1 styczeń 2011
Crocker Art Museum Sacramento
Curator: Diana L. Daniels
Associate Curator
An Inferno of Innocence
Gottfried Helnwein - Inferno of the Innocents, retrospective at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, January 29 - April 24, 2011
The obvious vulnerability of the subject makes this unusually unsettling imagery. That the scene is playacted is obvious. Based on a photograph staged by the artist, the subject of this watercolor and its details are theatrical inventions. The wrapping is ad hoc, the medical tubing ersatz, and the twine superfluous. Helnwein has successfully tapped into our deep aversion to damage to the flesh, made more acute by the subject’s youth. In one sense the bandaged head is an artifact of twentieth-century warfare, one that gained visual resonance through newsprint photography, which made the casualties of war graphic and real for the masses. In another sense, the bandaged, although not often bloodied invalid, is a visual trope, robbed of its graphic nature by having been reduced to a commonplace in cinema and television. What Helnwein succeeds in doing with Beautiful Victim I is to make us see afresh and react before we can safely square away the image.
The innocence and wonder of childhood idyll are a matter of advocacy for artist Gottfried Helnwein. Helnwein, who was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1948, grew up in a world where childhood was inextricably shaped by the aftermath of World War II. During the war, Austrians supported the German war effort and many were loyal to Hitler, who annexed Austria as a German province in 1938. In the post-war period, a fog of denial shrouded Austria, both for its role in the War and the Holocaust. It was against this background of malaise that Helnwein and his generation inherited what may be best described as a fundamental lack of openness. Its implications offered the themes for Helnwein’s earliest drawings and paintings, which by the 1980s had brought the artist notoriety and respect as an important figure in contemporary European art.
Helnwein grew up in a middle class family, was educated at a Catholic gymnasium, and knew earlier than most what he wanted to do. A general lack of lightness tinged his childhood, describing not only the somberness of the period in which he was raised, but also the strict discipline of his schooling and religious instruction. The latter combination brought out in him a rebellious nature eager to question everything. By university age, Helnwein and many of his generation found tradition and conformity suspect, but unlike the same generation in the United States, the social and spiritual burdens of material culture mattered far less. Simply put, the war was not far enough behind them.
Helnwein studied painting at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. From, 1969–1973, he studied realist painting with the artist Rudolf Hausner. Hausner allowed Helnwein free reign and encouraged exploration. During this period, Helnwein developed a clearer sense of personal purpose along with the determination that his role as an artist ought to influence others. Helnwein believes that the artist has the responsibility that American realist painter Jack Levine articulated “to defend the innocent and flay the guilty.” As in Michael Fried’s study of Thomas Eakin’s realistic portrayal of surgery in the The Gross Clinic (1875), Helnwein’s realism bares comparison with “those moments in the history of that tradition when tactics of shock, violence, perceptual distortion, and physical outrage were mobilized against prevailing conventions of the representation of the human body specifically in order to produce a new and stupefyingly powerful experience of the ‘real.’”
The peculiar challenge facing Helnwein in creating this powerful experience was how to do so in an era saturated with images. His immediate goal was not to shock for shock’s sake. His aim was to create imagery that caused others to feel empathy where they had none, feel sorrow where they were otherwise emotionally contained, and feel responsibility where they might more readily blame others. Helnwein took as his subject the child.
For the artist, the reasoning is clear. No member of society is more vulnerable. Their innocence is absolute, the obligation to nurture, not destroy, profound. The earliest of Helnwein’s drawings and watercolors on the theme offer a surprising ambiguity when studied closely. In the watercolor Beautiful Victim I (1974), a young girl, who appears barely of school age, lies in her dress on the floor. [FIGURE 1] Her head is swathed in white gauze that all but conceals her face. Medical tape holds in place a glass tube that protrudes from under her wrappings to rest just below her lips. The entire fabrication is held together, from the crown of her head to under the chin, by a tautly pulled piece of twine.
The obvious vulnerability of the subject makes this unusually unsettling imagery. That the scene is playacted is obvious. Based on a photograph staged by the artist, the subject of this watercolor and its details are theatrical inventions. The wrapping is ad hoc, the medical tubing ersatz, and the twine superfluous. Helnwein has successfully tapped into our deep aversion to damage to the flesh, made more acute by the subject’s youth. In one sense the bandaged head is an artifact of twentieth-century warfare, one that gained visual resonance through newsprint photography, which made the casualties of war graphic and real for the masses. In another sense, the bandaged, although not often bloodied invalid, is a visual trope, robbed of its graphic nature by having been reduced to a commonplace in cinema and television. What Helnwein succeeds in doing with Beautiful Victim I is to make us see afresh and react before we can safely square away the image.
Not all of the early images of children are meant to disturb; some are more rational than emotional in order to provoke reflection. This is evident in the series of photographs titled Self-portrait of the Artist as a Six-Year-Old Girl from 1972. [FIGURE 2] Here, again, a young girl serves as the model for these black-and-white images. Like the later watercolor, the girl appears bandaged, her forehead and nose bearing evidence of some form of medical treatment. The subtlety is the transfiguration of the adult male artist into the fragile child. To think of the adult with all of his ambitions, motivations, and complexities as the powerless and dependent child alters the reading of the work. The point is no longer the general victimization of children, but of the artist’s identification with their status and his own feelings of vulnerability in the world. This identification more than anything has inspired the artist to visit and revisit such themes in his work.
It is important to realize that satire, too, had its place in Helnwein’s early work, especially during the 1970s and 80s, tending as it did toward the dark, or at least the absurdist. This was particularly appropriate to the political realities of the Cold War. Satire increasingly provoked where earnestness failed. That a particular portrayal of the self as an “other” being might subvert established ideas of the role of realism in art was a concept Helnwein embraced. He purposefully made himself unrecognizable, even monstrous, dousing himself in black, blue, or red paint, binding his eyes with bent forks, stretching his mouth with metal implements, and gagging himself with bandages. This was the freedom the artist alone could stake. The notion is romantic in nature, but nonetheless pertinent. Only a radical creativity might stir any hint of a new reaction to realism.
Helnwein’s prodigious career has now spanned nearly forty years. Today, in large-scale paintings such as The Murmur of the Innocents, a series continuing from 2009 to the present, Helnwein’s paintings appear to be stilled narratives informed by the cinema. In Murmur of the Innocents 3, the young model Helnwein has chosen stands alone against a neutral background. [FIGURE 3] It is a pregnant moment, but isolated in its context. What has or is about to happen takes place elsewhere. The painting is like a single scene that has landed on the cutting room floor. The power of the imagery comes from the manner in which Helnwein trains our eye on the emotions emphatically conveyed by the young female’s face. We are enveloped by calm, but remain anxiety ridden. We want the director to shout cut.
This same quiet, but dread anticipation differentiates Helnwein’s painting from that of likeminded contemporaries using their art as blunter, less evocative tools. He has been visionary in his ability to anticipate the power and the timing of changing strategies of communication. Generations shift as do political and social realities. Helnwein keeps an attentive watch on such things. His current insight is that now is the time to harness wide and generalized feelings of anxiety, pull us out of ourselves, and reckon with the future.
Increasingly, he does so from his Los Angeles studio, which he formally established in 2002. Helnwein recently moved the studio into a former bank in Los Angeles’s Arts District. The building and its potential occupied Helnwein’s imagination for several years beforehand. There is the air of the American past about the new studio with its broad windows, wide, wooden trim, and octagonal porcelain tiles. Exit the studio into another part of the building and the residual taste of an earlier industrial era flavors the scene.
For most of us, this essence comes to us vividly as ersatz memory, instilled by Hollywood movies, the paintings of Edward Hopper, and those remnants of architecture and public infrastructure that yet dot the urban American landscape. This period Helnwein embraces. In paintings such as Downtown 20 (2002) and In the Heat of the Night (2000) Helnwein has absorbed this pre-war aura and used American vernacular architecture dating to the 1930s and 40s as the backdrop to carefully composed, but open-ended narratives. [FIGURES 4 and 5] The dark, monochromatic palette of period Hollywood crime films fits perfectly with the suggestion that is Helnwein’s particular talent.
Whether or not this fascination lends Helnwein a specifically American or Californian identity is a valid question. While so much of his career has unfolded in Austria, Germany, and Ireland, and dealt with issues of the past, the artist is forward looking. It is likely too early to consider him to be a product of the Golden State, nor much to gain from doing so. His personal preference for Los Angeles is complex, but what is clear is the intellectual reason for his being here. Los Angeles is the point of origin for contemporary popular culture, and if not, more often is the case that the entertainment industry is the mechanism by which it streams into the world. There is tremendous influence here, but also vitality because change is constant.
As such, Helnwein is keenly interested in the source. Aesthetics are the means by which Helnwein continues to question our human impulses. Certainly, our wide attraction to popular culture, its products, and its succor, never seems to pass. The addiction to material and popular culture may be the largest threat facing us today. Helnwein hopes that the sublime beauty of his rebuttals to materialism and its serious deficiencies will continue to resonate and affect self-examination. People are forgetful. Helnwein, like Goya, believes in memory.
Diana Daniels
This essay was first published in the catalogue for the solo-exhibition Gottfried Helnwein - "Inferno of the Innocents"at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.
The Murmur of the Innocents 1
mixed media (oil and acrylic on canvas), 2009, 290 cm x 198 cm / 114'' x 77''




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