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Marion Beckers / Das verborgene Museum (Hgg.): Alice Lex-Nerlinger 1893-1975. Fotomonteurin und Malerin, Berlin: Lukas Verlag 2016, 192 S., 150 Abb., ISBN 978-3-86732-245-4, EUR 30,00
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Rezension von:
Caitlin Dalton
Boston University
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Oliver Sukrow
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Caitlin Dalton: Rezension von: Marion Beckers / Das verborgene Museum (Hgg.): Alice Lex-Nerlinger 1893-1975. Fotomonteurin und Malerin, Berlin: Lukas Verlag 2016, in: sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 5 [15.05.2017], URL: http://www.sehepunkte.de
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Marion Beckers / Das verborgene Museum (Hgg.): Alice Lex-Nerlinger 1893-1975

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Accompanying the first retrospective on the artist Alice Lex-Nerlinger (1893-1975), the 2016 Verborgene Museum exhibition catalogue contributes new scholarship on the artist and it locates her as a vital figure in the history of twentieth-century art in Germany. Aligned with the museum's mission to exhibit forgotten or overlooked women artists and introduce them to the public, the curators and guest scholars involved in this project have helpfully unhinged Lex-Nerlinger (or Alice Lex, her artist's name) from the shadow of her husband and artistic partner, Oskar Nerlinger. Prior to this catalogue, literature on Lex's body of work was largely relegated to discussions inside texts devoted to Oskar Nerlinger. [1] Even in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where the artist worked during the latter part of her career, Alice Lex received more exposure when her work was exhibited alongside her partner's. [2] The last instance her work was shown in a solo exhibition was in 1958 at Berlin's Gesellschaft für Deutsch-Sowjetische Freundschaft. [3] Outside of literature in German, there exists little scholarship on the artist beyond short summaries of Alice Lex's role in avant-garde photography in the Weimar Republic. Published in a beautifully illustrated German-English combined volume, the 2016 Verborgene Museum catalogue not only exposes a wide audience to the artist and her diverse body of work, it also chronologically examines challenging aspects of her career that include her responses to class struggle, two World Wars, and her life in East Berlin during the early years of the Cold War.

In the catalogue's central biographical sketch by United States Art Historian Rachel Epp Buller, we come to know Alice Lex as a politically active Berlin artist who worked in different media - photography, picture books, montage, theater design, printmaking, painting, and drawing. Rachel Epp Buller's narrative reveals ways that the artist's involvement in leftwing cultural and political circles in the Weimar Republic shaped her outlook for the tumultuous years to come. She characterizes Alice Lex, who in 1928 was both a member of the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Association of German Revolutionary Visual Artists (known as ASSO), as an artist committed to the proletariat. Whether in her analysis of Alice Lex's use of factory labor as a recurring motif in several late 1920s photomontages, or in her description of the artist's post-World War II drawings of figures amid Berlin's ruins, Rachel Epp Buller suggests Alice Lex was an artist who consistently tried to represent and fight for the working class.

Rachel Epp Buller clarifies that Alice Lex was attuned to the particular challenges for women. Her writing is most effective when she connects her visual analysis of Alice Lex's work to historical feminine tropes. For example, when describing The Seamstress (1928), a photograph included in the series, Working Woman, Rachel Epp Buller examines the effect of Alice Lex's layering of two negatives. The first photograph depicts a woman working at her sewing machine, and the second is a close-up portrait of a young woman who embodies the concept of the New Woman in the Weimar Republic. When combined, the portrait is obscured. Rachel Epp Buller writes, "The most compelling feature of the layering of negatives lies in the artists proposition that the seamstress and the New Woman might be the same person [...]" (153). Here, she observes how the artist's strategic combination lays bare a critical stance on the supposed new freedoms granted to women. Alice Lex's delicate spray-painting, Paragraph 218 (1931), further advocated for women as it was part of a political movement to overturn the legal code that criminalized abortion in Germany. As Rachel Epp Buller informs us, Paragraph 218 was printed in contemporary journals, displayed in the exhibition, "Women in Need," and it would be resurrected for numerous reproductive rights campaigns in decades to come (158). For Alice Lex, the fight for freedom for the working class was inextricably linked to the fight for women's rights.

A small but fascinating part of the exhibition and Rachel Epp Buller's essay focuses on Die harte Straße: 1918-1949, a portfolio of collotype prints printed in 1950 that reproduced sixteen of Alice Lex's drawings and prints from the past thirty years. Rachel Epp Buller posits how the artist might have published the portfolio in order to prove that her "artistic motivations had in fact remained constant throughout the decades" (165). During the early years of the GDR, many artists, including many fervent communists like Alice Lex, were subject to scrutiny for past artistic methods and themes. Die harte Straße helped publicly clarify her sympathies with the working class. Even though she was supportive of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and largely amenable to the new state-mandated demands on artists that stipulated art should be realistic and accessible to the masses, Alice Lex still found herself needing to defend her work.

German Art Historian Eckhart J. Gillen's epilogue, "Ostracized Twice," identifies the major challenges Lex faced under the Third Reich and also under the GDR. The artist was banned from the Reich Chamber of Culture in 1933, which essentially forbid her from working under the Nazi regime. Later in the early years of the GDR, she faced public scrutiny for her Weimar Republic work, and in particular, her involvement in ASSO. Eckhart J. Gillen contextualizes the anti-formalism campaigns and hard line doctrine of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR. For the exhibition catalogue, he provides a cultural-political backdrop that helps us better understand continuities and changes in Alice Lex's oeuvre.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this catalogue is the artist's 1956 "Erinnerungen" (Memories), published here for the first time. Originally 43 pages in typescript with handwritten additions, Alice Lex's "Erinnerungen" recounts her life in eighteen sections, including among other things, her time as a student during World War I, involvement in Berlin avant-garde circles, her arrest by the Gestapo, witnessing of bombings and World War II trauma, her move from West to East Berlin, and her work creating worker's portraits in the 1950s. The first-hand perspective illuminates Lex's motivation behind her working method and themes. We read her memories of Berlin in 1945, where she recalls a city where the "Trümmerfrau" (Rubble Woman) "has become an everyday phenomenon" (113). In conjunction with viewing her postwar drawings in the exhibition that depict themes of hunger, poverty, and abandonment, the journals clarify the artist's response to war and its aftermath. Today, Alice Lex's "Erinnerungen" is the only part of the catalogue that is not translated into English, but if the artist gains more international exposure in coming years, it seems possible that an English translation would be forthcoming.

As an exhibition catalogue, Alice Lex-Nerlinger, 1893-1975: Fotomonteurin und Malerin is an invaluable introduction to the artist's career. The collaboration between the Akademie der Künste and the Verborgene Museum demonstrates a concerted institutional effort to expand the public's understanding of this often-overlooked figure. Furthermore, the contributions by outside scholars Rachel Epp Buller and Eckhart J. Gillen suggest the beginning of an international dialogue about this twentieth-century Berlin artist and her circles. This exhibition's careful excavation of primary documents opens up further research possibilities. There is ample room for scholars to extend the critical literature on Alice Lex, flesh out her involvement in various cultural organizations during the interwar and postwar periods, examine her work in the context of inner emigration, explore her complex negotiation of state doctrine in the GDR, and critically respond to her 1956 journals. Not only is this catalogue foundational to future art-historical studies of Alice Lex, it is also an important resource for anyone interested in how artists in Germany were affected by shifting political ideologies and policies during the twentieth century.


Notes:

[1] Heidrun Schröder-Kehler: Vom abstrakten zum politischen Konstruktivismus: Oskar Nerlinger und die Berliner Gruppe "Die Abstraken" (1919 bis 1933), Ph.D. diss. Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, Heidelberg 1984; and Tanja Frank: Oskar Nerlinger. Band I: Leben und Werk, Band II: Selbstzeugnisse, Ph.D. diss. Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin 1990.

[2] Oskar Nerlinger, Alice Lex-Nerlinger, Introduction by Erich Kürschner, Foreword by Ulrich Kuhirt, exh. cat. Pavillon der Kunst, Unter den Linden, Berlin 1960; Harald Olbrich (ed.): Alice Lex-Nerlinger, Oskar Nerlinger: Malerei, Graphik, Foto-Graphik, exh. cat. Akademie der Künste der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, Berlin 1975.

[3] Alice Lex: Von der Not und dem neuen Leben, exh. cat. Gesellschaft für Deutsch-Sowjetische Freundschaft, Berlin 1958.

Caitlin Dalton