Gottfried Helnwein  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Gottfried Helnwein (born October 8, 1948 in Vienna) is an Austrian-Irish fine artist, photographer, installation and performance artist known for his transgressive work.

Contents

Work

Helnwein studied at the University of Visual Art in Vienna (Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Wien). He was awarded the Master-class prize (Meisterschulpreis) of the University of Visual Art, Vienna, the Kardinal-König prize and the Theodor-Körner prize.

He has worked as a painter, draftsman, photographer, muralist, sculptor, installation- and performance artist, using a wide variety of techniques and media.

His early work consists mainly of hyper-realistic watercolors, depicting wounded children, as well as performances - often with children - in public spaces. Helnwein is concerned primarily with psychological and sociological anxiety, historical issues and political topics. As a result of this, his work is often considered provocative and controversial.

Viennese-born Helnwein is part of a tradition going back to the 18th century, to which Messerschmidt's grimacing sculptures belong. One sees, too, the common ground of his works with those of Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, two other Viennese, who display their own bodies in the frame of reference of injury, pain, and death. One can also see this fascination for body language goes back to the expressive gesture in the work of Egon Schiele.

The Child

St. Petersburg, Helnwein's "Head of a Child" ("Kindskopf", 1991, oil and acrylic on canvas, 600 x 400 cm), being installed in the retrospective of Gottfried Helnwein, 1997, (Collection of the Sate Russian Museum St. Petersburg).]]

A clarity of vision in his subject matter was emerging in Helnwein's art that was to stay consistent throughout his career. His subject matter is the human condition. The metaphor for his art, although it included self-portraits, is dominated by the image of the child, but not the carefree innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead created the profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative image of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within.

In 2004 The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco organized the first one-person exhibition of Gottfried Helnwein at an American Museum: "The Child, works by Gottfried Helnwein" at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. The show was seen by almost 130,000 visitors and the San Francisco Chronicle quoted it the most important exhibition of a contemporary artist in 2004. Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic, wrote: "Helnwein's large format, photo-realist images of children of various demeanors boldly probed the subconscious. Innocence, sexuality, victimization and haunting self-possession surge and flicker in Helnwein's unnerving work".

Harry S.Parker III, Director of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco explained what makes Helnwein’s art significant: "For Helnwein, the child is the symbol of innocence, but also of innocence betrayed. In today’s world, the malevolent forces of war, poverty, and sexual exploitation and the numbing, predatory influence of modern media assault the virtue of children. Robert Flynn Johnson, the curator in charge, has assembled a thought-provoking selection of Helnwein’s works and provided an insightful essay on his art. Helnwein’s work concerning the child includes paintings, drawings, and photographs, and it ranges from subtle inscrutability to scenes of stark brutality. Of course, brutal scenes—witness The Massacre of the Innocents—have been important and regularly visited motifs in the history of art. What makes Helnwein’s art significant is its ability to make us reflect emotionally and intellectually on the very expressive subjects he chooses. Many people feel that museums should be a refuge in which to experience quiet beauty divorced from the coarseness of the world. This notion sells short the purposes of art, the function of museums, and the intellectual curiosity of the public. The Child: Works by Gottfried Helnwein will inspire and enlighten many; it is also sure to upset some. It is not only the right but the responsibility of the museum to present art that deals with important and sometimes controversial topics in our society".

Comics and Trivial Art

Another strong element in his work are comics. Helnwein has sensed the superiority of cartoon life over real life ever since he was a child. A biographical story, explains his obsession with Disney characters. Growing up in dreary, destructed post-war Vienna, the young boy was surrounded by unsmiling people haunted by a recent past they could never speak about. What changed his life was the first German-language Donald Duck comic book that his father brought home one day. Opening the book felt like finally arriving in a world where he belonged:
"...a decent world where one could get flattened by steam-rollers and perforated by bullets without serious harm. A world in which the people still looked proper, with yellow beaks or black knobs instead of noses."

In 2000 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented Helnwein's painting "Mouse I" (1995, oil and acrylic on canvas, 210 cm x 310 cm) at the exhibition The Darker Side of Playland: Childhood Imagery from the Logan Collection.
Alicia Miller commented on Helnwein's work in Artweek: "In 'The Darker Side of Playland', the endearing cuteness of beloved toys and cartoon characters turns menacing and monstrous. Much of the work has the quality of childhood nightmares. In those dreams, long before any adult understanding of the specific pains and evils that live holds, the familiar and comforting objects and images of a child's world are rent with something untoward. For children, not understanding what really to be afraid of, these dreams portend some pain and disturbance lurking into the landscape. Perhaps nothing in the exhibition exemplifies this better than Gottfried Helnwein's 'Mickey'. His portrait of Disney's favorite mouse occupies an entire wall of the gallery; rendered from an oblique angle, his jaunty, ingenuous visage looks somehow sneaky and suspicious. His broad smile, encasing a row of gleaming teeth, seems more a snarl or leer. This is Mickey as Mr. Hyde, his hidden other self now disturbingly revealed. Helnwein's Mickey is painted in shades of gray, as if pictured on an old black-and-white TV set. We are meant to be transported to the flickering edges of our own childhood memories in a time imaginably more blameless, crime-less and guiltless. But Mickey's terrifying demeanor hints of things to come...".

Although Helnwein's work is rooted in the legacy of German expressionism, he has absorbed elements of American pop culture. In the 70s he bagan to include cartoon characters in his paintings. In several interviews he claimed: "I learned more from Donald Duck than from all the schools that I have ever attended." Commenting on that aspect in Helnwein's work, Julia Pascal wrote in the New Statesman: "His early watercolor Peinlich (Embarrassing) - shows a typical little 1950s girl in a pink dress and carrying a comic book. Her innocent appeal is destroyed by the gash deforming her cheek and lips. It is as if Donald Duck had met Mengele".

Living between Los Angeles and Ireland. Helnwein met and photographed the Rolling Stones in London, and his portrait of John F Kennedy made the front cover of Time magazine on the 20th anniversary of the president's assassination. His Self-portrait as screeming bandaged man, blinded by forks (1982) became the cover of the Scorpions album Blackout. Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, William Burroughs and the German industrial metal band Rammstein posed for him; some of his art-works appeared in the cover-booklet of Michael Jackson's History album. Referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall Helnwein created the book Some Facts about Myself, together with Marlene Dietrich. In 2003 he became friends with Marilyn Manson and started a collaboration with him on the multi-media art-project The Golden Age of Grotesque and on several experimental video-projects. Among his widely published works is a spoof of the famous Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks, entitled Boulevard of Broken Dreams. This painting also inspired the Green Day song of the same name

Examining his imagery from the 1970s to the present, one sees influences as diverse as Bosch, Goya, John Heartfield, Beuys and Mickey Mouse, all filtered through a postwar Viennese childhood.

'Helnwein’s oeuvre embraces total antipodes: The trivial alternates with visions of spiritual doom, the divine in the child contrasts with horror-images of child-abuse. But violence remains to be his basic theme, - the physical and the emotional suffering, inflicted by one human being unto another.'

Self-Portraits

The self-portrait for the artist's blindfolded unbent head covered with blood occurs twice in Helnwein's triptych The Silent Glow of the Avantgarde (1986). The middle panel shows an enlarged reproduction of Caspar David Friedrich's The sea of Ice, a depiction of a catastrophe of 1823/24 which is generally interpreted as a romantic allegory of the force of nature overpowering all human effort . Helnwein compared the "quietly theatrical" ecstatic attitude of his self-portrait with the heroic pose of the figure of the suffering figure of Sebastian and generalizes both to the stigma of the artist in the 20th century, making him a kind of saviour figure. In addition, its poetic title sets the viewer onto the right track. The visual montage of the modern artist as Man of Sorrows with Friedrich's landscape painting projects the dashed hopes of the romantic rebellion into the present, to the protest thinking of modernity, which has become introverted and masochistic, and its crossing of aesthetic boundaries. Is romanticism making a comeback? - No; actually, it had never left modernity. But its rebellion is confining and introverting itself in the "body metaphysics" of contemporary artists to its own flesh and blood. Thus, the comeback of romanticism leads for Helnwein, too, to stressing just one of its partial aspects, the stylizing in the form of a self-portrait of a protest introverted to martyrdom which historically was once linked in a contradictory way with social opposition, rebellion, and utopia.

References to the Holocaust

Mitchell Waxman wrote 2004, in The Jewish Journal, Los Angeles: "The most powerful images that deal with Nazism and Holocaust themes are by Anselm Kiefer and Helnwein, although, Kiefer’s work differs considerably from Helnwein’s in his concern with the effect of German aggression on the national psyche and the complexities of German cultural heritage. Kiefer is known for evocative and soulful images of barren German landscapes. But Kiefer and Helnwein’s work are both informed by the personal experience of growing up in a post-war German speaking country... William Burroughs said that the American revolution begins in books and music, and political operatives implement the changes after the fact. To this maybe we can add art. And Helnwein's art might have the capacity to instigate change by piercing the veil of political correctness to recapture the primitive gesture inherent in art."

Of all of Helnwein's paintings, one of the most famous is Epiphany I (1996). This Austrian Catholic Nativity scene has no magi bearing gifts. Madonna and child are encircled by five respectful Waffen SS officers palpably in awe of the idealised, blonde Virgin. The Christ toddler, who stands on Mary's lap, stares defiantly out of the canvas. Helnwein's baby Jesus is often considered to represent Adolf Hitler.

Works for the Stage

Helnwein is also known for his stage and costume designs for theater, ballet and opera productions. Amongst them: "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare, (director, choreographer: Johann Kresnik) , Theater Heidelberg, 1988, Volksbühne Berlin, 1995; "The Persecution and Murder of Jean Paul Marat, Performed by the Drama Group of the Hospice at Charenton, under Direction of Monsieur de Sade" by Peter Weiss, (director: Johann Kresnik), Stuttgart National Theatre, 1989; "Pasolini, Testament des Körpers", (director: Johann Kresnik), Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, 1996; "Hamletmaschine" by Heiner Müller, (director: Gert Hof), 47. Berliner Festwochen, Berlin 1997, Muffathalle, München, 1997; "The Rake's Progress" by Igor Stravinsky, (director: Jürgen Flimm), at Hamburg State Opera, 2001; "Paradise and the Peri", oratorio by Robert Schumann, (director, choreographer: Gregor Seyffert & Compagnie Berlin), Robert-Schumann-Festival 2004, Tonhalle Düsseldorf; Der Rosenkavalier" by Richard Strauss, (director: Maximilian Schell) at Los Angeles Opera, 2005, and Israeli Opera Tel Aviv, 2006;"Der Ring des Nibelungen, Part I, Rheingold und Walküre", choreographic theatre after Richard Wagner, (director, choreographer: Johann Kresnik), Oper Bonn, 2006.




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