It is her husband’s name that tends to draw attention. In Germany and beyond, Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt is a rare medical professional to have become a household name. Few orthopaedists have, over their careers, looked after as many notable athletes worldwide. Hans-Wilhelm, known as Mull to family and friends, has treated dodgy hamstrings and groin strain for the likes of Ronaldo, Jürgen Klinsmann and Linford Christie, sometimes with dramatic results. Minutes after a call from Usein Bolt at the 2016 Olympics, who was panicked by an ailing calf muscle, Hans-Wilhelm jumped on a flight to Rio to treat him, and the athlete publicly dedicated his 100m sprint gold medal to his doctor, 48 hours later. The press has also savoured the controversial topic of the Müller-Wohlfahrt technique of injecting liquid taken from the crests of cockerels into knee joints.
But…enough about Mull already. It is his partner Karin’s turn – and she is not a regular doctor’s wife.
Artist in Shadow
I was the photographer chosen by Donna magazine to make portraits of the Müller-Wohlfahrts this summer. Friedrich-Karl, their friend and publisher (Mull has written an autobiography), came to the gate of the couple’s South of France villa, close to Cannes, and warmly welcomed my assistant Isabelle and me. Over a cool drink on the shady terrace, before I was introduced to the Müller-Wohlfahrts themselves, Friedrich-Karl was keen to impress on me the purpose of the feature. “Karin is an incredible person and a brilliant artist. Her husband is so well-known though, that she has always been in his shadow. Now, we change this“. The instructions were clear: I, as photographer, was to (mostly) ignore Mull and focus on Karin, the artist (not Karin, the wife).
Now, I didn’t wish to stop my new friend mid-flow, but this unexpected ‘briefing’ was somewhat at odds with my client’s. As one might expect, the magazine was keen to present rare ‘at-home’ photographs of Germany’s No.1 celebrity sports doctor to its fame-hungry readers, and, in any case, the idea of the feature was to show portraits of both husband and wife together, for the regular section ‘Pair Portraits‘. I didn’t voice this dissonance though – with a little careful handling, I reckoned we could achieve both aims. In any case, as a female photographer and artist myself, I couldn’t help but applaud Karin stepping out from her celebrity husband’s shadow.
I quickly realised that Mull himself might be the biggest impediment to my meeting the magazine’s brief. He initially didn’t wish to be in pictures at all, having only agreed to a photographer’s visit for his wife’s sake, and he made no effort to hide this. After a slightly peculiar and intense handshake (a combination of firm pulse-reading and a grip that suggested he very much intended to remain in control), he disappeared, and only reluctantly came out when called, all sharp edges.
However, placed slightly in the background of the set-up, Mull soon realised that I was neither a paparazzi photographer nor more interested in him than his wife. He was soon roaring with laughter and pronouncing in a booming voice that he liked me. Anecdotes started to flow, I wheeled out my few rusty words of German and understood his spontaneous catchphrase for me -“Aber…Rebecca kann!!”-, and in this atmosphere of jollity, I could make natural pictures of husband and wife together. It wasn’t hard to sense the love and connection between these two.
Space in their togetherness
Both in their late 70s, Mull and Karin radiate health and energy in the way that you might hope a world-class doctor and his wife would. Petite, with piercing blue eyes, Karin cut a striking figure in her astonishing yellow glasses, enveloped in colour. Mother to several children, she has never lost the need to paint and sculpt. Today, the artist lives and creates in her South of France haven; her husband works part of the time in Germany. “It has not always been easy”, she confided. “Sometimes I’ve had to work very hard to keep my space.” But what a beautiful space it was.
Karin’s cherished home contained, alongside her paintings and stunning installations, an eclectic mix of interesting furniture, art and beautiful objects. Before starting the photography, Karin put a vinyl record on an old turntable and I took in the space around me, from the depths of a 1920s folding chair, allegedly designed, with its leather stirrups, for resting feet (though Isabelle said it looked more like an early gynaecologist’s couch). The huge, high lounge was a glorious live-work area, with Karin’s painting studio to one side, and throughout the open house, murals, stained glass and painted furniture attested to Karin’s creativity. Picasso the cat navigated the rooms with ease.
Outside, the garden stretched down across a series of terrasses below the house. There was an open-air workspace, spots designed for meditation and hammock-resting near the tinkling of a water feature, and Karin’s fine sculptures sat in splendour among the trees. She works in both metal and stone, and I particularly enjoyed the humour of some pieces (she laughingly referred to one sculpture of a giant crocodile wrapped around a curled-up, naked woman as ‘The Couple’).
The garden itself was Karin’s own creation, Friedrich-Karl explained. “There was nothing here when she arrived 20 years ago. Karin did it all” (although presumably gardeners and a digger driver might have helped at certain points). Unfortunately, some of the more colourful installations had to be taken down after residents of other villas in the gated domaine complained (the housekeeper proudly informed me that their direct neighbours are a Saudi Arabian princess and a president).
Karin was happy to don a work outfit (a holed t-shirt and bright yellow dungarees) to be photographed demonstrating her stone-carving work ‘in action’, despite it being one of the hottest days of the year. However, on my suggestion, we ended the shoot by the pool, with Mull again. There, stone dust brushed out of her hair and resplendent in yet more yellow, Karin lounged, almost regally, while her husband entertained her from the sidelines. According to the housekeeper, they are still “madly in love” – not bad for two such independent souls after 50 years of marriage.
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