At nights my room was plunged into a deep, red light - my toys, the furniture, my bed, my hands - everything had the same color and seemed to be made of the same soft material. As though the natural laws were suddenly suspended, all matter seemed to glow from the inside out. The explanation for this red magic was the large illuminated star of the Red Army on the roof of the factory across the street, which poured it’s fire nightly into my room.
The days, in comparison, were gray, sticky like slime and filled with unlimited boredom - everything seemed ugly and unreal to me. I grew up in Vienna, after the war. I lived with my parents in Favoriten, a traditional Viennese working-class district, that belonged to the Soviet occupied zone. The house we lived in endured a miserable existence between an old foundry from the turn of the century and a gray monster of a factory from the Nazi era, which now bore the sign of its new masters on its roof - that very same enormous red star.
In my memories everything is rusty and covered in dust. The streets looked like they were dead, nothing moved, nobody talked. The few people that I saw were bulky, misshapen and bent. I cant remember ever having heard someone sing or laugh. A world that stood still, without sounds, without colors, without movement - only sometimes interrupted by a cumbersome truck, filled with Soviet soldiers, blaring through the streets.
And then, everything was silent again.
I had the feeling the people around me tried to be overlooked - not to be perceived. The only thing they seemed to fear was to be conspicuous, to be discovered. A city that played dead man.
I was a stranger, whose spaceship had exploded on an unknown planet and so was stranded with no possibilities of ever leaving again. Not only did I loose my orientation through the impact of the crash, but also my memory, because I had forgotten who I was and where I came from. There was only one thing I was certain of: that this was an alien world in whose merciless embrace I was now caught. It was like the after-math of a sloppy end of the world, where the few people that had survived, now continued cautiously to vegetate amongst the ruins, hoping to remain unnoticed by the Eternal Judge.
I was dozing in this twilight-zone like in a seemingly endless trance, until one day when my father returned from his office, placed a parcel, wrapped in brown paper before me and cut the rope that was tied around it with a pocket knife. - And before me the colorful splendor of the first German Mickey-Mouse comic-books gushed forth onto the parquet floor.
Opening my first Donald Duck comic book felt like seeing the daylight again for someone who had been trapped underground by a mine-disaster for many days. I squinted cautiously because my eyes hadn't gotten used to the dazzlingly bright sun of Duckburg yet, and I greedily sucked the fresh breeze into my dusty lungs that came drifting over from Uncle Scrooge's money bin. I was back home again, in 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. And it was here that I met the man who would forever change my life - a man who, as the Austrian poet H.C. Artmann put it, is the only person today that has something worthwhile saying: Donald Duck.
After all these years of cultural and aesthetic absence, a great culture had finally embraced me.
I saw the Seven Cities of Cibola, and together with Donald and his nephews burrowed through the sparkling jewels and treasures of sunken palaces. And what a joy it was to dive like a porpoise into the thirteen trillion dollars of tycoon Scrooge McDuck, and to burrow thorough it like a gopher, to toss it up and let it hit me on the head.
With the Junior Woodchucks I learned to appreciate the invaluable wisdom of the boy-scout handbook - building an emergency bridge over a ravine in record time, to track down a fiend in a hollow tree or to save a little girl that was helplessly sitting on an ice floe drifting towards a waterfall. And of course dealing with people like Chisel McSue, Rockjaw Bumrisk, Hairy Harry, Foulcrook and Slyviper or the Beagle Boys sharpened my ability to evaluate my fellow man.
Walt Disney is undoubtedly the great artistic genius of the 20th century - a reincarnated Leonardo da Vinci, who came back matured and stronger, to create the most immense artwork of all times. His aesthetic empire has changed the face of this world. For him, the age-old artist's dream came true - to breathe life into his own creation, to give it a voice, and to let it dance before the whole world.
Hundreds of artists worked for the great inspirer, amongst them Salvador Dali, Aldous Huxley and Sergei Prokofiev. Every year more than 300 million Disney-comic-books are sold worldwide. The gigantic installations of Disney World and Epcot Center in Florida are bigge than all of Christo's projects, the pyramids and Versailles put together - and most of all, more fun. The pop-art of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are solely the reflection of this extensive fire that almost no artist of the second half of the 20th century can escape.
But as in all great cultural eras, it is the joining together of different artistic geniuses that bring about such a creative energy-field. Walt Disney's most important partner is relatively unknown to the general public: the ingenious artist and poet Carl Barks, founder of Duckburg.
Occidental art has orientated itself on the aesthetic ideals of the Greek classical era for over 2000 years. Picasso and Walt Disney have gone against this dictation and broke with that ideal of the human image - each in a very different way.
And it was in Disney's workshops , where Carl Barks was able to create the prototype of the new ideal man: Donald Duck. Donald is the proclamation of a new era. He is no longer a copy of the so-called reality or another imitation of the Greek model, but a creation in the true sense of the word.
A creatio ex nihilo.
His shape is derived from the ideal geometrical principle of the sphere. There are no corners, everything about Donald is round, soft and flowing. And even though he looks nothing like a human being, but more like a duck, he embodies the human spirit better than all fine artworks before him have done.
What is human about the Mona Lisa? Her outer form might resemble a female figure, but despite all unquestionable artistic qualities she has little to do with a real human being. It is fascinating how this small, artificial drake is a so much better mirror of the human soul. In Donald we recognize our fears, our uncertainties and weaknesses - our stupidity, our vanity, our depravity, our jealousy and our simple-mindedness.
But also the very same stubbornness with which we stand up again and again after every defeat and every catastrophe and begin anew.
In retrospect I would say from Donald Duck I have learned more about life than from all the schools I ever attended.
=> Helnwein and the Comic Culture
ZEIT-Museum der 100 Bilder
Bedeutende Autoren und Künstler stellen ihr liebstes Kunstwerk vor.
Gottfried Helnwein: Mickymaus unter dem Roten Stern".
Herausgegeben von Fritz J. Raddatz
insel taschenbuch 1213, 1989
Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main
First Publication of the essay: Zeit Magazin, Gottfried Helnwein, "Micky Maus unter dem roten Stern", Hamburg, 12.May, 1989.
HELNWEIN TALKS WITH CARL BARKS, Oregon, July 11, 1992
11. July 1992
Barks: ... I preferred to work with the duck - I could push Donald around, let him get into an accident, I could let him fall off a cliff, or whatever I wanted. It was lots of fun with Donald. With Mickey that would have been dangerous, because he always had to be loved and had to be victorious in all situations. With Donald I had a comedian who I could treat badly and who I could make fun of.
=> HELNWEIN TALKS WITH CARL BARKS, Oregon, July 11, 1992