News Update
December 1, 2008
Social & Personal
Sasfi Hope-Ross
In the Valley near Slievenamon
Famed Austrian-born artist Gottfried Helnwein invites us into his magnificent home, Castle Gurteen Le Poer, in Co Tipperary, which dates back to the 12th century and has its own live-in-ghost the mysterious White Lady.
Words and pictures: Sasfi Hope-Ross
Driving up the long, sweeping drive to Castle Gurteen Le Poer, lush green fields with old mature trees stretch away to either side. To the right, the purple-green slopes of Slievenamon Mountain roll down to meet the river Suir, and on the left, densely wooded hills complete the picturesque setting. Rounding a corner, the Castle comes into view – a gorgeous gothic pile with red ivy creeping up the walls and swallows swooping around the battlements. This wonderful place is home to the internationally-renowned, controversial Austrian artist, Gottfried Helnwein.
In the late 1990s, Gottfried and his wife, Renate, traveled throughout Europe in search of their dream home. At the time, Gottfried was spending a lot of time in America, where he had a studio in Tribeca, New York. With a lot of collectors and galleries there, it was an essential work base. But he never liked the idea of being an American.
“I respect America and I think it’s a great country, but I am really European inside – I needed a base in Europe,” he says.
So he looked everywhere, and then, suddenly, he got the idea to check out Ireland; though he didn’t know anything about Ireland, except for the song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”.
During Christmas 1997, the whole family traveled around the west coast. It was storming, raining and snowing and they didn’t see a soul – no cars nor people, it was completely deserted. It was magical, and they instantly fell in love with the country.
“We thought this was the best place for us – we all just knew this was where we wanted to live,” smiles Gottfried. They lived in Parliament Street, Dublin for a year, while Renate looked for a castle. Gottfried had always wanted a castle, ever since he was a kid. “When I was young, I always knew I didn’t want to live in a normal house. Years later in Germany, I had bought a castle, close to Cologne, but it didn't feel like home. We were like gypsies just moving on, but when we landed here we knew we were home. I said to Renate, 'I need a castle'. She knew I would not give up until I had one."
Renate found two great places; one in Connemara and Castle Gurteen in Tipperary. In the end, they chose Gurteen.
Castle Gurteen Le Poer was the family home of the Le Poers, who subsequently became Powers. The original building was constructed in the 12th century, and was later rebuilt. In 1866, Samuel Roberts built the castle that exists today for Edmund, the 18th Baron Le Poer.
The last family member sold the castle in the Seventies to a property agent from Waterford, who subsequently sold it to a German. Once Gottfried and Renate had decided they wanted to buy the castle, they went to find the owner. Ironically, they discovered he was living just ten minutes away from the village where they lived in Germany. Ten years on, Gottfried and his family couldn't be happier. "Living here only gets better. I love Tipperary and Waterford - the greenness, the landscape and the fact that there are few tourists. You really get to know the real people, the country people," he says.
Gottfried considers Ireland to have a magical quality. "It is the best country, one of the most amazing and most sacred places - the land, the air - maybe there are still elves around, you feel like it is magic. I find the people here are unbelievably friendly, open and down to earth. Having lived in so many places, whenever you come to a place where you are not born, you run into prejudice - people are suspicious of you, but I have never felt that here. From my experience, I like that the Irish people never look up to somebody and they never look down on somebody - it's eye to eye. They don't care who you are or what you are, if you are a fun guy to hang out with, everything's great. When you go to McCarthy's pub in Fethard, you can have a farmer sitting beside a horse trainer - they are all people."
Gottfried has taken the time to study a lot of Irish history and now feels like he's one of our own. He loves the Irish spirit and the fact that the people never gave up their 800-year struggle for freedom. He truly admires their unbroken spirit. "The Irish never started a war against anyone else, never invaded anyone, their soul is pure. Their influence has spread to so many other countries," he observes.
He believes that through art, literature, dance and music, the Irish have kept their spirit and soul. He finds it amazing that this tiny little country in Western Europe has produced so much talent and so influenced the world – starting with the monks in the early centuries, and now with its musicians and business leaders. After they bought the castle, the Helnweins restored the inside, completely refurbishing it while keeping the original spirit of the place alive. The original library from the old family is still in place; each book comes with a dedication. In the hall hang some of the old family portraits, the coat of arms and the weapons belonging to the family from the Cromwellian wars. There is even a live-in ghost, known as the White Lady. "I wanted to keep the memory of the family, while combining a light and bright feeling throughout. We have opened it up to make it a beautiful place to live. Its aesthetics and beauty, especially in architecture, are always timeless. I always wanted a place like this because I always wanted a big family, and to have lots of friends around. I want to have a house full of children and grandchildren and friends and dogs. I want to sit twenty people at the dining table," says Gottfried.
All of his children are artists; one's a composer, another is a photographer, another an artist and writer. He always wanted to give his children a life where they were completely free to explore and see the world. He feels that children are under fire constantly by the media and the Internet. This, in his opinion, destroys the innocence of childhood. He believes in the family - that it is very important to protect and love our children. For him, that is the most important thing. For the Viennese-born artist, a clarity of vision in his subject matter was emerging in Helnwein's art that was to stay consistent throughout his career. His subject matter is the human condition. The metaphor for his art, although it included self-portraits, is dominated by the image of the child, but not the carefree innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead created the profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative image of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within.
Dividing his time between Tipperary and Los Angeles, Gottfried has the best of both worlds. Spending the winters in Los Angeles, he returns to Ireland in the summer to relax and recover from the chaos of California. L.A. is somewhat apocalyptic with\ its never-ending cacophony of helicopters and sirens, and it has the worst air pollution. But Gottfried draws great inspiration from the chaos. "It's great for work and has lots of energy, but there is lots of insanity too, that is why it is wonderful to have the peaceful haven of Ireland to return to, with its sane people and crisp air."
Being in L.A. affords Gottfried the time and opportunity to work with such luminaries as Sean Penn and Lou Reed, and in the past, Andy Warhol. But he loves the country life; going down to the local pub where people quote poetry and sing songs (it hasn't changed much in two hundred years). As with everywhere else, he thinks the march of progress and globalisation will eventually destroy every part of individual cultures on the planet - all to be replaced by McDonalds and Starbucks. The Celtic Tiger may have contributed to some of this, but less so here than in many other countries. Helnwein is proud that Ireland voted 'No' to the Lisbon Treaty – he believes it shows that the Irish have integrity and spirit.
"It's important that nobody should sign a contract that no-one has read or understood. By passing the treaty, we would have lost our sovereignty and our neutrality and become a small province in a huge empire," he says. The artist obtained Irish citizenship in 2004. Though he still really loves Austrian culture, the place that is home is Ireland.
Gottfried loves entertaining - everyone from Sir Ben Kingsley to the Presleys have graced the halls of Castle Gurteen. He even played host to the $500,000 wedding of burlesque artist Dita Von Teese and Marilyn Manson in 2006. The bride wore a flowing purple Vivienne Westwood number over her trademark cinched corset. Manson was his normal sepulchral white self, with black make-up and lipstick as they exchanged vows by candlelight in Helnwein's castle. Marilyn and Gottfried have been good friends for a long time and have collaborated on many projects together. The 60-strong guest list included Lisa Marie Presley. During the wedding the ghost of the White Lady struck; there was so much activity in the castle that it probably disturbed her. Dita was having a bath and, just after she stepped out of the bathroom, the entire ceiling came down in the bathroom. They could find no reason for it to fall through – there were no cracks, no evidence of damage. But it was felt that the White Lady was definitely making a statement.
Gottfried was the resident artist at this year's Waterford Fringe Festival, for which he organised an outdoor installation with billboard-sized pictures in various places around the city. As ever, he was reaching out and confronting people with his provocative, controversial work. The exhibition “The Last Child” featured powerful portraits of children in different scenarios - war and innocence. The largest piece being 40 metres high. "It's the duty of an artist to force people to look at what is going on," he says.
With a whole array of projects to complete and oversee, he is constantly busy. Right now, he is working on the set, lighting and costume design for an opera for the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv. He currently has exhibitions in New York and Prague and is due to have an exhibition of landscapes in Austria. It's amazing he finds time for his huge programme of work, but he is always creating and hoping to affect and influence people with his passionate and thought-provoking work.

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