Interview with Jula Dech at her studio in Charlottenburg on December 7, 2021
Entering Jula Dech’s studio, one is immediately in the midst of her artistic universe: several posters hang in the lobby, some of which she designed and printed herself. One, from her first exhibition at the nGbK in 1974, features Honoré Daumier. There are also posters of Hannah Höch and Käthe Kollwitz, and one calling for the abolition of the paragraph 218 abortion law. The artist explains:
Jula Dech: I was at art school in the 1960s, in the atmosphere of the student movement. These posters of Honoré Daumier and Käthe Kollwitz point to critiques of society stemming from this mood of revolt that impacted on our art studies.
On the table we sit down at, she has spread out slides from her exhibition Unbeachtete Produktionsformen (1982), the nGbK anniversary publication 21 – was nun? (1990) open at her essay “Blinder Fleck – Die neue Gesell(en)schaft und die Frauenkunst,” the catalogue of the exhibition Künstlerinnen international 1877–1977, and an art historical volume on women artists. In the course of our conversation, these are joined by her book on Hannah Höch, published to coincide with a conference on the artist in 1991.
Anna-Lena Wenzel: Jula, how did you become a member of the nGbK?
Jula Dech: Through my sister Barbara. She worked at the nGbK in the office as a secretary with Bernd Weyergraf, when I was still living in Stuttgart. So I became one of the early members of this recently founded society. It was art and politics in equal measure that brought me from Stuttgart to West Berlin in the early 1980s.
ALW: What was your view of the nGbK at the time?
JD: The stated aim of the nGbK was to exert an influence on society, not to exhibit pictures. Which is why painters joined the n.b.k. instead. That suited me because I wanted to make posters, not paint pictures. At the nGbK, everyone and everything came together: critical minds, criticism of society, critical engagement with art. The nGbK was not a conventional art society with members, annuals fees, and curators selecting artists considered deserving of an exhibition. Instead, most members of the nGbK were artists interested in working together to publically explore their new, critical views of art and society. And, like many of them, as an artist I was marked by having studied a history of art that required us to seek out the neglected critical painters, especially unrecognized and suppressed women. The first project I worked on was aggressively titled Honoré Daumier and the Unsolved Problems of Bourgeois Society, that was in 1974. Our project group worked hard on the show for two or three years before presenting it to the public—in the grand setting of the orangery at Schloss Charlottenburg. It went without saying that we would receive no money.
ALW: What was your role?
JD: Working in the group inspired me to conduct a close analysis of the graphic works of the politically engaged journalist Daumier, resulting in my catalog essay “Die Herstellung von Freiheit durch Druck.” But I also wanted to expand reception of the show by offering a direct experience of printing. In a covert operation, we brought a heavy cast-iron lithography press to the exhibition venue, where we then gave practical demonstrations of this difficult technique to interested visitors. Via a complex process, I transferred engravings by Daumier to lithography plates, so that the astonished visitors could even print their own “original” Daumier. Of course, this exhibition got a great response from the public. But it was a lot of work—we even printed at night!
ALW: Printing techniques, especially etching and lithography, are usually considered more traditional. But for you, posters are a political medium?
JD: It was 1968. There were many political activists at the universities, protests against the emergency laws, against paragraph 218, demonstrations against the dictators in Turkey, Greece, and Iran. Students were constantly coming to my print workshop, which they soon named the “Ohnesorg Workshop” [after Benno Ohnesorg, a student shot by police at a demonstration in Berlin on June 26, 1967] to print posters. And of course, screen printing was the medium of choice.
ALW: You were also one of the initiators of the project group for the exhibition §218 – Bilder gegen ein K(l)assengesetz, that took place in 1977 at Galerie Franz Mehring, with support from Künstlerhaus Bethanien. How did this exhibition come about?
JD: We—by no means all women—had built up a network that reached from Switzerland to the Netherlands. Artists from West Berlin and West Germany, as well as from neighboring countries, sent us their works against this law. This resulted in a large exhibition at Galerie Franz Mehring in Kreuzberg, whose extraordinarily committed director, Dieter Ruckhaberle, helped us to push the project through in the face of fierce ideological attacks. It even became a travelling exhibition that was shown in many places in West Germany.
ALW: Did you also sit on the Coordination Committee at the nGbK?
JD: That was one center of the discussions. There were often heated arguments over the “right” worldview, something that had long since been coopted by political (splinter) groups. All of this served to develop my own critical positions and inspired my work. For a while I produced mainly art posters that also appeared in many publications.
ALW: Then there was the last nGbK exhibition you were involved in as part of the project group, titled Unbeachtete Produktionsformen, in cooperation with Künstlerhaus Bethanien. What was that about?
JD: It was about the everyday work of women that was traditionally disdained, overlooked, even denied by male, patriarchal society: housework, looking after the family, childcare … And of course it was also about the subordinate role assigned to these women. We shouldn’t forget that until the end of the 1950s, wives in West Germany were legally required to do housework, could only do paid work outside the home with their husband’s permission, also requiring his signature if they wished to open a bank account. Mediaeval conditions—not long ago.
ALW: And where did this exhibition take place?
JD: At Künstlerhaus Bethanien, a well-known venue for events within the so-called “scene.” In an overnight action, leftwing activists occupied this former hospital in Kreuzberg, that was scheduled to be demolished for redevelopment in 1974, and then saved it by a sustained campaign of resistance. Finally, following negotiations with Berlin’s Senate, the hospital was converted into an arts center, including, among other things, a printing workshop.
ALW: Beatrice E. Stammer talked about how difficult it could sometimes be to push through projects with a feminist focus at general assemblies. What was it like for Unbeachtete Produktionsformen?
JD: There were heated disputes at the general assembly because the men—mostly leftwing, critical men—thought such a show superfluous! But we women pushed the project through.
ALW: And what kind of material was in the exhibition?
JD: I can give you the example of my own work, consisting of a three-part installation titled Gewalt und Widerstand. I had set up a children’s playpen, a bathtub, and a traditional conjugal bed. The bed stood for crude patriarchal notions of marriage, the bath for deeply rooted restrictive standards of hygiene and—a link to the Nazi period—cleansing, and the playpen for the usual training and conditioning of children. Onto this German holy trinity, it was then possible, via comments and actions, to project the family role model, articulating the tensions in the position of women between conforming and rebelling. One interesting anecdote was that the man who loaned the bed—who we later found out was a former Nazi judge—angrily demanded its return when he visited the exhibition and saw two young women “frolicking” in “his” bed.
ALW: I remember photographs of the opening, where you opened boxes sent to you by women from Europe and America.
JD: Yes, the project was international from the outset—with contacts to France, the Netherlands, the United States, and Mexico. We soon began receiving countless letters, boxes full of art objects. I myself had brought shocking photographs of gravestones in a village in Tuscany, discovered by accident, that related to our Nazi past: in 1944, the German army had killed all 150 inhabitants, from children to old men, a revenge killing in response to a partisan attack. Slides of these images became part of the exhibition.
ALW: It was hard to live off the fees paid by the nGbK. How did you support yourself financially?
JD: I travelled around a lot for lectures and events, sometimes teaching in several places at once: alongside my work at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Berlin, that also extended to the Free University, I would also teach in Braunschweig, Hamburg, or Trier. Sometimes it was about photography or screen printing, and then increasingly the then-unknown history of women artists. The need to take on these and other jobs—including supervising women artists in an old people’s home—did me no harm.
ALW: How did things continue after that, with your own art, with teaching, with other activities?
JD: In the 1980s, many projects that had previously been spontaneous and temporary took on more "orderly" forms—perhaps reflecting what Rudi Dutschke once promulgated as the aim of a “march through the institutions.” In 1986, I successfully applied for a job at the Senate-funded Kulturpädagogischen Arbeitsstelle—since renamed Institute for Art in Context. Initially limited to Berlin-based artists, its courses of further training soon attracted an international clientele. The focus was on all the possibilities beyond producing artworks in the privacy of a studio: working with children, old people, migrants or so-called marginal groups, therapeutic or biographical work, etc.
ALW: At the same time, you devoted yourself to Hannah Höch …
JD: Yes, the long-forgotten Dadaist, I published many pieces about her. In November 1989, just as the Wall was coming down, I organized a three-day symposium with our students at the Akademie der Künste, dedicated exclusively to her and her work. Speakers came from all over the world. The results can be seen and read in the our extensive proceedings entitled Da-da-Zwischenreden. Due to the response it received, I think this event can be claimed to have significantly changed the way art by women is viewed. And the Senate-funded book series launched at the time, Der andere Blick – Frauenstudien in Wissenschaft und Kunst, shows how political thinking about women’s studies gradually began to shift. But of course, much remains to be done, even today.
ALW: What did you learn at the nGbK?
JD: What I found very positive was that it offered a new way of looking at art. It was about bringing art to people. We learned a great deal together, above all to question taboos.
ALW: Are you still a member of the nGbK?
JD: Yes, because I still think it’s a good idea.