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Family Photos: A Yiddishist Looks at Mischpoche

Sunny S. Yudkoff


This past December, the Hamburger Kunsthalle hosted an exhibition in celebration of the 250th birthday of the artist Caspar David Friedrich. The exhibition featured Friedrich’s iconic 1818 painting of The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), which has come to represent the German Romantic tradition. In addition to paintings by Friedrich and work by his contemporaries, Caspar David Friedrich: Art for a New Age featured the contributions of twenty contemporary artists, each of whom submitted a piece that engaged one of the central themes of Friedrich’s work, namely humanity’s relationship with nature. 1 1Caspar David Friedrich: Art for a New Age, 3 April 2024, https://www.hamburger-kunsthal.... One of the invited participants was the Berlin-based photographer Andreas Mühe. Placed on display was a mid-sized photograph from his series Neue Romantik (2014-2015). The color image, entitled Kreidefelsen (Chalk Cliffs), depicts a nude male figure staring out at a large body of gently undulating water. The scene is saturated by the warm tones of a glowing sunset. Mühe’s work unmistakably echoes Friedrich’s. But the differences are stark. In Friedrich’s piece, the wanderer dominates the central foreground of the painting. He balances on the rocky crags while waves crash around him, as if challenging nature to topple him. In contrast, Mühe’s figure appears incidental to the surrounding forest. Trees tower over him and the nearly still water bespeaks quiet beauty. Disrupting such solemnity, though, is the figure’s pose. He is not merely standing but, most likely, urinating.

The photograph models one of Mühe’s signature subjects—the beauty of bodies in rigidly organized space—and one of his signature artistic motivations—poking at the grand narratives of German art and political history. It’s a dynamic that I’ve been thinking about for several years since stumbling on Mühe’s exhibition, Mischpoche, in the summer of 2019. Mounted at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof, the exhibition showed a series of highly stylized photographs of the artist’s family. At the time, I was struck not only by the artwork but also by Mühe’s noticeable decision to title his exhibition with a Yiddish word. In this essay, I want to reflect on that choice more deeply. I want to consider how Mühe recruits Yiddish as a support for his ironic commentary on the German artistic tradition. I want to ask: Is Mühe’s title an act of cultural appropriation? Or does Yiddish shape his critical interventions into the aesthetics of the German family? What role, finally, might a Yiddishist play in the interpretation of Mühe’s work?

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I admit that, on reading the title Mischpoche, my immediate thought was: this is going to be terrible. 2 2 Andreas Mühe, Mischpoche, 2016-2019. I was, and remain, guilty of what anthropologist Joshua Freedman has described as the “seriousness” of academic Yiddishists, those of us who are aesthetically allergic to Yiddish cultural kitsch produced in the name of Jewish nostalgia or canned humor. 3 3 Joshua B. Friedman, “Serious Jews: Cultural Intimacy and the Politics of Yiddish,” Cultural Dymanics 32, no. 3 (2020): 151–69. Indebted to Sara Ahmed’s figure of the “feminist killjoy,” my recent work at the intersection of Yiddish textuality and visuality has proposed an emboldened position for the Yiddish kvetsh. 4 4 Sunny S. Yudkoff, “The Joys of Yiddish in the Work of Mel Bochner,” Word & Image 37:4 (2021), 337-352. But this is not a “complainer,” as the American iteration of the word in English would suggest. To “kvetsh” in Yiddish does not mean “to complain” but rather to pinch or to emphasize, and the reflexive kvetshn zikh means to “speak reluctantly.” 5 5 Solon Beinfeld and Harry Bochner, “Kvetshn,” in Comprehensive Yiddish–English Dictionary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 610. My Yiddish kvetsh is the critic who investigates the ambivalences and equivocations of Yiddish, who displaces the stereotypes that structure the language’s postvernacular receptions, and who, sometimes, uncomfortably halts the laughter by discussing a word’s unacknowledged meaning. 6 6 On the feminist killjoy, see Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010). In June 2019, when I arrived at the Hamburger Bahnhof, the largest exhibition space of the Nationalgalerie, I had slim hopes for a photography exhibition named Mischpoche, a Yiddish term of Hebraic origin meaning “family” that is, at best, sentimental, inclusive, and wry, and at worst, derogatory, exclusionary, and cloying.

But the exhibition was stunning. Mischpoche, as I came to understand, was a patient meditation on the coherence, visibility, and legibility of the German family investigated through the genre of the family portrait—a genre, as Marianne Hirsch has explained, where the image “provides a space of identification for any viewer participating in the conventions of familial representation.” 7 7 Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 251. Mühe, a widely-heralded color photographer whose work limns the boundary of political portraiture and high-art, had spent over three years working to produce two rather crowded family portraits—one of his father’s side of the family, Mühe II (figure 1) and one of his mother’s, Hahn II (figure 2). 8 8 I am grateful to Andreas Mühe for permission to publish the images in this article. Yet while the images conform to the conventions of the bourgeois German family portrait, they also complicate the division of past and present, as well as generational progression. Situated among the living family members are hyper-realist Puppen (“puppets”)—life-sized sculptures of Mühe’s dead father, two dead stepmothers, two dead grandfathers, two dead grandmothers, and one dead step-grandmother. 9 9 Udo Kittelman and Kristina Schrei, eds., Andreas Mühe: Mischpoche (Köln: Walter König, 2019), 55. These uncanny sculptures are crafted from photographs of the deceased individuals when they were in their late thirties, around the same age as Andreas Mühe during the time of the pieces’ creation. Mühe subsequently destroyed the statues so that the only remaining memory of their existence is in the macabre family portraits.

By arresting time in these photographs, Mühe critiques the idea of transhistorical and transgenerational German respectability. The portraits rely on conventional furniture, clothing, racialized bodies, and völkisch symbols to render the scenes recognizable as images of twentieth-century bourgeois family life. The visibly white family—some clad in dirndls, others in modest, celebratory attire—sit in the vicinity of a piano, antique wooden secretary, or a typically-adorned German Christmas tree. Yet for Mühe, the ostensible legibility of these portraits of the deutsche Familie is also the object of scrutiny. Set in what appears to be a warehouse rather than the comfort of a domestic salon, Mühe reminds us that this image of the German family is socially and aesthetically constructed. This idea is reinforced, for example, by the large-format camera visible in Mühe II as well as the photographer’s back in Hahn II. With camera and photographer respectively in sight, viewers are reminded that this event has been staged in order to be reproduced.

The message was further communicated in the museum displays that both preceded and followed the portraits. On entering the exhibit, visitors encountered a number of Mühe’s preparatory statues in various stages of creation, destruction, and photographic reproduction: one image of an encased wax head recalled a Pharaonic bust (figure 3); another headless body held together by various clamps and bars gestured toward the Borg of Star Trek; and a third photograph of a statue’s head covered in a trash bag evoked the horrific images of hooded prisoners at Abu Graib. These references reminded viewers that there exists a “visual economy”—whether art historical, pop cultural, or military-industrial—through which spectators are conditioned to interpret what they see as valuable, dramatic, or discomfiting. 10 10 I borrow this phrase from Deborah Poole as a productive term for “thinking about visual images as part of a comprehensive organization of people, ideas, and objects.” Deborah Poole, Vision, Race, and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 8. And in the final room, visitors were presented with evidence that, just as the photographer can assemble a portrait, so too can he dismantle it. The final room featured dozens of small, square photographs hung from floor to ceiling. Mounted on white mattes in black frames, their arrangement broadly evoked reels of film. The framed photographs further appeared as studies for the final portraits, depicting individual members of Mühe’s family as well as his “puppets” in different moments of fabrication and destruction. After presenting the final family portraits, Mühe took them apart, figure by figure, limb by limb. Just as he could construct the family portrait, so too could he destroy it—and aestheticize that destruction in the process.

It is a harrowing concluding message. The ability to understand it, moreover, depends on the interpretive literacy and cultural expectations of both artist and viewer—here again, those able to recognize the practices of German familial photography not only in their composition but in their decomposition. It is in this “intimate public sphere,” as Lauren Berlant has called it, in the space where there is “an expectation that the consumers of its particular stuff already share a worldview and emotional knowledge that they have derived from a broadly common historical experience,” that Mühe prods his viewers. 11 11 Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008), viii. What could be more conventional, Mühe’s exhibition asks, than the German family portrait? At the same time, what could be more in need of unsettling?

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For the present viewer, this push to unsettle was also a function of the exhibition’s title. Against the Yiddish “Mischpoche,” the absence of any Jewish visual idiom made the stability of the photographer’s hereditary “Germanness”—and the invitation to criticize it—all the more overt. Here, I thought, was a provocative and productive work of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the process of Germany’s coming to terms with its genocidal past. More recently, German art critic Peter Chametzy has advocated for the use of the substitute term “Gegenwartsbewältigung,” and specifically as it pertains to contemporary visual art; the concept bespeaks a “‘coming to terms with the present’ in spaces that are always saturated with past time but in which we all exist as contemporary subjects.” 12 12 Peter Chametzky, Turks, Jews, and Other Germans in Contemporary Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021), 10. The term was earlier defined by Jewish German poet and theater activist Max Czollek. Czollek has advocated the term as it opens the process up to a necessary solidarity with “those who are perpetually addressed as (im)migrants” in Germany and the demand for “the recognition of the radical diversity of German society.” 13 13 As Czollek clarifies, “The notion of Gegenwartsbewältigung proceeds from an awareness that we are living in a post- National Socialist society… Gegenwartsbewältigung therefore does not aspire for normality or catharsis, but rather, for the awareness that both we, ourselves, and our society require ongoing work.” For Czollek’s work, I modify here the translation by Jon Cho-Polizzi of Max Czollek, “Gegenwartsbewältigung [Overcoming the Present],” trans. Jon Cho-Polizzi, Transit 12, no. 2 (2020): 149–50. For original, see Max Czollek, “Gegenwartsbewältigung,” in Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum, ed. Fatma Aydemir and Hengameh Yaghoobifarah, vol. 12 (Berlin: Ullstein Bucherverlage GmbH, 2020), 178–79; 181. More recently, Czollek has called for Jews in Germany to “de-integrate” and to cease participating in the German “theater of memory” that “reaffirm[s] the assumption that German society has successfully processed and overcome its murderous past.” For English, see Max Czollek, De-Integrate! A Jewish Survival Guide for the 21st Century, tr. Jon Cho-Polizzi (Brooklyn: Restless Books, 2023), 103, xi. In dialogue with this vision of Erinnerungskultur (Memory culture), Mühe’s unsentimental and non-apologetic exhibit asked the audience to consider how the idea of the “German family” continues to cohere into the present, inflected by art history, pop culture, image commodification, and marked or un-marked ideological forces of exclusion.

Yet, while I walked away from the exhibit confident in my analysis, I soon found myself adrift in the work’s reception. Rare were the words, “Holocaust,” “race,” or, save the briefest mention, the terms “Jewish” or “Yiddish.” 14 14 Hain is the exceptional reviewer who, in a rather annoyed term, challenges Mühe to justify his use of the term “Mischpoche,” calling on Yiddish speakers to explain the connotations to the artist. Kristina Schrei relegates the Yiddish origin of the term to a footnote, noting that the term is “value-neutral in Yiddish” but “frequently carries derogatory overtones in German.” She points to its antisemitic usage in a speech by Joseph Goebbels as an example. Christian Hain, “Do Androids Dream of Eclectic Portraits? Andreas Mühe and His Mischpoche at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum,” World of Arts Magazine, May 10, 2019, https://www.wartsmagazine.com/...; Ingeborg Ruthe, “Mühe’s Mischpoche,” Frankfurter Rundschau, May 4, 2019, Accessed 1 Sept 2021; Sarah Sargent, “The Living Dead,” Artillery Magazine, July 23, 2019, https://artillerymag.com/the-living-dead/; Kristina Schrei, “‘So ist es nie Gewesen’ - Andreas Mühes Mischpoche als Konstrukt - ‘That Has Never Been’ - Andreas Mühe’s Mischpoche as Construct,” in Andreas Mühe: Mischpoche, ed. Udo Kittelman and Kristina Schrei (Köln: Walter König, 2019), 18n23. Mühe, himself has identified the origin of the exhibition title as “Hebrew” in one interview and, more dismissively, as bearing “something Jewish” (etwas jüdisches) 15 15 Felix von Boehm, “Fotokünstler Andreas Mühe: ‘Heimat ist Familie,’” Monopol: Magazin für Kunst und Leben, April 22, 2019, a. https://www.monopol-magazin.de.... in another, but has offered little elaboration beyond noting the word’s currency in Berlin slang as “a collective term for the people you’re close to not by personal choice but because you’re linked to them by birth or, later on, by marriage.” 16 16 Udo Kittelman, “Vom Grund der Familie, Andreas Mühe im Gespräch mit Udo Kittelmann, Common Ground for a Family to Build on, Andreas Mühe in Conversation with Udo Kittelmann,” in Andreas Mühe: Mischpoche, ed. Udo Kittelman and Kristina Schrei (Köln: Walter König, 2019), 53. Rather than focusing on the title, the reviews of the work have tended toward four lines of analysis. First, reviewers note the macabre work’s ability to vivify the dead and amplify the uncanny potentiality of photography. A second line comments on the exhibition’s power to complicate or arrest the flow of time, understanding Mischpoche as a mixing (Misch-) of epochs ([E]poche). 17 17 Kristina Schrei, “‘So ist es nie Gewesen’ - Andreas Mühes Mischpoche als Konstrukt - ‘That Has Never Been’ - Andreas Mühe’s Mischpoche as Construct,” 17. For a dismissive assessment of this, see Hain, “Do Androids Dream of Eclectic Portraits? Andreas Mühe and His Mischpoche at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum.” A third emphasizes Mühe’s skills at meditating on the power of celebrity; while the fourth pushes viewers to consider the portraits in a longer yet ill-defined arc of German art history. 18 18 Many of the reviews mention more than one of these aspects. For a sampling of reviews, see: Christoph Amend, “Familienporträt,” Zeit Magazine, April 11, 2019, https://www.zeit.de/zeit-magazin/2019/16/andreas-muehe-familienportrait-fotografie-ulrich-muehe.; Gunda Bartals, “Die Geister meiner Leiben,” Der Tagesspiegel, April 28, 2019, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/ku...; von Boehm, “Fotokünstler Andreas Mühe: ‘Heimat ist Familie’”; Hain, “Do Androids Dream of Eclectic Portraits? Andreas Mühe and His Mischpoche at Hamburger Bahnhof Museum”; Lee Han-na, “Andreas Mühe Questions Photography,” Korea Times, July 9, 2019, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/w...; Mühe, Mischpoche; n.a., “Andreas Mühe zeigt seine „Mischpoche“ im Hamburger Bahnhof,” TIP Berlin, May 16, 2019, https://www.tip-berlin.de/kult...; Simone Reber, “„Mischpoche“ – Andreas Mühe fotografiert seine prominente Familie,” SWR 2, April 26, 2019, https://www.swr.de/swr2/kunst-...; Simone Reber, “Andreas Mühe lässt Tote wieder leben,” Deutschlandfunk Kultur, April 25, 2019, https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/ausstellung-mischpoche-in-berlin-andreas-muehe-laesst-tote-100.html; Ruthe, “Mühe’s Mischpoche”; Sargent, “The Living Dead”; Derek Scally, “Artists Join Historical Debate before Berlin Wall Anniversary,” Irish Times, April 13, 2019, https://www.irishtimes.com/new...; Peter Zander, “Gruppenbild mit Toten: Andreas Mühes ‘Mischpoche,’” Berliner Morgenpost, April 25, 2019, https://www.morgenpost.de/kult....

The latter two points frequently converge in an examination of the influence of Mühe’s personal history on the work. Born in Chemnitz (then, Karl Marx Stadt) in East Germany in 1979, Mühe moved several times in his childhood before settling with his mother and brother in Berlin, where he witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall as a ten-year-old boy. He is the son of the renowned dramaturg Annegret Hahn and her ex-husband, the late German actor Ulrich Mühe. Perhaps best known to American audiences for his leading role in the Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others (2006), Ulrich Mühe remains widely recognized across Germany for his acting on both stage and screen. He also remains well-known for his own personal affairs, having remarried twice following his divorce from Hahn—first, to Jenny Grollmann and then to Susanne Lothar. During the promotion of The Lives of Others, Ulrich Mühe notoriously claimed that his second wife, Grollmann, had spied on him for the East German State Security. 19 19 Scally, “Artists Join Historical Debate before Berlin Wall Anniversary.” In Mühe II, Andreas Mühe includes statues of both Grollmann and Lothar, both of whom are deceased. Lothar’s figure is holding the leashes of two lambs, heavy-handedly epitomizing Mühe’s half-brothers as the embodiment of Christian innocence; these are the only individuals represented in animal form. 20 20 Sargent, “The Living Dead.”

The fame and scandal that defined Mühe’s nuclear family are nearly always mentioned in reviews. Some critics question whether Mühe himself would have achieved fame were it not for his family, while others note that the intrigue of Mischpoche is a function of celebrity culture. 21 21 Bartals, “Die Geister meiner Leiben.” Still others understand Mühe’s yoking of his personal history with the larger historical narrative of Germany’s recent past. In her essay for the exhibition catalog, curator Kristina Schrei notes that Mühe’s work has long engaged with “images and sites of power both in the context of the present and the past—from National Socialism to the GDR.” She continues: “A preoccupation with identity and its photographic representation, especially with regard to Germany’s partly highly problematic recent history, runs like a golden (for which read: ‘dark’) – thread through Mühe’s work.” 22 22 Schrei, “‘So ist es nie gewesen’ - Andreas Mühes Mischpoche als Konstrukt - ‘That Has Never Been’ - Andreas Mühe’s Mischpoche as Construct,” 18. Yet, in general, when reviewers reference specific historical events in relation to Mischpoche, it is most often a concern for the “Stasi shadows” of the Grollman-Ulrich Mühe affair that drives the analysis. 23 23 See, for example, Scally, “Artists Join Historical Debate before Berlin Wall Anniversary.”

Absent in the reception of the exhibition—one fundamentally concerned with heredity and the politics of visibility—is any mention of the role played by photography in the development of eugenics in German history. 24 24 See, for example, Amos Morris-Reich, Race and Photography: Rachel Photography as Scientific Evidence, 1876-1980 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Poole, Vision, Race, and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World; Shawn Michael Smith, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). Absent is a meaningful comparison with well-known precedents from the national tradition of German family photography, such as those that sought to capture the image of the German people writ large, from August Sander’s left-leaning Antlitz der Zeit (1929) to the rightist Erna Lendvai-Dircksen’s Das deutsche Volksgesicht (1932)—a work echoed by such photographs as Isolde IX in Mühe’s Mischpoche (figure 4). 25 25 On these works, see Daniel H. Magilow, The Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimer Germany (University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2012); Andrés Mario Zervigón, “The Timeless Imprint of Erna Lendvai-Dircksen’s Face of the German Race,” in Photography in the Third Reich Art, Physiognomy and Propaganda, ed. Christopher Webster (Open Book Publishers, 2021), 97–128. Absent is any mention of one of the most famous exhibits of family photography, Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man; mounted at MOMA in 1955, it is now strongly decried for its universalizing agenda, its marginalization of non-white subjects, and its homogenized image of the heteronormative nuclear family. 26 26 Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, 48–77. Absent is any discussion of Mühe’s own family history beyond his parents’ relationship; no mention is made of his paternal grandfather’s experiences in a Russian POW camp in WWII or how his paternal great-grandparents chose suicide before the Red Army arrived at their farm in Gramzow. 27 27 For biographical information concerning Mühe’s grandparents, see: Jana Hensel, “Erwacht aus einem Traum. Über Andreas Mühe/Awakened from a Dream. On Andreas Mühe,” in Andreas Mühe: ABC, by Andreas Mühe (Berlin: Distanz, 2011), 15. Absent is any extended analysis of the implications of one of the oft-mentioned inspirations for Mühe’s project: a large, painted family portrait of the Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach family from the 1930s. It is, of course, now a matter of historical record that this family’s wartime business (Friedrich Krupp AG) profited from both its Nazi party membership and its use of slave labor. 28 28 Mühe mentions at multiple points that he was influenced by this portrait. See, for example, von Boehm, “Fotokünstler Andreas Mühe: ‘Heimat ist Familie.’” “The United States of America vs. Alfried Krupp, et al.” was the tenth of the twelve trials at the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, and lasted from December 1947-July 1948. Absent is any detailed engagement with Emil Nolde: A German Legend. The Artist during the Nazi Regime, which was summer 2019’s blockbuster exhibition at the Hamburger Banhof. The revelatory exhibition examined how Nolde, whose artwork had been denounced by the Nazis as “degenerate,” had himself been a loyal party member and had actively incorporated racist mythology into his painting in order to curry favor with Nazi officials. 29 29 Bernhard Fulda, Christian Ring, and Aya Soika, eds., Emil Nolde: The Artist during the Third Reich (New York: Prestel, 2019). If the museum was offering itself as a space to think together German history, artistic self-stylization, and the racialized subject, the reviews of Mischpoche do not recognize that Mühe might be continuing or augmenting this project. Instead, they evaluate Mühe’s Mischpoche as primarily a work of morbid intrigue, reducing the exhibition to gossip about the artist’s nuclear family or his personal biography as someone born in the East who came of age in the reunified German capital. A larger concern for Mischpoche as a work of Gegenwartsbewältigung is decidedly missing.

By now it should be clear that attention to the Yiddishness of the word Mischpoche opened up avenues of interpretation for me into Mühe’s work as an ethical challenge to the consistency of the “German” family photograph over the last century. The work, I contend, made such homogeneity visible as a foil to the problem. But at this point, I also had to ask myself what to do with a reception history of the work that was so at odds with my personal and scholarly approach to the series. Certainly, my lack of knowledge of Ulrich Mühe meant that I was not part of the “intimate public sphere” where the stuff of German celebrity scandal, no less Andreas Mühe’s East German background, was obvious. With the interpretive eyes of a Yiddishist, defensive in the face of postvernacular kitsch, I was impressed by Mühe’s work and found the title to be meaningful. But, perhaps, mistakenly so. And, yet, in evaluating Mühe’s work, I could not un-see the Yiddish. Just as, after learning of Mühe’s Puppen, I could not resist the effort to distinguish the live photographic subjects from those crafted in the same London workshop as the wax figures of Madame Tussaud’s. 30 30 Amend, “Familienporträt,” 18. For at its most basic, Mühe’s work is mischievous. If, as Barthes teaches, photography captures the “ça-a-ètè” of a scene, Mühe makes it difficult to decipher whether that-which-has-been is the same as that which it seems to be. 31 31 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 2020), 77.

Consider, for example, two of his earlier projects where the element of surprise rests on the blurred boundary of the familial and the political in German public culture: AM—Eine Deutschlandreise (2013) and Obersalzberg (2010-2013). The photo series AM—Eine Deutschlandreise (2013) takes Angela Merkel as its subject. Beginning in 2007, Mühe made a name for himself as “the Chancellor’s photographer,” known primarily for work that captured images of Merkel looking powerful and attractive, authoritative and relatable. 32 32 Kito Nedo, “Der Fotograf der Stille/The Photographer of Silence,” in Andreas Mühe: ABC, by Andreas Mühe (Berlin: Distanz, 2011), 131. In AM—Eine Deutschlandreise (2013) viewers are confronted with images of Angela Merkel, dressed in typical, staid suiting with hair perfunctorily coiffed, photographed from behind while looking out over natural vistas. The stance again recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. Even before Mühe was selected to participate in the 2024 exhibition dedicated to Friedrich, his work had already been discussed in relation to Der Wanderer. 33 33 See, for example, “Andreas Mühe provoziert mit Bildern vom Obersalzberg,” Bild, February 3, 2021, https://www.bild.de/unterhaltu.... Kito Nedo writes that “if the romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich was the ‘painter of silence,’ we might perhaps call Mühe the ‘photographer of silence’.” Nedo, “Der Fotograf der Stille/The Photographer of Silence,” 129. Yet, in AM, Mühe replaces Friedrich’s male hero with a figure of female empowerment. He further varies her pose. Sometimes, Merkel appears standing outside looking at a mountain range; at other times, she is photographed peering out from the window of an armored car (figure 5), as if the Romantic images of yesteryear must now be managed by security concerns and geopolitical systems of power that Merkel alternatingly dominates or by which she is subjugated. Any interpretation of the scenes is further complicated by the realization that the person Mühe has photographed is not, in fact, Merkel but rather Mühe’s mother, Annegret Hahn. The distance between the photographer’s professional subject and personal family is erased. Mühe subsequently draws even closer to “Merkel” when one realizes that the initials AM point not only to the German chancellor but to the photographer himself. 34 34 Ingo Taubhorn, “Between Puppet, Human and Demon: Notes on Andreas Mühe’s Installation at the House of Photography,” in Pathos as Distance, by Andreas Mühe (Heidelberg: Kehrer Ferlag, 2017), 235. The substitutability of Mühe’s mother for the nation’s Mutti and the shared initials of artist and prime minister mark AM as a project that blurs the boundary between the familial, political, and art historical. Figures of German power and aestheticized grandeur, the series contends, are intimate and recognizable, always imagined to look a particular way—always a version of the German family portrait. 35 35 During Merkel’s visit to Washington DC in 2011, Mühe captured a black and white image of German and American diplomats and government employees during a festive dinner in a Georgetown restaurant. He titled the portrait, which features a smiling Merkel in the center of the frame, Die Familie.

In the preceding series Obersalzberg, Mühe had pushed this argument forward with more provocative visual variables through an act of rephotography. The artist named the collection after Hitler’s favored alpine retreat in the Bavarian Alps. On the exhibition’s catalogue cover, the title appears in a faux Fraktur, providing the first hint that the material to come will concern the continued legibility and aestheticization of Germany’s fascist past. 36 36 Luc Tuymans, Anthony DePasquale, and Uta Grosenick, Andreas Mühe: Obersalzberg (Berlin: Distanz, 2013). Mühe specifically turns his attention to the work of Walter Frentz, one of Hitler’s favored photographers. Frentz captured images of Hitler at Obersalzberg in scenes of leisure: looking out over the mountains, hiking alpine trails, and playing with his German shepherd. Mühe’s work carefully re-stages Frentz’s photographs at the border of splendor and horror. Mühe dresses up models (including himself) in Nazi uniforms and has them stand in the same positions, looking out over the same vistas, or engaging in similar outlets of leisure as Frentz’s subjects. Yet there are small differences. In several images, the figures in Nazi kit do not appear deep in thought while observing the mountain range but—like the figure with which this essay began—they appear to be urinating. In other images, Mühe poses his subjects in the nude in the same positions as they previously modeled while they were dressed. The figures are shot from above in a dark gray studio. The effect is that the figures, no longer enveloped in a scene of Romantic natural beauty, are objectified in an eerily still space of isolation and foreboding dread. Elsewhere in the series, Mühe’s figures in uniform have their pictures taken with smart phones obscuring their faces. The images force viewers to make the connection between German historical self-styling and contemporary social media culture, asking them to consider what is seen or unseen in photographs taken in these settings. 37 37 The social media distribution of the “Shoah selfie,” as Daniel H. Magilow has recently demonstrated, serves both to create “social photographs,” in the form first described by Nathan Jorgenson, as well as the target of gendered, ageist, and homophobic public shaming. Here, Mühe creates shots of selfies-in-the-making of Nazi clad figures, raising the question as to whether these images will be “liked” or decried. Daniel H. Magilow, “Shoah Selfies, Shoah Selfie Shaming, and Social Photography in Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz (2016),” Shofar 39, no. 2 (2021): 155–87. While in the final stages of preparing this essay for publication, I also read the Magilow’s fascinating analysis of Piotr Uklański’s work The Nazis (1998) and Real Nazis (2017). Uklański’s work raises many of the same issues as Mühe’s Obersalzberg, as both involve images of Nazi figures in contemporary art; Uklański also specifically recontextualizes Frentz’s images in Real Nazis. Of specific interest for Magilow is how Uklański’s work engages the tool of grammatical aspect—i.e. how it opens up the question as to how Nazi identity continues to inhere in the present tense. This specific attention to tense is similarly productive for analyzing Mühe’s work as an object of Errinerungskultur. Daniel H. Magilow, “Reconsidering Photographic Temporality through Piotr Uklański’s Nazis,” New German Critique 51, no. 1(151) (2024): 143-171. The images further reference one of Mühe’s motivations for the project, namely the disturbing fact that tourists continue to flock to the mountain to walk in Hitler’s footsteps, snapping selfies along the way. 38 38 Hans Georg Hiller von Gaertringen and Matthias Struch, “Der Obersalzberg Komplex, The Obersalzberg Complex,” in Andreas Mühe: Obersalzberg, by Luc Tuymans, Anthony DePasquale, and Uta Grosenick (Berlin: Distanz, 2013), 77. According to von Gaertringen, Mühe was particularly struck by the American and Finnish tourists “who prowl around in search of traces and remains: a special kind of archaeology.” Whereas a work like Gerhard Richter’s 1965 Onkel Rudi may have asked questions about memory and familial responsibility using a photograph taken of Richter’s own uncle during WWII, Mühe points attention to today’s adventure seekers who continuously and copiously create new family snapshots in Obersalzberg.

Of particular concern for my own understanding of Mischpoche is Mühe’s work with Frentz’s studio portraits. Along with images of the Nazi leadership, Frentz spent time in Obersalzberg capturing the portraits of various SS officers as well as workers at the alpine retreat. Mühe replicates the shots using his own friends and acquaintances. In a series of images of clean-shaven white faces with blond or light brown hair, Mühe’s fraternal Mischpoche seamlessly inhabits the visual frames of its predecessors. As with his images of Merkel, Mühe is here concerned with the ease with which those in his own social sphere can stand in for German historical figures, whether in power or proximate to it. Writing on family photography, Julia Hirsch has noted that “when we know that a particular photograph is that of a family member we can easily fit it into whatever fabric of family experience time has already woven.” 39 39 Julia Hirsch, Family Photographs: Content, Meaning, and Effect (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 5. What Mühe does in Obersalzberg is render a collection of Nazi photographs into a contemporary album of a German family trip or friends’ getaway. Reflecting on criticism the work received as “glorifying Nazism,” Mühe noted that he wished for viewers to formulate their own opinions of his work. As he explained to a reporter: “a lot of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the last years has been very pedagogical and very steered, where you’re expected to feel a certain way at the end—like you should apologise.” For Mühe, though, what was important was not eliciting an apology. “The project is successful,” he explained, “if I can shock people into staying alert.” He specifically refuses forced empathy and instead aims to jolt the viewer into awareness. 40 40 Derek Scally, “Hitler’s Back, as Germans Have Never Seen Him,” Irish Times, April 3, 2014. After Angela Merkel distanced herself from Mühe on account of the controversy over Obersalzberg, Mühe stated: “Art is not about making friends.” Andreas Mühe, “Andreas Mühe: Germany’s Most Disruptive Photographer,” OZY: A Modern Media Company, July 13, 2014, Accessed 4 August 2021. Obersalzberg, Mühe suggests, does not work to make contemporary audiences feel guilty about the actions of their ancestors; rather it shocks viewers into realizing how effectively they can continue to occupy the same positions. 41 41 For a longer discussion of Mühe’s invocation of the past to understand the present, it is also helpful to examine the catalog published after his Hamburg exhibition, Andreas Mühe: Pathos as Distance. In the published catalog, Mühe presented his work—including images from AM—Eine Deutschlandreise and Obersalzberg with selected translations from Florian Illie’s 2012 book, 1913: Der Sommer. As Illies wrote in his introduction to the exhibition catalog, “It seems that this tying together of very different threads from 1913 and 2017 could create an entirely new tapestry, one whose patches ultimately depict the same utopias, which we can see failing similar supposed ‘heroes’; and unavoidable catastrophes.” Florian Illies, “1913/2017,” in Pathos as Distance, by Andreas Mühe (Heidelberg: Kehrer Ferlag, 2017), 7.

***

Personal biography. Germany historiography. And the discomfiting legibility project of iconic German power mediated through ersatz family photographs. These themes percolated through AM—Eine Deutschlandreise (2013). These themes seethed in Obersalzberg (2010-2013). And, I thought, these same themes dominated Mischpoche, the title highlighting the striking absence of Jewish cultural references in the exhibit itself.

I looked to Mühe for confirmation. In a video trailer for the show, Mühe described how the exhibit was a chance to bring the dead and life into communion. As he explained:

I transcend times. I meet my grandfather, my father, and other people. Generations that were shaped very differently when they were my age. So my grandfather was in his late 30s when the Wall was built; my father was in his late 30s or 40 when the Wall fell. These are all German-German stories [deutsch-deutsche Geschichten]. 42 42Andreas Mühe | Mischpoche at Hamburger Bahnhof, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?....

The adjective “deutsch-deutsche” addresses together the histories of both East and West Germany, narrating the experiences of the people from the once divided country as participating in a unified national story. The comment lead me to ask: Does Yiddish have a place in this hyphenated category that doubles down on the equation of language and national identity? In another interview, Mühe explained the importance of family as a term historically loaded with pathos that has received renewed attention by German politicians of both the left and right. 43 43 Recently, the German Ministry of the Interior renamed itself the Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat, known more commonly as Heimatsministerium. The change had been prompted by the rising use of the term “Heimat” among rightist parties. German president German Frank-Walter Steinmeier explained, “Those who yearn for Heimat are not living in the past.” Yet, as writer Max Czollek notes in his discussion of this renaming, “alas, as his first official act, the freshly minted Heimat-Minister Horst Seehofer declared that ‘Islam does not belong to Germany.’ With this statement things no longer looked like an appropriation of rightwing terminology, but rather, like the integration of their thought.” As quoted and discussed by Czollek in Czollek, “Gegenwartsbewältigung,” 176; Czollek, “Gegenwartsbewältigung [Overcoming the Present],” 148. “Heimat ist Familie,” he stated. He did not say Mischpoche. And in his longest elaboration on the Jewish roots of the titular term, he explained:

“Mischpoche” beschreibt einfach das, was Familie am Ende ist: ein Schmelztiegel von verschiedenen Personenkreisen, die selten ausgesucht sind und mit denen du dich irgendwie umgeben musst. Und da fand ich “Mischpoche” einfach das schönste Wort. Natürlich schwingt da auch etwas jüdisches und zutiefst Berlinerisches mit. Genauso wie bei “Gauner” oder “Ische”. Das sind alles Worte, die in dieser Stadt sehr gegenwärtig sind. 44 44 von Boehm, “Fotokünstler Andreas Mühe: ‘Heimat ist Familie.’”

“Mischpoche” simply describes what family is in the end: a melting pot of different groups of people who are rarely chosen and with whom you must somehow surround yourself. And I also found “Mischpoche” to be simply the most beautiful word. Of course, there is also something Jewish and deeply Berlin about it. Just as with “Gauner” (trickster) or “Ische” (bitch). These are all words that are very current in this city.

Mühe gestures here to a longer linguistic history, in which Yiddish words came to be associated with “Rotwelsch” or “Gaunersprache,” the argot of what was commonly perceived as “crooks, thieves, and vagabonds.” 45 45 Gary Rendsburg and Robert Jütte, “Rotwelsch, Hebrew Loanwords In,” in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, Vol. 8, ed. Geoffrey Khan (Boston: Brill, 2013), 431. The terms subsequently entered Berlin slang and, as Mühe suggests, became assimilated alongside other words of negative connotations (extending the centuries-long association of Yiddish with criminality and crudeness). 46 46 Duden.de notes that the term is “salopp abwertend” or casually derogatory. Mühe dismisses those connotations. As he explains, “The title has several layers of meaning, including derogatory ones, but the core meaning is that of family.” “Mischpoke, Die,” in Duden.De, accessed September 2, 2021, https://www.duden.de/rechtschr.... See also Roland Girtler, Rotwelsch: die alte Sprache der Gauner, Dirnen und Vagabunden (Vienna: Böhlau, 1998). Most interestingly, “mishpokhe” was long a vernacular term in Western Yiddish (jüdisch-deutsch), the language continuously spoken within select Jewish communities of the German-speaking lands into the twentieth-century. 47 47 Alfred Klepsch, “Maschbuche,” in Westjiddisches Wörterbuch (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2014).; See also Abraham M. Tendlau (Frankfurt am Main: J. Kauffmann, 1860). In the 1736 lexicon Jüdischteutsches Wörterbüchlein, “mishpokhe” appears in Yiddish letters as the translation of “Geschlecht.” See Johann Heinrich Callenberg, Jüdischteutsches Wörterbüchlein (Halle: Gedruckt in der Buchdruckerey des Jüdischen Instituti, 1736), 50. Deriving from the Hebraic component of the language, terms such as “Mischpoche” often remained the “most stable” in these communities, even when they ceased to speak Western Yiddish. 48 48 Jürg Fleischer, “Western Yiddish and Judeo-German,” in Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present, ed. Benjamin Hary and Sarah Bunin Benor (Boston: De Gruyter, 2018), 254. The term “Mischpoche” has since entered into various lexicons across the German-speaking world. 49 49 Hans Peter Althaus, “Mischpoche,” in Kleines Lexikon deutscher Wörter jiddischer Herkunft (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2019); Hessiche Historische Kommission Darmstadt, “Mischpoche,” in Südhessisches Wörterbuch (Marburg: N.G. Elwert Verlag, 1985), https://www.lagis-hessen.de/de...; Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander Wander, “Mischpoche,” in Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon. Ein Hausschatz für das deutsche Volk (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1873). Most recently, it has achieved new prominence alongside other Yiddish terms in contemporary German-language works about contemporary German and Austrian Jewish experiences. 50 50 See, for example, Andreas Pittler, Mischpoche: 14 Kriminalgeschichten (Meßkirch: Gmeiner-Verlag GmbH, 2011); Doron Rabinovici, Ohnehin (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2004), 119. I am grateful to Matthew Johnson for these references. Put otherwise, the term bespeaks centuries of the German-Yiddish linguistic encounter that complicates notions of ethno-linguistic borders. Yet Mühe does not engage with the longer history of the term, no less the linguistic history of Jews in and impacted by Germany.

What, then, should one do with all these absences? Is Mühe criticizing the erasure of Jewish visibility? The historical subjugation of Jewish culture? Or has Mischpoche been created in such a way that one is unable to see it as concerned with German’s fascist past no less its diverse German present? If, as Wagner, Adorno, and others have repeatedly asked, Was ist deutsch?, is Mühe simply answering with a heteronormative family portrait of living and dead “Germans” who look a certain way, comport themselves a certain way, and present themselves for public consumption using stock signs of German bourgeois life? Or is Mühe tricking his viewers once again, allowing them to miss a critique? Is the Yiddishness of Mischpoche a purloined letter? So obvious as to be ignored?

Perhaps my need to pose these questions reveals more about what I want from the Mischpoche then what the exhibition itself desires. In his 2005 essay collection, W.J.T. Mitchell urges readers to consider the question What do Pictures Want? 51 51 W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021). According to Mitchell, the totemic power of pictures is such that they seem agentive and animate even when viewers know that not to be the case. Pictures, writes Mitchell, necessarily “assume a social, conversational, and dialectical relationship with the beholder.” 52 52 Mitchell, What do Pictures Want?, 106 All the more so in works such as Mühe’s that stretch the generic boundaries of the tableau vivant. For me, what Mischpoche wants is a Yiddish reader—someone to understand the work as a Yiddish-German “imagetext” in which the linguistic resonances of the title are analytically inseparable from the visual idiom that follows. 53 53 W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 89n9. What Mischpoche beckons is a Yiddish kvetsh—someone to squeeze the term, pinch and press it, articulate where the stress should fall. The problem is that Mühe’s Yiddish title seems to have been received paratactically, juxtaposed with his artwork to no interpretive end. But perhaps Mühe’s Mischpoche can nonetheless serve as a formidable work of Gegenwartsbewältigung. Maybe it can despite itself. I certainly want it to. I certainly think it does.

MLA STYLE
Yudkoff, Sunny S. “Family Photos: A Yiddishist Looks at Mischpoche.” In geveb, May 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/family-photos.
CHICAGO STYLE
Yudkoff, Sunny S. “Family Photos: A Yiddishist Looks at Mischpoche.” In geveb (May 2024): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sunny S. Yudkoff

Sunny S. Yudkoff is Associate Professor of Yiddish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.