“It was hell recalls former child” reads the caption to a 1976 drawing by the cartoonist B. Kliban. It’s one of those punch lines that works because it’s true, to some extent, for almost everyone. Yet when the Vienna-born artist Gottfried Helnwein aired the same sentiment at the Crocker Art Museum on the occasion of his exhibition, Inferno of the Innocents, nobody laughed. Vienna after WWII, he explained “was dark. I remembered never seeing anyone smile. I never heard a song. People were broken.
“Nothing,” he continued, “was mentioned in school; the war didn’t exist. But I researched it on my own, I was obsessed. It had to do, in a naive sense, with justice. When I found out all these gruesome details about concentration camps, everything stopped for me. I didn’t belong. I didn’t want to be a part of that society."
[Watch John Yoyogi Fortes’ video of Gottfried Helnwein speaking about his work.]
Helnwein who today divides his time between LA and Ireland, has spent his adult life trying, through painting and photography, to understand the horrors that preceded his birth in 1948. However, his investigations, which focus on the plight of children, far transcend what happened during the Nazi era. His subject is the persistence of evil and the cruelties perpetrated by humans against each other. That his work is disturbing and sometimes shocking comes as no surprise; but the truth is that you’ll see more violence in the trailers of adolescent-targeted action films at your local multiplex than you will at any Helnwein exhibit. (The exceptions are the photographs where Helnwein shows himself and child models tortured by self-invented devices that contort faces into horrible grimaces that bring to mind Nazi medical experiments. Such images are notably absent from the Crocker exhibit, though plenty appear in the show’s superb catalog.)
In the main, Helnwein understands that shock isn’t a very effective way of changing hearts and minds. So instead he creates simulations of violence and psychological pain that permit us to reflect rather than recoil. He photographs pre-pubescent female models in his studio and dresses them with bandages and fake blood, allowing them to pose however they wish in bedroom settings cast in a raking film-noir-ish light. He also digitally manipulates documentary and news photos, inserting into them Disney cartoon characters, gun-toting children and soldiers. The large-scale mixed media paintings that result from this photo-sourced process vary considerably in their verisimilitude. They range from the hyperreality of billboards and fashion spreads to the messy, face-obscuring smears used by artists like Francis Bacon and Luc Tuymans to the menacing lighting and compositional techniques seen in French New Wave and Italian Neo Realism films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Helnwein aims for the visceral impact of cinema and for the most part he achieves it through scale and clarity; but his paintings offer few tactile or physical pleasures beyond the rare gestural mark, the occasional build up of pigment or, even rarer, instances where he combines loose brushstrokes with airbrushing. As such. Helnwein’s appeal lies in the moral force he brings to his confrontations with history and popular culture.
In Epiphany I (Adoration of the Magi 2) (2010), Helnwein savages the idea of a “master race” by combining a Madonna-Child portrait with a Nazi propaganda photograph. The resulting mash-up shows SS officers admiring a naked toddler held upright by a suitably Aryan-looking mother. The child bears an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler. Art in America (2000), done in the style of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations, shows a period-attired blonde making an easel painting. Her model is a Klansman in full regalia. Equally forthright in its convictions is Silent Glow of the Avant-Garde II (2010), a triptych. In it, a view of disintegrating ice bergs is flanked by two images of the artist, bloodied and bandaged with eyes covered by dark shades. He appears to be witnessing an unstoppable catastrophe. More gruesome still are Righteous Man II (1999) and Righteous Man III (1991), both of men who are horribly disfigured. As if history and current headlines aren’t enough, these and other blunt instruments of outrage further remind us of how miserably humanity has failed in its attempt to wipe out genocide and other forms of state-sponsored violence.
Helnwein’s portrayal of children — as either unsullied innocents or bleeding victims –feeds this strategy by giving viewers ample space to actually process this information. His “innocents” are neutral. They stare blankly at the ground or off into the distance, yet seem to be freighted by concerns well beyond their years. Thus, it’s easy for “former children” to identify with such images, since the pictures are receptive foils onto which we can project almost any emotion. As for the victims, their blood is so obviously fake that it’s impossible, unless you’re seriously phobic, to take them for anything other than the simulations they are, and it’s this distancing that allows us to process all of the other disturbing information.
Where things get really interesting is when Helnwein mixes violated or corrupted youth with cartoon characters. Here it’s instructive to note that during Helnwein’s youth the only art he experienced was in churches and in comic books. As he told Peter Frank: I “stared in awe and fascination for hours at all these tortured and blood-bathed saints that squirmed in ecstasy while their bodies were spiked with arrows or nailed against crosses; or the pale Madonnas with their cold and strange beauty, ripping their dresses open and revealing a big, floating heart pierced by tiny swords. These were the images that haunted me in the sleepless nights of my childhood.
“That all ended one day when I opened my first Donald Duck comic book. It was like seeing the daylight again for someone who had been trapped underground in a mine disaster for many days…I was now at home in a decent world where one could get flattened by steamrollers and perforated by bullets without serious harm, a world in which the people still looked decent…” When Helnwein decided to become an artist in his teens, he began by staging public performances reminiscent of the Viennese Aktionists in which he’d mutilate and bandage himself. In the ensuring decades, the influences on his work have multiplied to include a great many historic and contemporary figures. Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Bruegel, Goya and Bosch are among the former; Richter, Munch, Sherman, Witkin and Weegee rank high among the latter.
Less obvious are the intentions behind the artist’s use of cartoon characters. When asked about this by critic Mark Van Proyen during an interview at the Crocker, Helnwein ducked the question, saying he’d prefer to let viewers puzzle it out for themselves. Here, unlike everywhere else in Helnwein’s oeuvre, relationships are intentionally ambivalent, though one thing seems clear: two of his characters – Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck – seem, in the context of certain paintings, to be up to no good. Take, for example, the interaction between two strategically placed works: Annunciation (Mouse 12) 2010 and Murmur of the Innocents (16) (2010). The first shows Mickey as a leering, snout-nosed rodent; the second is of a bleeding girl who is quite obviously dead. The two pictures stand side by side. On the wall immediately to the right hang twin portraits of Helnwein’s friend, the rock singer Marilyn Manson. In them he appears as his usual mock-demonic stage persona, in full face paint, crowned here, by Helnwein, in Mousketeer caps. Around the corner is a picture of a young girl with a rifle in which, off to one side, stands America’s favorite cartoon mouse. It watches with interest, but no readable expression. On the opposing wall we see a vision of true mayhem, Untitled (The Disasters of War 22) (2008). In it, a soldier carries a limp victim from burning ruins. In the foreground sits one of those creepy Japanese manga dolls, inflated to life-size and looking characteristically dopey and dumbstruck.
A few paces away Donald Duck, in In The Heat of the Night (2000), stands like a lone sentry on a deserted city street. Bathed in toxic blue light, the scene could have been ripped from the cover of a pulp crime novel. We stare intently because we just know something bad is about to happen. The question that arises is whether these cartoon characters are provocateur/collaborators or silent witnesses to crimes in progress. They may well be both. Either way, such representations feel to me like indictments of a culture that leaves the most vulnerable among us (read:children) defenseless against real evils.
To those who maintain that art has become toothless for not asking the big questions, Helnwein stands out for having credibly staked out the moral high ground.
–DAVID M. ROTH
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Gottfried Helnwein: “Inferno of the Innocents" @ the Crocker Art Museum through April 24, 2011.
An exhibition catalog, with essays by Mark Van Proyen and Crocker Associate Curator Diana Daniels, is available through the museum.
View John Yoyogi Fortes’ video of Gottfried Helnwein speaking about his work.
Cover image: Murmur of the Innocents 17, 2010, mixed media and oil and acrylic on canvas, 70 x 103"
Gottfried Helnwein is represented in San Francisco by Modernism.