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Gottfried Helnwein

Gottfried Helnweing (born October 8, 1948 in Vienna) is an Austrian-Irish fine artist, painter, photographer, installation and performance artist.

Helnwein studied at the University of Visual Art in Vienna (German: 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.

Helnwein was offered a chair by the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg in 1982. When his demand to admit also children to study at the university was rejected, he declined. 

In 1983 Helnwein met Andy Warhol, in his Factory in New York City, who posed for a series of photo-sessions.

In 1985 Rudolf Hausner, recommended Helnwein as his successor as professor of the master-class for painting at the University of Visual Art in Vienna, but Helnwein left Vienna and moved to Germany.

The Child

Helnwein’s early work consists mainly of hyper-realistic watercolors, depicting wounded children, as well as photographs and performances – often with children – in public spaces. The bandaged child became the most important figure next to the artist himself allied with him in his actions: the embodiment of the innocent, defenseless individual at the mercy of brute force.

Art historian Peter Gorsen specified the relation between Helnwein’s work and Viennese Actionism:

“Helnwein must be set apart from Viennese Actionism as he does not reduce the child’s body to mere aesthetic material (as in the “material actions” of Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, and Otto Muehl), but instead endows it with a symbolic function in representing defenceless, sacrificed man. The sexualistic concept of the child in (Freud-influenced) Viennese Actionism is countered by the moralist and utopian Helnwein with the child as a sexless salvation figure.”

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 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”

Commenting on that aspect in Helnwein’s work, Julia Pascal wrote in the New Statesman:

“His early watercolor Peinlich (Embarrassing)[40] 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.”

William Burroughs said of Helnwein:

“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 that he knows. Helnwein is a master of surprised recognition.”

Since 2000, Gottfried Helnwein lives and works in Ireland and Los Angeles. 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 screaming 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.

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. (Gregory Fuller, “Endzeit-Stimmung – Düstere Bilder in Goldener Zeit”, Du Mont Publishing House, Cologne, 1994)

The Holocaust

1988 in remembrance of Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) 50 years earlier, Helnwein erected a large installation in the city center of Cologne, between Ludwig Museum and the Cologne Cathedral: Selektion – Neunter November Nacht (“Selektion – Ninth November Night). A four-meter-high, hundred-meter-long picture lane in which the artist recalls the events of Reichskristallnacht, the actual beginning of the Holocaust, on 9 November 1938.

He confronts the passersby with larger-than-life children’s faces lined up in a seemingly endless row, as if for concentration camp selection. Just days into the exhibit, these portraits were vandalized by unknown persons, symbolically cutting the throats of the depicted children’s faces. Helnwein consciously left the panels with the gashes and included them into the presentation, because he decided it made the work stronger and more relevant.

Mitchell Waxman wrote in The Jewish Journal, 2004, 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.”

One of the best known paintings of Helnwein’s oeuvre is Epiphany I – Adoration of the Magi, (1996, oil and acrylic on canvas, 210 cm x 333 cm, collection of the Denver Art Museum). It is part of a series of three paintings: Epiphany I, Epiphany II (Adoration of the Shepherds, de Young Museum, San Francisco), Epiphany III (Presentation at the Temple 2, Albertina Museum, Vienna), created between 1996 and 1998. In Epiphany I, SS officers surround a mother and child group. To judge by their looks and gestures, they appear to be interested in details such as head, face, back and genitals. The arrangement of the figures clearly relates to motive and iconography of the adoration of the three Magi, such as were common especially in the German, Italian and Dutch 15th century artworks.

Julia Pascal wrote about this work in the New Statesman:

“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.”

In 2013, the Albertina Museum in Vienna organised a retrospective of Helnwein’s work, which was seen by 250,000 visitors. This show was the most successful exhibition of a living artist in the history of the Museum.

Klaus Albrecht Schröder, director, of the Albertina Museum stated:

“It is no coincidence, that of all the big retrospectives that we have shown in the Albertina Museum, from Gerhard Richter to Georg Baselitz, this exhibition of Gottfried Helnwein was the exhibition that by far touched people the most, and the one that moved some to tears. I almost couldn’t believe it. But Gottfried Helnwein shakes people at their core, he moves their hearts. And it pleases me, of course, when one can show, that art does not have to be art for art’s sake, that it can have a message, a message which affects people and moves them.”