From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: the 1930s travels of an ad woman and a photographer
By Christian House
24 SEPTEMBER 2015
In 1935, Argentinian photographer Horacio Coppola returned from a summer adventure in Europe with a Bauhaus education and a thoroughly modern wife.
Grete Stern - photographer, graphic designer and typographer - was German, Jewish, a feminist and, like her husband, riding the avant-garde wave. Their marriage was forged by the movement: they had fallen in love in Berlin during the seminars of Walter Peterhans, head of photography at the Bauhaus in Dessau and the Reimann School of Art in Berlin. And just as Coppola had blended in with the provocateurs of Weimar Germany, Stern brought her radical spirit with her to Argentina.
Both were drawn to the aesthetics of merchandise as the concept of "conspicuous consumption" took hold around the world. However, as an exhibition at New York’s MoMA, From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires, reveals, they took very different approaches.
Stern was an ad-girl by trade, but Coppola was at heart a documentarian.
In Germany during the early-1930s Stern ran the Ringl & Pit advertising photography studio with Ellen Auerbach, another pioneer in the field. There Stern created adverts for beauty products, fashion accessories and tobacco firms, bringing a skewed surrealism to the art of selling. Portraiture, products, typography and set design all fed in to her dreamy photomontages.
Her symbols of femininity were machine made. She promoted Komol hair dye not with a model but using a cut-out paper silhouette capped with waves of artificial hair. A bottle of Petrole Hahn hair tonic was endorsed by the rictus grin of a plastic mannequin – but held in a human hand. She was no more literal with the masculine markets: there was no stubble on show to hawk Rotbart (Redbeard) shaving-cream and no one smoking in her ads for Garbaty and Guldenring cigarettes. “Ringl & Pit,” wrote one art critic in 1931, “like their bit of fun.”
Stern’s photographs delivered brands to the pages of lifestyle magazines; Coppola’s photographs showed them earning their keep on the street. He recorded the men and women who lived, worked and shopped cheek by jowl with the billboards of Buenos Aires. In 1936 he was commissioned by the municipal government to produce a photographic survey of the city to mark its 400th anniversary. The result was a series of 200 images taken as Coppola walked the avenues and plazas, capturing a city alive to the possibilities of a new era.
His photographs show the grand 19th-century boulevards bustling with a population pondering the allure of merchandise. And across the city adverts extolled the glamour of American products: cars barrel past adverts for American Club cigarettes, lovers peruse Hollywood posters, lunching ladies saunter under signs for Remington typewriters.
Coppola’s nocturnes show the endless avenues lit up in a neon bloom. The crowds on Calle Florida huddle under electric messages for “La Mujer Moderna”—“the modern woman”. Off the grid on eerie neighbourhood side-streets, with their empty all-night pharmacies, vacant bookshops and shut up grocery stores, we see walls and windows peppered with unappreciated adverts for Limol pantyhose, Favoria frocks and Africana soda.
Coppola incorporated many of the Modernist motifs in his work—vertiginous viewpoints, heavy chiaroscuro, geometric compositions—but his enterprise was an old-fashioned one: a tribute to his home town. This, he illustrated, was a place where his fellow “Bonaerenses” were being sold something on every corner. Years later he described his photographic mission as a search for “the complete image, which contains reality and its own world”. It was a description that could just have easily been levelled at his wife’s Dadaist adverts.