Much like Joseph Beuys, who opened new, unexpected, and far-reaching spheres for art, Gottfried Helnwein has made works that extend beyond the art scene into the social and political realm. Like his predecessor, he has moved beyond the realm of pure aesthetics, engaging his art into the everyday world. Furthermore his principal interest is not to express personal feelings and emotions, but to make statements that go beyond the individual. He wants to see his work not trapped on the walls of museums and galleries, but revealed in the public domain. He expects his work to intervene in the social sphere and to have a direct impact on the life of his time.
It is no longer the myths which need to be restructured . . . it is the sign itself which must be shaken; the problem is not to reveal the (latent) meaning of an utterance, of a trait, of a narrative, but to fissure the very representation
In 1979 Gottfried Helnwein painted a watercolor of a pretty little girl asleep on the table, her head on her plate and a spoon next to her hand. Its title is "Life not Worth Living," and its text, an integral part of the work, reads:
"Dear Dr. Gross! When I was watching 'Holocaust' (the TV program), I thought again about your attitude as reported in the Kurier. And since this is the Year of the Child, I want to take this opportunity to thank you on behalf of the children who were taken to heaven under your care. I want to thank you that they were not 'injected to death' as you have called it, but simply died by having poison mixed into their meals. With German Greetings, Yours, Gottfried Helnwein."
The watercolor was prompted by an interview in which Dr. Heinrich Gross was asked by a reporter about the Nazi's euthanasia program in which he and other physicians had killed children considered "not worth living." He tried to vindicate his murders by claiming that he simply poisoned their food, so that they could die quietly and without pain.
When, in 1979, this same man became Austrian head of state psychiatry, no one so much as wrote a letter of protest. Helnwein, incensed over this profound political apathy, painted the watercolor, appended the sarcastic letter, and published it in a Viennese journal. His painting-cum-letter aroused discussion and was probably the cause for Gross' subsequent resignation in disgrace. By this time Helnwein was well aware that art can have a bearing on life.
Although the watercolor at first glance resembles the paintings of American photorealists of the period, it also differs significantly. Like their work, it is based on precise and detailed observation and is done with a meticulous and pristine manner of finish. But Helnwein diverges sharply from the photorealists in the meaningful content that is the essence of his work. For him, art, like philosophy, raises moral issues and becomes a denotative method of instruction, often by subverting accepted norms and by provoking social change, it does not simply reflect on itself. The British-American painter Malcolm Morley, considered the first of the photorealist painters, asserted: "I have no interest in subject matter as such or satire or social comment or anything lumped together with subject matter... I accept the subject matter as a by-product of the surface." For Helnwein, by contrast, the What of a picture is more important than the How. He is a master of paradox, and much of his work is characterized by its ambiguity.
Helnwein frequently turned to children for his subjects children as innocent, weak, defenseless, and abused objects victimized by adults. Typical also is a work such as "Embarrassing" (1971), a watercolor depicting a small girl in her Sunday dress, sitting on the floor against a white wall. Her bandaged left hand is placed on a comic book, while her other emaciated arm and bandaged hand dangle on her right. A horrible wound cuts across her face from nose to chin and neck, while her eyes bulge. No expression or affect appears in this doll-like child's face.
What, we must ask, prompted this artist to turn to images of suffering, torture, and death? We must remember that during the postwar years, when Helnwein was growing up in Vienna, nobody spoke of the brutality of the Nazi period. Memories were suppressed, and Austria's unrestrained embrace of Nazi savagery was denied as the country attempted to pose as the "first victim of Fascism." This depressing silence on the part of the Austrian petit-bourgeoisie was very difficult for Gottfried to accept - he was a rebellious child, interested in social and political questions, and curious and inquisitive about the recent past.
Two further experiences left an indelible impression on the young man; they are keys to his later works as an artist. He endured a very strict Catholic upbringing, especially a suppressive and punishing parochial school system, with its dogma of guilt and demand for humility. Omnipresent in school, in church, were pictures and statues of Christ's flagellation, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion, as well as graphic depictions of the stoning of St. Stephen, St. Sebastian's arrow-pierced body, the cutting off of St. Agatha's breasts - all torments to which Christian saints were subjected - and these saints' apparent ecstasy as cherubim came flying down, offering the palm of martyrdom.
In total contrast to this plethora of paintings of agony was Helnwein's first elated encounter with the pictorial universe of Walt Disney. Though scorned and considered dangerous by school authorities, here was a beam of light. Later, in 1984, claiming that he had learned more from Disney than from Leonardo da Vinci, the artist visited Carl Barks in California to pay homage to the inventor of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge McDuck. And when Gottfried Helnwein first saw a picture of Elvis Presley on a chewing-gum card, he was enchanted.
In the continuing debate about high and low art, Helnwein completely rejects the argument that popular art forms jazz, movies, comic books, rock and roll corrupt the true and transcendental aesthetic experience. He claims that in fact the split between high and low art is elitist and totally artificial that Disney, like Picasso, initiated a break with classical ideals of beauty and made a new visual art with authentic emotional meaning: "Good comics, for me, is sacred art," he once said. Helnwein is an artist who often uses his own work for themes and images; he continues to be preoccupied with Disney creatures. In 1993 he made a crayon drawing of Pablo Picasso (after Brassaï's famous photograph) gazing at a grouchy little Donald Duck in his hand. As part of the same series, we see "The Temptation of Joseph Beuys" (1993), with Beuys seated in quiet contemplation as he looks at a jubilant comic-strip character (see page 153), and "Mozart's Skull" of the same year, with Donald Duck and a human skull. In 1995 he made several large renderings of Duck in blue monochrome, followed by a Mickey (1996), which measures over three meters across. The artist's ongoing preoccupation with the Mouse and the Duck is worth noting. He admires the animated creatures' vitality and multiplicity of expression, and does not seem concerned about the strangely asexual notions of the Disney families nor with the capitalist entrepreneurship of the Duck family, nor the exploitation of the imagination of the young and impressionable by the synthetic Hollywood dream machine.
It is true, of course, that major artists have for a long time been involved in popular art, often at the beginning of their careers. Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard were among the finest designers of art nouveau travel posters. Both Matisse and Picasso designed French travel posters. Giacomo Balla, preceded by James Ensor, incorporated graffiti in his paintings. Kurt Schwitters, master of detritus, used everything from used train tickets to comic strips in his Merz collages, and Richard Lindner spent many years as an illustrator and art director before turning to painting. Andy Warhol designed shoe advertisements; James Rosenquist made big billboards for Times Square; Lyonel Feininger, followed by Öyvind Fahlstrom and Robert Crumb, actually produced comic strips; and Roy Lichtenstein based his early work on the comics, while Claes Oldenburg in the early 1970s designed the Maus Museum in honor of the great animator. Helnwein then clearly belongs to a viable tradition in modern art, a tradition in total opposition to the formalist and puritanical construct of a critic like Clement Greenberg, who juxtaposed avant-garde with kitsch, proclaiming that a work of art must transcend the chaos of modern life.
The very essence of postmodernism is the interconnectedness that erases boundaries between different aspects of culture, whether high or low, in favor of creating polymorphous paradigms of multicultural values. Rarely, however, has an artist so thoroughly inverted Walter Benjamin's misgivings about lack of authenticity and the aura of uniqueness of a work of art in the era of mechanical reproduction. Helnwein has done this by embracing all the possibilities of technological processes to bring art to the widest possible public. To this end, he uses offset lithography, posters, magazine covers, photographs, and large murals in the public area. By his carefully calculated appearance and dress he even makes his own person into a popular idol.
Early Years, Education and Rebellion
Gottfried Helnwein looks back at his education in a Catholic gymnasium as a catastrophe, and his goal has been largely to undermine and destroy the repressive system based on the hateful intolerance instilled by the Christian religion, which he considers the primary source of fascism. He completely despised and rejected the school system and his only desire was to paint. He abandoned school and was admitted to the Experimental Institute of Higher Graphic Instruction in 1965 — an institution that was anything but experimental; instruction proved to be totally traditional and conformist. In rebellion against these constraints, Helnwein cut his hand with a razor blade and with his own blood drew a picture of Adolf Hitler, which outraged the school administration and made the young artist aware for the first time of the potency of a picture. Soon thereafter he was dismissed from the school.
Rejecting the art tradition of the Establishment and believing in the primitive power of Trivial Art as a counter-aesthetic concept, Helnwein wanted to be admitted to the Vienna Academy of Art, where he could work autonomously in the great ateliers.
He had heard of Rudolf Hausner, on the Academy's faculty, and also the oldest member of the school of fantastic realism, one of the major trends in Viennese art in the postwar period. The other original artists of this group were Arik Brauer, Ernst Fuchs, Wolfgang Hutter, and Anton Lehmden. They had worked in the rubble of the destroyed and divided city, finding the substance of their art in dream, imagination, and fantasy. Most were students of Albert Paris Gütersloh at the Vienna Academy; they also looked at the work of Albrecht Altdorfer and other Renaissance masters of the Danube school. They admired Persian miniature painting and were very much aware of the surrealists, particularly Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and René Magritte. But rather than searching for the unconscious and the "pure psychic automatisms" without recourse to conscious thought advocated by André Breton, they explored personal symbols and actually have a greater affinity with symbolist painters of the fin de siècle. By the early 1960s this group, together with Friedensreich Hundertwasser, whose work is distantly related to theirs, had achieved international recognition.
At this time the international tachist movement, dominant among the Academy faculty, was represented in Vienna by artists largely sponsored by Monsignor Mauer at the Galerie St. Stephan: Austrian artists such as Wolfgang Hollegha, Josef Mikl, Markus Prachensky and the early Arnulf Rainer.
Rainer, an artist whom Helnwein holds in high esteem, was also at the time connected to the group that became known as Wiener Aktionismus. Sigmund Freud's city, sometimes referred to as the breeding ground of neurosis, gave birth to this group of artists Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler who felt that the tachism, or action painting, they saw in the galleries could lead to direct and actual life action on the part of the artists, an attitude they shared with other artists in Europe (Mathieu, Klein), Japan (Gutai) and the U.S.A. (Happenings, Performances). Kristine Stiles has described the confrontational and cathartic aspects of these artist-actions:
"Systematically assaulting repressive sexual mores, hypocritical religious values, the overt destruction of war, and the covert physical and psychological violence of the family, they created confrontational, often sadomasochistic and misogynistic, actions aimed at visualizing pain as a means of catharsis for healing. Scandalous in form and content, their art led repeatedly to arrest, fines, and imprisonment."
One artist, Schwarzkogler, who used bandaged figures for performances dealing with castration, wounding, and healing, died in his twenties in a fall, perhaps intentional, from his apartment window.
The Aktionists came to the attention of the art world (and the police) only in the early 1970s, after Nitsch began his bloody performances of the "Orgies Mysteries Theater" in Schloss Prinzenhof near Vienna. The young Gottfried Helnwein was not aware of these events. As a result of his rebellious attitude towards traditional art he had isolated himself from the art world. He had never looked at an art book or magazine, never gone to a museum to see an exhibition but he had decided that he did want to go to the Academy and develop his own kind of art.
To gain admission in 1969 he presented a painting titled "Osterwetter." Painted in soft colors and evoking a melancholy mood, it pictured two children who look very much like dolls; they have been playing with a knife with which one has killed the other. Surely, this imagery must have had its source in the pictures of bloody martyrdom that the artist was raised with in the church. This initial painting, rather naive in execution, was praised highly by Rudolf Hausner, who at once accepted Helnwein in his class. Hausner, the only professor at the Academy who was not an abstract painter, permitted his students total freedom, explaining:
"Nothing falsifies the teaching process more than the attempt to project the work of the teacher on the student. As I find myself in a permanent state of self-analysis in my work, I am not likely to confuse it with that of the student. I therefore never speak about my work. The relationship is solely predicated on the special condition of the student; and I work with him on nothing but his personal development."
Helnwein for the first time in his life felt free to do and work as he pleased. Yet he still objected to the school's heavy authoritarian atmosphere and hierarchic organization. He must by now have been aware of the wave of student rebellion which had spread from Berkeley to New York, Paris and Prague in 1969. Swept up by the spirit of the time, he and a few friends, wanting to affirm themselves, organized their own carefully planned "Anarchist Aktion" against the Academy's antiquated admission system. They used fire extinguishers, stink bombs, and profuse smoke; they burnt doors, threw windows into the schoolyard. Though nobody was injured, general panic ensued, and the resulting publicity revealed the students' objections.
As part of his continuing protest against the establishment, and to remind Austria of the recent past, toward which the country maintained a policy of official denial, Helnwein once more painted a portrait of Hitler and entered it in a student show, together with early watercolors of bandaged children. But the Hitler painting engendered many admiring responses from the public hardly surprising given the nation's complicit silence about the Nazi era.
In 1972 Helnwein, still a student, performed his first Aktion pieces, art-theater works documented with photographs. Like much of his other art, they focused on children who were often bandaged and had wounds inflicted with surgical instruments. These Aktion events are part of a modernist tradition: art as acts of defiance against the Establishment.
Art-theater goes back to futurist "scenographics", to Dada events in Zurich, to Mayakovski's revolutionary Agit-props and on to the performances of the 1960s. Unlike the slightly earlier Viennese Aktionist artists, Helnwein did not use children's bodies as aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) objects, or as part of physical-sexual display. His intent was to provoke a sense of outrage against the odious and generally accepted treatment of the child as society's easy victim. He continued his Aktion performances until 1976, when he performed "Aktion Always Prepared." Here he appeared lying in the street with a bandaged head; a passing woman or child tried to assist him, but most passers-by walked on apathetically, ignoring the presumed accident victim at their feet.
The artist also saw himself as victim and martyr. As early as 1970 he had started to paint and photograph himself in an ongoing series of self-portraits, some of them life-size with bandages around his head and forks and surgical instruments piercing his mouth or cheek. Frequently the distortions of these tormented images make it difficult to recognize Helnwein's face. He appears as a screaming man, mirroring the frightening aspects of life: a twentieth-century Man of Sorrows. His frozen cry, showing the artist in a state of implacable trauma, recalls Edvard Munch's "Scream" and Francis Bacon's screaming popes. The cry in Helnwein's self-portraits is so loud that the viewer not only sees the paintings - he seems to hear them too.
Some of Helnwein's grimacing faces also recall the grotesque and wild physiognomic distortions quite possibly also self-portraits by the eccentric eighteenth-century Viennese sculptor Franz Xavier Messerschmidt. They could also be seen as part of the Austrian pictorial tradition that resurfaced in the perturbed and distorted expressionist faces painted by Kokoschka and Egon Schiele before World War I, reappearing in the exaggerated wild mimicry in Arnulf Rainer's "Face Farces."
Helnwein's related desire for self-exposure is manifested in a long series of self-portraits as victim and victimizer. The earliest, a photograph of 1970, prepared the ground for a watercolor on cardboard of 1977. Depicting the artist's bust and head standing in splendid isolation against a background of a vast blue sky, it has the connotation of a modern icon. These self-portraits continued, altered in many versions. They served as magazine covers and posters. Later the artist incorporated his self-portraits into some of his fragmented and ambiguous triptychs of the 1980s and 1990s. In a series entitled "Untermensch" (Sub-Human), referring again to Nazi racial theory and practice, he created many versions of his persona as bloodied martyr, as Nazi officer, as romantic hero, warrior, tank commander, mummy, guerrilla fighter, night wanderer, and concealed witness.
Always self-assertive and preoccupied with his own image, Helnwein relates to the self-transformations by Cindy Sherman and her various invented guises, disguises, disfigurements, and appropriated images she uses to refer to her own persona. In a cibachrome photograph of 1987 entitled "Icarus," Helnwein wears a uniform, a green headband, and dark glasses with blood running down his face as he holds out his arm, beckoning the viewer. By 1988, in individual canvases and triptychs, his face all but disappears in layers of oil and acrylic of red or white abstractions, or it may reassert itself as a metallic mechanical object ("Self-Portrait No. 12," 1988).
Drawings and Watercolors
Toward the end of his academic studies, Helnwein produced line drawings in pencil. "Boys," "The Intrusion," "Me and You," and "Dr. Dotter" (all of 1972) are caricatures, funny people with long noses and droll expressions, which indicate his sources in the comic strip. Then a major change becomes evident in his work. In 1975 he began a series of extraordinary drawings in which he established his personal calligraphy. Hair-thin lines create thorny thickets on the page, often resulting in networks of spider webs of myriad penciled marks. They are drawn, scratched, and, at times, scraped on transparent and/or smooth paper. The result often resembles carefully executed etchings. The hard and brittle lines also create dramatic light effects, and in some of these visionary drawings, the light source appears to be within a person or object.
Generally drawings make us more aware of the physical act of making a picture than does painting, but rarely is the process of structuring and restructuring as visible as it is in Helnwein's drawings of the 1970s. The result is a mysterious set of works depicting people often engaged in bewildering activities. They are placed or confined in rectangular empty rooms. Many of them are equipped with strange fixtures and implements, or are subjected to perplexing actions. Some are wearing bishops' miters, or bandages, or masks that hide their faces. There are pipes and troughs and pits into which a person is likely to fall or be submerged. Above all, there is a mysterious light that reveals and conceals figures.
At first glance, the events depicted in these drawings do not seem as strange as they become on longer perusal. Like surrealist art, these drawings cannot be subjected to the rules of logic. They depict nightmares and dreams, danger and threat. It seems most fitting that Helnwein was commissioned in 1979 to furnish illustrations for a German edition of Edgar Allan Poe's macabre tales.8 The exquisite drawings in this book, with their sensitive treatment of blacks, whites, and greys, have a chiaroscuro effect reminiscent of Rembrandt's etchings.
Helnwein's drawings are essays in black humor and personal satire. W. H. Auden once remarked that satire is both angry and optimistic, postulating evil and also its potential arrogation. Helnwein's drawings embody both a sense of gruesome phantasmagoria and possible hope. To find historical precedents, we must look at Goya's "Caprichos." Here the Spanish artist of the Enlightenment pictured man's incongruities, injustices, stupidities, and cruelties, hoping that these depictions might help people to replace superstition with reason. Closer to home are the visionary and hallucinatory drawings by the Austrian artist Alfred Kubin, known for his fictive, baffling, and, at times, violent drawings. An original member of the Blue Rider group, he was banished by the Nazis as punishment for being a "degenerate artist," but continued working in isolation. In 1959, the year of his death, the Galerie St. Stephan in Vienna mounted a memorial exhibition for Kubin, who once again became a well-known artist in Austria.
Intimately related to Helnwein's Aktion pieces of the early 1970s were his series of watercolors, such as the previously mentioned "Life not Worth Living" and the earlier "Embarrassing." He devised a unique dry watercolor technique that employed the minimum of water (the opposite of the typical wet watercolors done by Emil Nolde, for example). Helnwein applied pigment with the thinnest brush and was able to achieve illusionistic light effects by scratching with a razor blade into the paint. In "Mean Child" (1970), possibly the earliest work in the series, he presents a frontal head of a girl, eyes staring at the viewer, blood emerging from her mouth and a gash across her cheek. Various parts of her face are labeled with captions: "Lewd," "Improper," "Careless," "Happy to Be Punished," or "Talking about Sex." This watercolor by the 22-year-old artist evokes a sense of melancholy that pervades much of his work. The theme of the girl as victim is seen in disquieting watercolors such as "Little Correction" (1971), "Embarrassing" (1971), and "The Intrusion" (1972). The last depicts a young blonde girl strapped to a table while an enormous shiny metal tube is forced into her mouth. Helnwein's drawing of a man thrusting a girl's mouth open with strong hands is seen hanging on the wall behind the main scene of cruelty. One of the most successful pictures in the series is "Sunday's Child" (1972): Here an apparently happy, smiling blonde girl, her tongue playfully sticking out, holds some chocolates in her hand as she stands in front of a store that has food ads on its window, much as one would see at such a store or in a pop painting. A cute little duckling holding an ice cream cone smiles as it walks along the sidewalk. As you look more closely, you see that the child wears the identifying armband of the blind, and that blood runs down her leg. We do a double-take: what does it mean? Is she menstruating early in life? Was she raped? As Helnwein so often does, here he provokes shock, horror, and the dread of violence.
In his extensive interview with Andreas Mäckler, Helnwein remarked: "I am aware that individuals on this planet are badly abused and maltreated, that they are deeply injured and suppressed, and that it is all covered up with optimistic propaganda. A long time before I began painting, I had the impression that mankind is in a bad state, that nobody lives without pain even if this is repressed, and that there is evidently a longing to overcome this and to rise above it. Especially my early pictures deal with these concerns and hold them up to the viewer."
The artist was also preoccupied with the image of a young girl with bandaged head and hand. She appears in a series of watercolors done in the softest of muted colors, with a predominant pale, greyish blue. "Beautiful Victim I" (1974) shows the girl lying on the floor in sunlight. In "Beautiful Victim II" (1974), she stands by a window, and in the last work of the series, "Red Mouth" (1978), we see her with forehead and chin in surgical dressing, stretched out on a white bolster and wearing a white shirt and red lipstick. Her eyes closed, she seems to be sleeping, dreaming, or suffering. This poignant picture resonates with intimations of deep pain. It is work of great sadness, reminding us of Nietzsche's remark that the "authenticity of the creative artist can supply meaning to the despair and absurdity of existence."
Photographs, Theater Designs
Helnwein, who had been using the camera to document his street actions and for self-portraiture, concentrated on photography as a major medium in his work in the early 1980s. He decided to take photographic portraits of icons of contemporary culture, both high and low, that he was particularly interested in. In 1982 he went to London to meet with the Rolling Stones, with whom he had identified when a youth in Vienna; there he took a somber photograph of Mick Jagger.
In his early photographic portraits, Helnwein's personal style becomes evident. His portraits are not idealized images like those of Edward Steichen, or grandly composed portraits, like those of Arnold Newman, who both photographed artists, composers, and writers in relation to their work. They also differ from Robert Mapplethorpe's smooth and highly finished portraits, but do relate to the incisive and poignant portraits by Richard Avedon.
Helnwein does not do his own darkroom work, nor does he manipulate the printed images, but takes advantage of the camera as an instrument for observation. He was able to examine the faces of his sitters in isolation and to focus on specific details.
Susan Sontag, in her frequently quoted essay "On Photography," sees the medium as "a powerful instrument for depersonalizing the world." This may well be true in the case of war photographs, which she cites as an example. It certainly does not apply to portraitists like Avedon and Helnwein.
Photography equipped Helnwein with a means of constructing a picture in a manner different from painting, and permitted new possibilities in the visual relationship between artist and model: the photographer can become a participant and an observer. Helnwein made an outstanding series of photos of Andy Warhol in 1983, four years before the artist's early death. Warhol, above all, had "deghettoized" photography and had shattered the traditional hierarchy that defined "art." Helnwein's portraits of him do not show the young man of easy elegance and indifferent mien, but a tragic figure facing death.
There are very few other pictures of painters among Helnwein's photographs, but pop painter Roy Lichtenstein appears, with sly, smiling eyes, and so does Keith Haring as a young man, a quizzical but intense expression on his face. The majority of the photos are of rock stars, such as Michael Jackson (beautifully coiffured), Lou Reed, and Keith Richards. The latter, prominently displaying his skull ring, Helnwein referred to as a man with "the face of a redeemer." Of course there is also the friendly face of the Disney animator Carl Barks, and one of a very relaxed Billy Wilder. There are portraits of Peter Ludwig, the foremost collector of modern art, and of the leading gallerist, a tired-looking Leo Castelli. Important political figures appear: Willy Brandt, Lech Walesa, and Simon Wiesenthal; the actors Clint Eastwood, looking somewhat wary, and Maximilian Schell, with an intense expression.
A good many writers are also included: the Austrian poet H. C. Artmann, and the East German author Heiner Müller. Helnwein had an affinity with the writings of William S. Burroughs and photographed him in Lawrence, Kansas, the unlikely place to which the exotic novelist had repaired in his old age. Burroughs insisted on bringing his revolver to the sitting, and Helnwein portrayed him with eyes closed and a sinister expression that evokes the sense of grim horror communicated in his writings. In the introduction to the catalogue of Helnwein's "Faces" for the Museum Ludwig in Cologne (1992), Burroughs stated:
"It is the function of the artist to evoke the experience of surprised recognition: to show the viewer what he knows but does not know he knows. Helnwein is a master of surprised recognition."
Helnwein was also fascinated by Norman Mailer's life and work; he met him at a PEN conference in New York, and photographed him in his summer home in Provincetown. Mailer's alert face, outlined by an aureole of white hair, squints into the sunlight. Like so many of these photographs, it is a brilliant study of black and white. Light is, in fact, a principle signifier in Helnwein's photos. Mailer considers him to be "one of the few exciting painters we have today."
Gottfried Helnwein also wanted to take photographs of "the last witnesses who were close to the center of power, which caused the catastrophe," and photographed the two leading artists responsible for the dominating aesthetics of the Third Reich. Arnold Breker, Hitler's favorite sculptor, had created bronze colossi of heroic nude male figures for major Nazi buildings figures in a corrupted classical guise and embodying the ideal of strength and power of the new pure Germany. One of the Helnwein photographs shows the aged sculptor with a suspicious expression and holding a watercolor portrait of Joseph Beuys painted by Helnwein in 1982. Breker tried to justify his Fascist activities to Helnwein by claiming that like Renaissance artists, he simply worked on commissions for the reigning powers. He claimed that he almost went to the Soviet Union on a similar assignment from Stalin, and that he also might have taken a commission for a huge sculpture monument, to be called "Liberated Africa," offered by the government of the Ivory Coast.
In 1990, Helnwein also took a stunning photo of Leni Riefenstahl, a very old lady with a slight smirk on her face. She was the film maker who had directed the great propaganda spectacles of the Nazi party, which glorified the power of the Führer and celebrated the disciplined male body. Both artists, not unlike Adolf Eichmann, pleaded that by discharging their commissions, they were really only following orders, and that they had no political agendas of their own.
Helnwein also used his photographs of popular icons for hagiographic paintings or magazine covers; these images differ perceptibly from the original photograph; he proceeded similarly with photos of idols of the twentieth century, such as Marilyn Monroe, Joseph Beuys, and Marlene Dietrich, with whom he worked on a book about Berlin in 1991. There was also the portrait of James Dean that pictured the juvenile movie idol walking alone through slush in the early morning hours in a deserted Times Square. It became one of the painter's most popular works.
In 1990, Helnwein made a large assemblage of paintings based on photographs. Called "48 Portraits," it depicts 48 women of achievement. Done in muted reds, it is the artist's response to Gerhard Richter's well-known "48 Portraits" of twenty years earlier, in black and white, and limited solely to males.
Helnwein's reputation in Austria became confirmed when Walter Koschatzky, director of the Albertina, mounted a major solo exhibition in 1985 for the 37-year-old artist at Vienna's great graphics museum. But the following year Helnwein left Austria, that tightly wrapped country where he had always felt alienated, and settled in a castle in the foothills of the Eifel Mountains south of Cologne.
Two years earlier, the Municipal Museum in Munich had organized a Helnwein solo show that attracted over 100 000 visitors. One of them was Peter Zadek, one of Germany's most original and provocative theater directors, who asked him to make a poster for John Hopkins's "Loosing Time" for the Hamburger Schauspielhaus. In 1988, he made his controversial "Lulu" poster, which showed a little man dressed in a heavy overcoat gazing at a girl's naked crotch. A minor scandal ensued when the mayor of Hamburg protested, accusing Zadek and Helnwein of pornography. Also in 1988, however, the artist began designing sets and costumes for a series of brilliant productions by the choreographer and director Hans Kresnik, including "Macbeth," "King Lear," and "Oedipus" in Heidelberg, and "Marat/Sade" in Stuttgart. His vanguard designs for "Carmina Burana" for the Munich Staatsoper, however, were rejected on grounds of being too radical for the Bavarian capital. In 1996 Helnwein did the designs for a great production of Pasolini in Hamburg.
Public Art and Triptychs
In the late 1980s, the artist felt the need for work on a larger scale in the public domain. In November 1988, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the vandalism, destruction, and killing of Kristallnacht (9 November 1938), Helnwein installed 17 pictures of young boys and girls. We are accustomed to seeing pictures of smiling children with sparkling eyes. But these grim, iconic faces, no less than four meters high, face the viewer with expressions of grief. The artist sprayed the images with paint in a process called scannachrome. He mounted them in a 100-meter-long line on a wall between Cologne's main railroad station and its famous cathedral a space through which thousands of people pass each day.
The work was highly controversial. Having been unable to find a sponsor, the artist had to do it at his own expense. But this powerful photographic testimony provoked an examination of Nazi atrocities and was widely published in the press and on television. Within a few days, some of the pictures had been slashed by angry citizens and one panel was stolen. Simon Wiesenthal, writing in the catalogue of this exhibition, was moved to say: "People, please stop . . . look at these children's faces, multiply them by a few hundred thousand. Only then will you realize an inkling of the extent of the Holocaust, of the greatest tragedy."
Helnwein continued to paint heads of children related to the "Kristallnacht" installation, and he created a painting on a heroic scale, "Kindskopf," for a Gothic church in Krems/Stein in Lower Austria in the spring of 1991. This work, six meters high, was installed at the end of the nave in the great arch of the church, the place that once separated the monks from the congregation. Pictures by three of Helnwein's four children, Ali Elvis, Amadeus, and Mercedes, were mounted on the columns and exhibited in the church for the duration of the installation. "Kindskopf" is now permanently placed in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
At about the same time the painter made "White Christmas" (1992), one of his rare works in three dimensions. Done in plaster with pollen sprayed on the surface, it is a group of 48 children without faces. They are not merely standing in space, but appear to crowd in on the unsuspecting viewer. Helnwein works on many programs simultaneously. In the late 1980s he also began a series of large triptychs. The triptych, which frequently served as the sacred altarpiece in Northern medieval churches, was revived as an art form in the late nineteenth century by artists such as Hans von Marées and found its culmination in the nine great triptychs by Max Beckmann. Helnwein's "The Silent Glow of the Avant-Garde" (1986) relates to this German tradition. Its centerpiece is a reproduction of Caspar David Friedrich's "The Sea of Ice" (1823-24), a painting that referred directly to the wreck of the ship "Hope" in its attempt to discover the passage to the North Pole. But in keeping with Friedrich's existential and religious pessimism, the work alludes more generally to the manifestation of fate and destructive forces in nature. Gottfried Helnwein included his own image, with blood on headband and shirt, on either side of the ship, which has been destroyed by blocks of ice. It responds to Friedrich's romantic painting in which human endeavor is vanquished by nature, with a contemporary version of defeat.
Caspar David Friedrich, a professor at the Dresden Academy, was closely associated with the Dresden circle of Romantic poets. More than a century later, in February 1945, Dresden, one of the world's most beautiful cities, was destroyed by Allied firebombing. Helnwein used a picture of the devastated city as the center panel of the triptych "Song of the Deputies" (1996). The side panels show self-portraits of the artist with a bandage over his head and eyes, and a harrowing clamp between his tongue and nose.
The blue monochrome lends a new sense of magical distance to his work; the color became predominant during the last decade. An ingenious "Annunciation" of 1991 depicts a young girl sitting on her bed and watching a TV screen from which, as in Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo," the white shadow of an angel emerges, beckoning toward the presumptive virgin. In "Night III" (1990), also a monochrome but created and developed on a computer then transferred to canvas by an ink-jet process before being overpainted with acrylic and oil, the child stands in front of the television set while two chilling men, whose faces have been rubbed out to make them indistinct, sit next to her. "Night II" of the same year shows soldiers running in the dark of night toward their own death. The portrait of his son, "Ali Elvis" (1991), is a poignant image of a solitary figure. The different tones of blue provide a mysterious glow to the child's body and his head, with its closed eyes. In the same year Helnwein painted two large canvases, "Fire-Man" and "Ice-Man," in blue monotone, both based on photographs of men who were wounded in World War I. He painted these disfigured faces with an out-of-focus blur that creates images of powerful presence.
Occasionally the artist made use of color, as in the huge triptych, six meters in width, "Vienna Panorama" (1995). It shows the artist surrounded by his paints, solvents, and brushes, as he paints a grand panorama of his native city.
For eight years, from 1988 to 1996, the artist worked on a large blue monochrome, "Turkish Family," with seven people occupying the same room and appearing to sit for their photo. This social comment plumbs the deep division between the Germans and the immigrant Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest workers). There is a Turkish woman with four children the boys wearing Mickey Mouse caps on one side of the room, looking at the viewer as if he were behind the camera, while two German ladies, appearing very suburban in their short skirts, literally look down their noses at the immigrant family. To add to the confounding of this disparate group, there are three computers, their screens placed at random in the room.
Working with totally different subjects, Helnwein made the triptych "3 Poets" in 1994. They are portraits of Goethe, Heine, and Thomas Mann. The former two are based on famous painted portraits of the poets, the latter on a well-known photograph of Mann. It seems that Helnwein wanted to recapture the images of the classicist, the idealist, and the rationalist among great German writers.
Between 1994 and 1996 Helnwein made a series of perhaps a hundred dark-blue monochromes, which he entitled "Fire." These paintings, done in oil and acrylic and based on photographs of writers, painters, poets, composers, scientists, film makers, political activists, actors, philosophers, and pop stars, are depictions of the rebels of the twentieth century who were going against the current of the established culture of their time. These portraits are painted in the darkest blue, with a veil over the faces, making them exceedingly difficult to detect, even in daylight. They create a sense of ineffable ambiguity, and it takes time and attention to raise the faces into recognition of their identity. The obscurity of the images makes for a significant continuity between the invisible and the visible in these paintings.
With enough distance from his childhood, both in time and feeling, Helnwein was eventually able to respond to his religious upbringing in a different way. Instead of martyrs, he now avails himself of themes like the Virgin mourning over Christ's dead body or the Madonna and Child always with the purpose of making the viewer reexamine the authority of traditional values.
The large "Pieta Lutz" (1994) depicting a father with his son stretched out on his lap, is a painting of close friends of the artist. As its name implies, it also reflects on Christian iconography. Here we have a masculine Pieta with homoerotic connotations questioning the archetypal Christian symbolism. Related to this painting is the series of dark-blue Madonna paintings. This group actually began with works in pencil, like "Virgin with Pinocchio after Bronzino," and another drawing of the Madonna with a mutilated Christ Child, after a painting by Mantegna. In 1996, again using the computer-painting and ink-jet method, Helnwein painted a series of Madonnas in which he adopted images of the Virgin and Child taken from well-known paintings by Leonardo or Caravaggio and transferred them onto the canvas, then overpainting the image with oil and acrylic, leaving it all in monochrome darkness. In these works, the paint subsumes and becomes coexistent with the photograph; it becomes a new signifier, which inverts the familiar images. The Madonna paintings no doubt presented themselves quite intuitively to this former Catholic, and they led to Helnwein's significant "Epiphany" of 1996. This large (210 x 33 cm) painting in blue monochrome depicts the Adoration of the Magi. But the Madonna is a young maiden of pure Aryan blood, and presents a Christ Child who looks like a young Adolf Hitler, and the Wise Men all wear well-tailored SS and Reichswehr uniforms, Nazi officials decorated with the Iron Cross. They stand attentively, with approving respect, next to the Virgin. The most prominent Nazi holds a document in his hands, while the soldier on the right seems to examine the child, perhaps to see whether he is circumcised. It is a powerful and very enigmatic painting, done with the eyes and brush of a realist painter.
In 1998 Helnwein expects to enlarge this work to enormous size and display a version of it at the Königsplatz, the grand neo-Grecian square that also served as the center for Nazis' mass meetings and ostentatious rituals, and which Hitler called the "community space for the Volk."
Much like Joseph Beuys, who opened new, unexpected, and far-reaching spheres for art, Gottfried Helnwein has made works that extend beyond the art scene into the social and political realm. Like his predecessor, he has moved beyond the realm of pure aesthetics, engaging his art into the everyday world. Furthermore, his principal interest is not to express personal feelings and emotions, but to make statements that go beyond the individual. He wants to see his work not trapped on the walls of museums and galleries, but revealed in the public domain. He expects his work to intervene in the social sphere and to have a direct impact on the life of his time. For this to occur, the viewer must, of course, respond to the artist's work, which is, after all, only half of the process of communication. Helnwein's paintings and photographs, so acute in their message, indeed facilitate our participation as viewers, which is necessary to complete the transmission. Using a profusion of mediums, Gottfried Helnwein leads us into an area of controversial reflection.
Professor Emeritus, Department of Art History, University of California, Berkeley, Former Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum, has written extensively on contemporary art and culture, with books and articles on modern political art, Impressionism, art nouveau, German Expressionist painting, Max Beckmann, Bruce Beasley, Barbara ChaseRiboud, Eduardo Chillida, Jean Dubuffet, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Sam Francis, Alberto Giacometti, Ferdinand Hodler, Dimitri Hadzi, Gottfried Helnwein, Richard Lindner, John McLaughlin, Emil Nolde, Nathan Oliveira, Harold Paris, Mark Rothko, and Brian Wall.
DER KÜNSTLER ALS PROVOKATEUR, Peter Selz, German Translation
• Page 11-98
• Peter Selz, Professor Emeritus, Department of Art History, University of California, Berkeley, Former Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Founding Director of the Berkeley Art Museum
• Translation English/German: Jeannette Hark
• Copyright 1998 Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH
• Printed in China
• ISBN 3-8290-14-18-1
• 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 -1 1
=> DER KÜNSTLER ALS PROVOKATEUR, Peter Selz, German Translation