Just after World War II there were two cities in the New World positioned to be global centers: New York and Buenos Aires. One of them fell off the table, through coups, cults of personality, corruption, and currency devaluation. Buenos Aires never looked toward the United States to define itself culturally; instead, the Paris of the Palm Trees looked toward Europe, which further explains its total marginalization in the history of modern art, at least as written from New York. Over the last decade, that myopia has diminished, and MoMA has been one of the reasons. The most recent treatment is From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires (on view through October 4), the first major exhibition in this country to chart the careers of two key figures in pre- and post-World War II Argentina, the photographers Horacio Coppola (1906-2012) and Grete Stern (1904-1999). Stern was born in Germany, and Coppola went there to study. The two met at Bauhaus in 1932. They eventually fled from the Nazis back to Argentina, where they became a cultural power couple. In 1935 their joint photographic exhibition was called by one critic “the first serious manifestation of ‘photographic art’ seen in Argentina.” Behind this pronouncement lies a national sentiment about becoming modern, and Coppola’s photographs above all exemplify the desire and the reality.
The heart of the MoMA exhibition was a wall of his images celebrating Buenos Aires as a metropolis, with its crowded intersections, skyscrapers, traffic, and night skyline as bright as New York or Paris. Nearby, Coppola’s silent film shows the construction of the obelisk that is the central monument of the city – an homage to national and urban pride. The whole suite makes a New Yorker want to get on a plane and head south. But there is a flip side, and it shows in the very different work of Grete Stern. She inherited the mantle of Surrealism in a series called Sueños (Dreams). These photo collages, published in the women’s magazine Idilio in the late 1940s and early 1950s, illustrated readers’ dreams. The fictitious psychologist “Richard Rest” (actually two editors of the magazine) purported to analyze them. To go along with prints of the images (most of the original collages were lost), copies of the magazine on display convey a tangible sense of just how anxious and therapeutically oriented Buenos Aires was – and still is. There is even a neighborhood nicknamed Villa Freud. As the curators Sarah Meister and Roxana Marcoci point out, many of the collages touch on the role of women in a modern urban setting, in particular under the schizophrenic progressive/repressive leadership of Juan Perón. They open a window on the transformation of a traditional society and its emerging discontents and desires. The argument is compelling, but it also tends to obscure the tongue-in-cheek humor of the Sueños, a perfect antidote to the self-involved, overanalyzed Porteño (native of Buenos Aires) of legend.
The exhibition emphasizes work directly influenced by the couple’s time at the Bauhaus, including Stern’s graphic-design work in England. Coppola’s last 70 years are dismissed as unworthy of documenting, and there is very little attention paid to Stern’s great preoccupation of the 1960s, the indigenous people of Argentina, particularly the Chaco region. In a country where the contrast between old and new was still vivid, such an interest, though formally unremarkable, was every bit as modern as a brightly lit skyscraper.