Object of the Semester – Winter Semester 2022/23

Lothar Meggendorfer’s “Revolving Picture Joke”

A contribution from our former student assistant Jennifer Heidtke

In 1889, Lothar Meggendorfer’s object series “L. Meggendorfer’s Revolving Picture Joke” was advertised in a supplement of the humor magazine Fliegende Blätter. There is no verified date for the origin of what is assumed to be a ten-part series. But it is likely that the Wilhelm Loos publishing company in Munich was the first to release it, in 1889/90. A customer could purchase one of the objects, which made fun of Polish Jewry, for 75 pfennigs.[1]

The cardboard sleeve depicts two men interacting in a rural setting. The faces are cut out. A total of 19 different heads with stereotypical antisemitic physiognomy are printed on the two discs inside the sleeve. The edges of the discs protrude from the sides of the sleeve, so that they can be turned by hand. Rotating the two discs, the observer plays an active role in revealing the antisemitic message: the supposed existence of a “Jewish physical recognizability” based on stereotypes of the “Eastern European Jew.”
Lothar Meggendorfer’s “Revolving Picture Joke”
ALAVA – TU Berlin, inventory number 10805

These “Jewish bodies” have no basis in reality; they relate to handed-down stereotypes, myths and established images demonizing the Jew. Supposedly “Jewish facial features” are often depicted in combination with deformed bodies, thus completing the construction of irreversible physical difference.[2] The movable aspect of the “Image Joke” supplements the antisemitic imagery announced on the cover: The men’s heads are positioned in the center. Their faces are dirty, their noses are unusually long, wide and hooked, their mouths are gapingly large with bulging lips, and they both wear long beards and side curls. Their expressions are highly distorted, making their faces look ugly, sick, evil and demonic.

Since the High Middle Ages, Jews have been associated with concrete attributes.[3] These include the “Jewish hat” and the “Jewish nose.” Though there are no sources confirming that Jews covered their heads before the 16th century, this notion was already common in the late 11th century.[4] The first depictions of Jews with prominent noses began to appear in 1170:

“At that time, a range of artworks… began to feature at least one male Jewish figure drawn in stark profile, with somewhat gross features, a hostile, brutish, or ferocious expression, and a pointed, scraggly beard. … In several of these works, the Jew in question displays a distinctively hooked or beaked nose.”[5]

In the 19th century, the “Jewish nose” was reinterpreted in the context of contemporary anthropological notions as a “racial-physical characteristic.”[6]
Meggendorfer used the artistic tool of caricature and worked with the supposedly comical exaggeration of the imagery, which proposes to reveal reality. For example, Polish Jewry is summed up with a few strokes of the pen, and characterized as the embodiment of absolute evil. Since the High Middle Ages, anti-Jewish depictions solidified, with the main goal of labeling Judaism as the incarnation of all that is evil and bad, ultimately making Jews recognizable to the (Christian) world.[7] This resulted in the (Christian) desire for an absolute demarcation from Judaism and thus the construction of the “other,” against whom one could project everything from which one had to distance oneself.[8] The result was a dichotomous worldview, based on a system of interpretation according to which Jews were understood as a “negative dimension,” condemned to damnation as non-believers.[9] According to this worldview, Jews became the “archetype [of] all that is evil and reprehensible in the world.”[10]
The German term “Ostjude” (Eastern European Jew) appeared by the 19th century, but was rarely used before World War I.[11] The stereotype developed in the late 18th century with the Jewish Enlightenment and the yearning of the Jewish population for emancipation.[12] A cultural discrepancy was constructed between Jews living in the German territories and those living mainly in Poland, Galicia, Russia and Romania, according to which “Eastern Jewry” was a homogeneous mass and disdained as backward.[13] Their language – Yiddish – was described as “jargon and gibberish,”[14] distinguished from High German, and interpreted as an “expression of alleged spiritual and moral decay.”[15] Their religious services were described as loud and chaotic, and accordingly they were assumed to be “religious fanatics.”[16] Their appearance, too, was reduced to a few characteristics: Accordingly, all “Ostjuden” had beards and sidelocks and wore caftans and head coverings. Much of Eastern European Jewry in the 19th century lived in poverty, which led to their being denigrated as “dirty, smelly, … ugly, physically degenerate and sick.”[17]
Lothar Meggendorfer concretized these defamatory stereotypes in his caricatures: Alongside his depictions of deformed male bodies in their ragged caftans with head coverings, with their beards and side curls, he used the image of distorted, twisted mouths to underscore the supposed foreignness and incomprehensibility of Yiddish, which is debased as mere gibberish.
This object stands out because of its kinetic nature. On one hand, Lothar Meggendorfer saw his own work as pictorial reportage meant to enlighten and inform[18] – an educational purpose, if you will. These movable discs imparted antisemitic views about the imagined appearance and behavior of Polish Jews. On the other hand, the public itself is manipulated by the objects. After all, like much of Lothar Meggendorfer’s work, the “Revolving Picture Joke” is characterized by the participative moment.[19] Without the viewer’s active manipulation, the object cannot fully realize its inherent antisemitic effect. The “Polish Jews” disc thus becomes a manipulative object that transforms its recipients into accomplices.
The participative moment opens new dimensions both for research and educational work. For example, an analysis of the revolving image could be used to examine the function and effect of visual antisemitism that involves active participation of the observer. In addition, the object can also be used as a key for interpreting antisemitic images, codes and stereotypes. Antisemitic images can only be recognized as such if viewers can process their underlying messages. This object could provide a tool for critical analysis of the antisemitic construct of a supposed “Jewish physical recognizability” and the stereotype of the “Ostjuden.”

[1] See Beiblatt der Fliegenden Blätter, No. 2293, Erstes Blatt, 7 July 1889, https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/fb_bb91/0030 [accessed on 16 January 2023].

[2] See Julia Schäfer, “Der antisemitische Stereotyp. Über die Tradition des visuellen ‘Judenbildes’ in der deutschsprachigen Propaganda,” in: Zukunft braucht Erinnerung. Das Online-Portal zu den historischen Themen unserer Zeit, published online on 14 September 2004, https://www.zukunft-braucht-erinnerung.de/der-antisemitische-stereotyp/ [accessed on 16 January 2023].

[3] See Sara Lipton, “What’s in a Nose? The Origins, Development, and Influence of Medieval Anti-Jewish Caricature,” in: Jonathan Adams/Cordelia Heß (eds.), The Medieval Roots of Antisemitism. Continuities and Discontinuities from the Middle Ages to Present Day, New York 2018, pp. 183-203, here p. 190.

[4] See ibid.
[5] Ibid., p. 192 f.

[6] Isabel Enzenbach, “Antisemitismus in der zeitgenössischen Karikatur. Das Beispiel der Netanjahu/Netta-Zeichnung in der ‘Süddeutschen Zeitung’,” in: Visual History. Online-Nachschlagewerk für die historische Bildforschung, published online on 17 December 2018, https://www.visual-history.de/2018/12/17/antisemitismus-in-der-zeitgenoessischen-karikatur/ [accessed on 16 January 2023].

[7] See Monika Schwarz-Friesel/Jehuda Reinharz, Die Sprache der Judenfeindschaft im 21. Jahrhundert, Berlin/Boston 2012, p. 61.

[8] See ibid., p. 64.
[9] See ibid.
[10] Ibid.

[11] See Klaus Hödl, “Ostjuden,” in: Handbuch des Antisemitismus. Judenfeindschaft in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Bd. 3: Begriffe, Theorien, Ideologien, published by Wolfgang Benz, Berlin 2010, pp. 260-262, here p. 260.

[12] See ibid.
[13] See ibid., p. 260 f.
[14] Ibid., p. 261.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.

[18] See Hildegard Krahé, Lothar Meggendorfers Spielwelt, Munich 1983, p. 38.

[19] See ibid., pp. 12-14.