Editorial: Blood and Oils / Boulevard of Broken Dreams / Dark Canvas - Publication: Dart Magazine - Issue: Spring 2003

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Gottfried Helnwein's huge realist styled paintings often prompt puzzled looks. Its not the artist's poetic juxtaposition of iconic Americana, not his bombastic symbolism, or his graphic portrayals oozing blood and guts, but that the stunning fidelity of his oils and watercolors are so easily mistaken for photography rather than the product of brushstrokes.

Born in 1948 in Vienna, Helnwein felt the society he was raised in was seriously dysfunctional due to Austria's profound denial of its Nazi complicity. His discontent came to a head while attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (the same art school attended by Hitler) in 1965. Asked to sketch yet another classic nude, Helnwein instead took a razor to his fingers and drew a portrait of Adolph Hitler in his own blood. His instructor had him expelled from the college on the grounds that unearthing memories of Hitler's reign could ruin the school's reputation.

"This was the moment when I sensed for the first time that you can change something with aesthetics," Helnwein says. "Art is something precious and personal. To me art has been a weapon, a tool with which I can fight back and defend myself. It's more emotional than intellectual".

Of his key motivation for attending artschool, Helnwein confides, "the good thing about being at the Academy of Fine Art was the fact that you were given a studio. I had no money so it seemed the best thing to do. The first time I saw renaissance art I enjoyed having a lack of knowledge about the art and classic art in general. I found it kind of empowering and liberating. I was more into the trivial art, whether that be cartoons or animation.
Gottfied Helnwein’s diversity is inspiring, a point acknowledged by Author Peter Gorson in the book, ‘Helnwein, Der Untermensch"(Braus Press). "Helnwein doesn’t see himself as a painter, photographer, illustration designer, but rather as being in the vicinity of conceptual art, which tries to eliminate the subjective limitations of the separate visual media. Like Cindy Sherman, he works out a strategy of projective masks and mirror images revealing to the art viewer his own thinking and wishes."

Art critic Klaus Honnef lauded Helnwein as "the legitimate air to Beuys and Warhol, " highlighting his ability to defy the artistic boundaries of the social and political realm."

After posing for a photographic portrait in 1990, William Burroughs said of Helnwein’s work, " You can’t show anyone anything he hasn’t seen already, on some level any more than you can tell anyone anything he doesn’t already know. 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 what he knows. Helnwein is a master of surprised recognition

As prolific as he is controversial, some of Helnwein’s career milestones have included ‘Helnwein’ a film by Peter Hajek featuring Gottfried and his art receiving multiple awards at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival. A 1991 book collaboration with Marlene Deitrich about Berlin, "Some Facts About Myself," (Deitrich text, Helwein photography) Commencement in 1983 of an ongoing photographic series that includes Andy Warhol, Charles Bukowski, Michael Jackson, Keith Richards, and William Burroughs and a scheduled Cristo like strategy in October 2003 to show huge 10 metre high pictures of children from his Selektion series at the Chinese National Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City, making Helnwein the first western artist to exhibit there.
Helnwein's oil, American Prayer, is a signature piece capturing the artist's dualist sentiments towards Americana. The vast painting of a boy kneeling in bedtime prayer to a large and looming Donald Duck is both irreverent and sentimental. Also underscoring the cultural influence of cartoon imagery while paying homage to Carl Barks is Mickey Mouse (oil on canvas, 1995). The image is simultaneously comical and vicious, familiar, yet ominous. Manipulation of scale transforms the subject from kiddie cute to surreal beast.

Helnwein’s fascination with the Disney icon has seen it consistently infiltrate his work. The latest application focuses on goth crusader Marilyn Manson, for their recent photographic and stage design collaboration. For a series of images, Manson’s head is glossed with black and white paint, and crowned with a Mouscateer hat. "I respect Manson a lot. He has an educated eye; he's also independent and very inspiring to work with,he says"

Epiphany I (Adoration of the Magi) (1996), sees five SS officers gathered round a modern day Aryan goddess posed as a Madonna. She holds a naked baby "Jesus" and is surrounded by Nazi officers. The sacrilegious nature of the painting upset not only the orthodox Christians but, ironically, those associated with the officers depicted. Helnwein is being sued by the widow of one of the Nazis depicted for the unauthorised use of the image of her husband.

Epiphany III (Presentation at the Temple), (1998) depicts a young girl clad in white lying unconscious or dead on a table. A group of disfigured and forlorn war veterans surround her. The painting has inspired critical comparisons to Rembrandt's "Anatomy lesson of Professor Tulp". Helnwein found inspiration for the piece in revelations about wartime medical experimentations on children.

To the artist's lasting displeasure, it's the sterile watercolours of Boulevard Of Broken Dreams, that have seen more exposure than any of his other works. "In 1981 I painted it, I think it was around the time people were commemorating the anniversary of [James Dean's] death and the image was one that saw him walking in Times Square. For some reason it became a best selling reprint. In the beginning I received some payment, but then it got out of control. I don't like being recognized for that particular work."

That's not Helnwein's only experience with commercial work. He says he has tried everything. "I think that came out of the fact that I hated galleries, but I still wanted to bring my art out into the public eye. I did several covers for Time, including a painting of JFK. "In Europe I did covers for various publications that would never be used in North America. It was usually tied into themes, which were very hard to tackle with a photograph, such as rape, child abuse, sexual assault and torture. I reached a point where it was over and I didn't need to do it anymore. I have reached that point often and I always stopped and moved on. Art has nothing to do with being a saleable commodity".

Politically consumerism and where the western world is right now is potentially catastrophic. The stupidity today is unbelievable. Consumerism is the biggest shame; it is the most fascistic of practices around today, though as an artist I have to put up with it."

While he shuns art theory and associated analysis, Helnwein is still mindful of historic reference. "I respect people like Rimbaud who said what he needed to say then stopped. He was hardly 20 years old and he never wrote another word of poetry, even his letters were completely devoid of artistry. The same with Duchamp, there was a point where he knew when to stop, he did so and started playing chess. Artists need be on the edge, they need to be there so they can be alert and retain their creativity."

Hence Helnwein isn't resigned to any particular medium. " I always draw, paint and work with photography. I'm currently into making videos which I would like to exhibit at some point."

In Austria, Helnwein's work has frequently been attacked by right-wingers. One early exhibition of paintings was defaced with stickers reading Entarte Kunst ("degenerate art"), while another show was confiscated by police on orders from a local mayor. Feeling stifled and uninspired, Helnwein left Vienna in 1985, first moving to Cologne, skipping around the globe to the likes of NYC and then opting for Ireland in the mid nineties.

"The Republic of Ireland is the most peaceful place on the planet. For 800 years they were oppressed by the UK government, yet Irish culture survived because of the art folk songs and poetry. It's a good base for that reason."
" I think sadly that the US art scene is now being run by theorists and curators, which isnt good for the art. No new art movement can be born under such circumstances. I don't need any other artists anyway; I'm actually more inspired by what happens around me. Whether political or historical, my art is always a dialogue with society."

Written by Craig Stephens

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