August 13, 2004
Irish Examiner
Arts
Alannah Hopkin
Photo finishes blur Reality
Gottfried Helnwein, Irish and other Landscapes
Visitors to Gottfried Helnwein's show of panoramic landscapes at the Crawford Municipial Gallery in Cork are having trouble deceiding either they are looking at paintings or photographs. Some are up to seven metres in length, by two metres wide: a breathtaking, epic scale. They are extraordinarily beautiful, by any standards, and, yes, they are paintings. The finish may be photorealist, but these are not direct transcriptions of what the camera lens sees; they are edited and informed by the artist's eye. Take a close look at Irish Landscape III (Nire Valley) or Irish Landscape IV (County Waterford). Nor do they represent what the naked eye can see. American Landscape (Death Valley) is so wide that it has an almost vertiginous effect. Dawn Williams who curated this show has done a superb job.
It is an unusual experience to see works of this scale and calibre, and it is unlikely we will have a chance to see the works in this show together again, as they were loaned by collectors as far apart as Vienna, Los Angeles (the actor Jason Lee) and Tipperary (Andrew Llyod Webber).
Irish and Other Landscapes continues a series of themed exhibitions at the Crawford gallery, documenting the landscape. Helnwein is a major international artist, with studios in downtown Los Angeles and Co Tipperary, a contrast that must be very hard to take.
He has lived in Ireland since 1997, and was recently granted citizenship. Born in Vienna in 1984, Helnwein was a hyper-realist painter from the beginning, and began his career with a series of paintings of vulnerable, damaged children. His work has often proved controversial, and his child portraits were taken as a commentary on Freudian psychoanalysis, pioneered in Vienna in the early 20th century.
The landscape and cityscapes in this show mark a radical change in his career, which now spans almost 40 years. The return to landscape harks back to Helnwein's discovery of the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), whose work had an enormous impact while he was studying at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. He and his friends took to trekking into the mountains of Austria to paint and sketch in the open air, an anachronistic activity which was also a protest against the academy's doctrinaire endorsement of abstract expressionism.
In his introduction to the catalouge (which also contains a stimulating essay by Mic Moroney), Peter Murray neatly sums up Helnwein's artistic trajectory: "His paintings represent a fusion of historic and contemporary artistic practices uniting the Romantic aesthetic of Caspar David Friedrich, the political radicalism of Viennese Actionists and the technical precision of the photorealists of the 1970s."
It seems easiest to start upstairs, in the Long Room, with a pair of cityscapes, San Francisco and Vienna, which are somehow easier to take in than the vast landscapes on the ground floor. The panoramic view of Vienna was painted in 1994-95 for Herbert and Friederike Koch, who were afraid that a proposed millenium tower would destroy the view of the skyline of old Vienna that they enjoyed from their rooftop. The turrets and chimney pots glow in the warm evening sunlight, but to the left of the centre the real worl intrudes in the form of a series of cranes indicating building sites. As in the landscapes, reality has been subtly edited by the artist's eye to make particular points.
With the cityscapes, and the landscapes downstairs, there is a constant compulsion to investigate the surface of the painting close-up, then to stand back and take in the full effect, as the illusion of reality only takes effect from a distance. How does he do it? This is the question that pre-occupies all first-time visitors.
These are big paintings made with very small brushes. Helnwein works in oil and acrylic, working up a composite image from high definition digital photographs, but the finish is achieved through the use of the same techniques of painting that were available to the old masters.
The finish may be photorealist, but these are not direct transcriptions of what the camera lense sees; they are edited and informed by by the artist's eye. Take a close look at Irish Landscape III (Nire Valley) or Irish Landscape IV (County Waterford). Nor do they represent what the naked eye can see. American Landscape (Death Valley) is so wide that it has an almost vertiginous effect. Dawn Williams, who curated this show along with Gottfried and Renate Helnwein, has done a superb job.
Irish and Other Landscapes continues until September 4.
Alannah Hopkin
Helnwein working on "Irish landscape" (Tullamaine)
2004




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