Stern was born in Wuppertal in 1904, growing up in a comfortable family who worked in textiles. She moved to Berlin in 1927, and studied photography with members of the Bauhaus, the conceptual school that opened in Dessau. She worked as a freelance graphic design and advertising artist in her hometown until moving to Berlin in 1927. There she studied under Walter Peterhans, who would soon become the head of photography at the Bauhaus.
She worked with another artist, Ellen Auerbach, and they signed their collaborative visuals – a mix of photomontage, collage, and typography fashioned in a studio setting – as ‘ringl+pit’. They applied their playful and Dada-inflected graphic style to ad campaigns for hair dye and perfumes; they also contributed to publishing platforms like the prestigious French arts magazine Cahiers d’Art.
Stern moved to London, frequenting an artsy crowd, like Bertolt Brecht and his actress girlfriend Helene Weigel, but left for Buenos Aires with her Argentinian husband in 1936 as commissions ceased and the creative landscape became increasingly limited.
In South America, she lived in a Bauhaus-inspired house dubbed “the factory,” and photographed painters to dancers, many also in exile for being anti-Fascist. Her mid-century output became her most iconic: she contributed regularly to an Argentine magazine Idilio with the series Sueños (Dreams), creating an incredibly funny and Surrealist spectrum of collages based on Jungian psychology to accompany advice-seeking questions women addressed to the magazine. It’s a fever dream of vignettes that skewer domestic expectations and gender hierarchy; a sly feminist manifesto articulated through cheeky visuals. In one photomontage, a woman gapes at a suited man with a turtle head emerging from the collar (Love Without Illusion, 1950); elsewhere, a woman’s silhouettes props up a lampshade as a man reaches to light it (Household Electronics, 1949). Stern transformed and deconstructed the limited expectations of the female experience, with a wink, into something absurd.
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Wow, and that in the days before Photoshop! Photomontage has been around a long time. Wonderful stuff.
Makes you realise that we have it easy in this digital age