interesting is that, from a patriarchal point of view, such reservation protects women from the dangers of the world (including their loss by the master), while from a feminist point of view—which may emerge here in an unconscious fashion—such reservation is a form of entrapment and incarceration. In another image, a woman is in a glass-walled room: she looks frightened as a lion lunges toward one side of the glass paneling; in the corner formed by the panels, there is a prominent padlock, but this does not diminish the woman's fright (Sueño No. 12, no title [Sueños 117]).
5. There are several images of women in public spaces that are threatening to them: if a woman does emerge from her sphere of protection, she is exposed to the very threats that the masculinized agent claims to be protecting her from. In one image, a woman appears to be trapped in the foyer of a vaulted-ceiling gallery such as the imposing Edificio Barolo, the Edificio Güemes, or the pre-remodeled Galerías del Pacífico; caught between two enormous lines of twine, she recoils from an advancing string of numbers, 1, 0, 4, 8 (Sueño No. 23, La acusada [Sueños 99 (The accused woman)]). In another image, a woman flees down a street, escaping from a group of people staring and pointing at her, as though admonishing her for her shortcomings; there are also miscellaneous pieces of furniture around her, as though she were fleeing from her proper domestic realm.
Few of the images depict actual violence against women, but in one, a woman wearing slacks (as opposed to the women in the remaining images, who predominantly wear classically feminine skirts) finds herself on a beach on which huge spikes arise from the sand, and one of them has embedded itself in her foot, as though a punishment for entering a dangerous and solitary public space (Sueño No. 39, no title [Sueños 145]).
6. Of particular interest are the dreams in which maternal images are represented as threatening: woman is deranged by what is her most fundamental calling as a human being and social agent. In one image, a woman covers her face in horror (we see her eyes through the open fingers of her palms) as a baby advances toward her down what looks like a dead-end alley; the baby's arms are raised in the sort of supplicating gesture that calls for the support of an adult (Sueño No. 24, Sorpresa [Sueños 83 (Surprise)]). In another, a woman contemplates with what we can call loving maternalism a large, partially broken egg from which the newborn must have emerged—yet the egg is empty and no newborn is to be seen (Sueño No. 33, no title [Sueños 135]). Finally, in a less threatening but enigmatic image, a woman holds up a calla lily from whose inner folds, along with the phallic stamen, a beautiful blond baby boy emerges. Since the background of the image is a dreary rural Pampas setting, it is as though the child is somehow too beautiful to be real (Sueño No. 11, Niño flor [Sueños 115 (Flower child)]).
Unquestionably, these thematic groups could be tabulated against a registry of the commonplaces of recurring fears, nightmares, and terror-filled deliria of women who live in conformance with patriarchal normalcy and who yet sense, in reality or in a paranoid fashion, the destructive forces directed against and from within that normalcy. On the one hand, any constructed normalcy is meant to constitute a bulwark against the destructive forces from without (in another image, a woman, shrunken in size, hammers with her fists against a closed door, clamoring to get inside the walls of protection [Sueño No. 40, no title (Sueños 147)}]), while at the same time that bulwark functions to enclose within itself its own tyrannical threat.
To summarize, I have been characterizing up to this point how Stern's photomontages exemplify complex texts. If in the first place they are based on (presumably) naïve attempts of real-life women to formulate verbally in a conscious state, ex post facto, preverbal dreams they have experienced (and one cannot exclude the possibility of men writing as women, or of women pretending to have dreamed what they relay), Stern's photomontages are a pictorial re-creation of those verbal texts underlain by preverbal dreams. Not only are they a third-level semiotization, but they present the question of how one woman reinterprets the interpretations of an array of anonymous women (assuming they are all real-life women; moreover, the texts in Idilio may have been signed, but Stern's images are not identified with texts by specific authors).
Additionally, Stern's interpretations are conscious works of art, in which she enjoys considerable latitude in producing a text with multiple layers of intentional meaning, which one can assume to be lacking in the unconscious preverbal dreams and in their verbal write-ups by the magazine's readers. This allows Stern both to directly engage with the topic of the dream as described textually and to introduce strategies for a reflexive interpretation of what she is representing. That is, there is a level of irony in her photomontages, at which there is not simply the attempt to provide unmediated re-representations of the written texts, but to introduce a commentary on them.
I would suggest that this commentary, while it may concomitantly constitute a critical stance on the workings of psychoanalysis/the analysis of dreams, is fundamentally feminist. This is so because the photomontages in their majority transmit an overall understanding of the repression and oppression of women in a patriarchally dominated society. It is true that the sense of repression and oppression begins in the original dreams on which the photomontages are based. However, Stern's texts make explicit a criticism of women's lives. In order to understand how this functions, I would like to examine in detail a couple of the several dozen of the photomontages.
En el andén is identified as Sueño No. 2 (Sueños 105 [On the train platform]); when it was published in the Idilio series, it was titled Los Sueños de los trenes (Train dreams). It is possible to approach these texts in terms of their thematic elements on a level beyond the characterizations I have already provided, which would be with reference to the canonical interpretation by psychoanalysis of recurring motifs in dreams—in this case, a subset of women's dreams—especially as to how these symbols have sexual overtones. More on this in a moment.
However, my principal interest here is in the rhetorical organization of the photomontage and the semiotic processes involved, leaving a precise psychoanalytic interpretation to someone more qualified in this area than I am. Since all of these images are dominated by the figure of women, it is reasonable to begin with the placement of women in them. Although the vast majority of the Sueños involve well-dressed women—dressed as middle-class women in Argentina might have been in public places in the 1950s—the woman in En el andén is particularly well dressed, to the point of wearing a hat with a trailing veil. It would seem that she is dressed in the particular way in which women of comfortable means would dress for train or air travel in the period, as can be determined by looking back to the advertisements of the early 1950s, especially in journals like Idilio.
Moreover, also in contrast to the women in the other Sueños, this woman is not terrified or horrified by what she is experiencing. While she does have one hand demurely raised, palm outward, as though to ward off an unpleasantness, and her other hand is, though clenched, nevertheless turned back in a genteel fashion, her facial expression is more neutral than anything else; if anything, it is inquisitive. What she sees is a train rushing toward her. But in place of the locomotive, there is the same sort of open-jawed tortoise head described above for photo No. 28, Amor sin ilusiAmor sin ilusiónoacute;n. In the image at hand, the tortoise's head is turned somewhat to the side, as though in an attack position.
If both trains and reptiles (or reptile heads, in the case of tortoises) probably can be read as phallic symbols by standard Freudian dream interpretation, their conjunction here is something like a doubling of that meaning, and in compositional terms, there is a direct line from the tortoise's snout to the genital area of the woman. Thus, what the photomontage images in general is sexual aggression toward woman—or, perhaps more generally, the overall threat of physical violence to which many women in society may feel exposed. Where sexual aggression is specifically sensed is by reference to montage No. 28, since the man in whose presence the woman in that image is cringing has the same sort of reptilian head as the train in Sueño No. 2.
Since Stern's goal is to capture dreamlike states in her photomontages, she studiously eschews anything that provides for an overly "natural" setting to the circumstances depicted. As a consequence, the rushing train appears here as emerging out of a large body of water, and the station platform is actually the edge of the water, more parched earth than sandy beach; the sky beyond the sea is filled with what looks like stormy clouds. It is a moot point as to how many of these details correspond to the verbal text of one woman's dream. What is important is the way in which there is, on the one hand, what we can call the realistic detail of the woman's presence (in other images, this presence is not always strictly "realistic" or "natural"), juxtaposed, on the other, to the fantastic or surreal—even bizarre—conjunction of the train (realistic in what of it is depicted) and the reptilian head (realistic in what of it is depicted). There is an equally disturbing conjunction between the unusual and even desolate appearance of the water's edge and the gently roiling waves of the body of water. A final detail: the sea is often taken—not just in Freudian interpretations, but beyond—as maternal in nature, and the threatening train emerges from this abstractly maternal realm to menace a specific characterized woman. This fact is confirmed by the way in which her body casts a shadow—that is, it intervenes naturally in the landscape—while the train does not: it is the startling Other, perhaps even the terrifyingly unknown, that menaces the woman.
While the vast bulk of Stern's photomontages feature women in situations of psychological discomfort and physical aggression, some of them are focused on less immediately menacing, but no less sexist, facts of women's lives. This is the case with Sueño No. 6, which is untitled in the Sueños collection, but which was published in Idilio with the title Un sueUn sueño de frutasntilde;o de frutas (A dream of fruits). In it, we see a miniature woman walking over a shelved row of books; she is placing freshly picked strawberries, complete with leaves and blossoms, on top of one of them. Not all of the book titles are discernible, but those that are are eloquent. They are apparently all by men, and some of their titles signal clearly a masculinist ideology. The book the woman is adorning with the bunches of strawberries is T. E. Lawrence's Los siete pilares de la sabidurLos siete pilares de la sabiduríaiacute;a (The Seven Pillars of Wisdom), notable for the homoeroticization of the noble male art of soldiering. The woman is bending over Lawrence of Arabia's book to add another bunch of strawberries, and she balances herself with one foot on Lin Yutang's La importancia de vivir (The Importance of Living) and the other on Walter de la Mare's Memorias de una enana (Memories of a Female Dwarf).
The fact that the woman is dwarfed by the row of books makes the inclusion of de la Mare's novel especially hilarious. Indeed, it is at this point where one can most question the degree to which Stern's photomontages are not merely illustrations of the preverbal texts written by naïve women, but an ironic commentary on the psychoanalytic validity of the staging of dreams: psychoanalysis is grimly serious in its determination to seek out the deeply embedded meanings of dreams, which are understood to be, themselves, deeply embedded narratives of the human psyche, and there is no room for irony, and much less parody, in their manipulation and interpretation.
Moreover, it is understood that dreams may appear to be absurd or ludicrous when compared to an allegedly normal waking reality. The process of interpretation in which the grimly serious analysis of dreams engages could never contemplate the possibility that dreams might manifest a play of humorous irony or parody, since such a play would destabilize the semantic anchor dreams must have to be interpretable. Certainly, someone may have dreamed being a woman belittled by books, and one of those books might just happened to have been Memorias de una enana. But unless one is willing to invest in such a high degree of unlikelihood, Stern's image must be viewed as playing with the legitimacy of dreams as conveying a recoverable embedded meaning of a psychoanalytically serious nature.
Stern's interpretation of the process of interpreting dreams can only be viewed, in this photomontage, as rather sardonic with regard to the reputed allegorical literalness of dream sequences. Indeed, the book that is shelved between the two on which the woman stands is Sherwood Anderson's Las novelas de lo grotesco (Stories of the grotesque; published as "The Book of the Grotesque" in Winesburg, Ohio), surely a meaningful choice as regards the texture of the dreams Stern illustrates. My point here would be the way in which Stern sees these women as caught in a narrative universe in which they do dream—or think they dream—dreams that are allegorical representations of their diminished (i.e., midget-like) presence in a world dominated by men, one in which they are menaced, persecuted, subject to mental and physical violence, and imprisoned in a web of social convention, mystification, and exploitation.
Yet it would be disingenuous to view psychoanalysis, which is one of the master narratives/narratives of the master of the late nineteenth century, not merely as a system for decodifying the tropes of women's oppression, but rather, as one segment of contemporary feminism has quite vociferously maintained, as one of the very tools of the repression and oppression of women.7 Women who buy into the discourse of psychoanalysis are buying into a hegemonic narrative of their problem as hysterical—and, therefore, marginal, inferior, and damaged—human beings (Clara Cordia speaks of "la dependencia de la mujer en el psicoanálisis" [the dependency of woman on psychoanalysis; 284 ff.]). From this point of view, the women writing narratives and sending them in to Idilio are not beginning the process of their restoration to full mental health via the science of psychoanalysis, but rather are endorsing the very discourse that subjects them to a marginalizing scrutiny by an implacable masculine gaze.
As I have already noted, the title of the Idilio series was "El psicoanálisis le ayudará": Stern, in her essay on the photomontages, does not evoke the title of the series in any ironic way, but it is telling that she notes that the academic who was in charge of the series, Gino Germani (who, it is also significant to note, wrote under a pseudonym, Richard Rest), often instructed her as to how to handle certain of the details of her images (51)—that is, the male interpreter was insistent on ensuring that the female interpreter got things right.8 Nevertheless, as Priamo has noted, "En ninguna de las exhibiciones de sus fotomontajes Grete utilizó los títulos que Germani les había dado en Idilio" (Grete used in none of her exhibitions of her photomontages the titles Germani had given them in Idilio; 32), which was certainly one way of asserting her creative distance from his specifically psychoanalytic project.
It would be perhaps too much to have hoped Stern would have included one of Freud's books among those the woman of her photomontage is stepping over, but yet the presence of the books that are there is telling enough, between the masculinity of the titles on the one hand (John Dos Passos's El gran dinero [The Big Money] is another one) and the grotesqueries of Sherwood Anderson and Walter de la Mare on the other (Sueño No. 6, no title [Sueños 111). Moreover, we see the midget woman trapped between two rows of books: she is bending over to place the strawberries on the Lawrence book, but if she stood up, she would bump her head on the row of books above her. However, this is not just another row of books. Rather, they are the same books she is treading on: this row of books is cut off midway by the bottom border of the image, but the remainder of their body and the shelf on which they sit is reproduced as the row above the woman's figure, and it is as though she is not only trapped by books and the sexist narratives they contain, but specific books that repeat themselves in a circular, imprisoning way.
Grete Stern's Sueños, thus, points in two directions. On the one hand, the collection constitutes a major Argentine entry in a bibliography of cultural production based on Freudian psychoanalysis, a production that has had considerable vitality in that country. On the other, however, to the extent that Stern was not a psychoanalyst—and her other photography appears not to reveal any specific commitment to that narrative—her work is only indirectly related to the purportedly serious psychoanalytic purpose, even if rather mediated by the popular culture venue of a woman's magazine, of giving voice to women's dreams. It is in the process of converting verbal narratives taken seriously into creative works of photographic art that a space is created for an occasional ironic and perhaps even feminist stance toward the rigorous claims for the legitimacy of the psychoanalytic project.