August 1, 2007
Ireland
Conversation between Gottfried Helnwein and his daughter Mercedes
when you know that over there is that little green island ...
Gottfried Helnwein: I think moving to Ireland 10 years ago was a good decision. I love it when we are all at our Irish castle, family kids and dogs and other artist friends, everybody working on somethimg somewhere in the house, and when we all meet in the dining room for lunch, with Bach or Vivaldi music... it's very italian and Baroque. And I like the contrast to downtown LA where we spend the other half of the year. Mercedes Helnwein: It would be a little claustrophobic to have no escape from L.A. It's a very intense place, so you need to be able to get out when necessary to be able to breathe and gather some sanity. Gottfried: I always love going back to Ireland. When we first arrived here, ten years ago, I had that feeling of being "home" for the first time in my life. I feel so connected to that land, the people and their struggle throughout history. Whenever I come back and see that green island through the window of the plane, I am deeply moved. On the other hand it's so idyllic and peaceful to live in the midst of these bucolic landscapes, that after several months I know its time to go back to Gotham City to connect up with reality again.
Ireland
1997
Gottfried Helnwein
I remember that you've been drawing and writing your own little stories since you were seven.
Mercedes Helnwein
Since before that. But I think I was around seven when I started trying to combine the writing and drawing. I was doing a whole series of little comic-books. Do you remember "Luv is Tuff"? (laughing).
GH
Of course.
MH
I can't remember if I just spelled it wrong or if I was being really clever with that title, but seeing that I was seven, I probably just spelled it wrong.
GH
You were reading all the time too, you never went anywhere without a book. In restaurants, when we were hanging out with other people - you were reading
MH
Yep, I was quite obsessed with literature. That's pretty much the bulk of what I did in my teens. The modern world just kind of annoyed me -- everything that was hip at the time or supposedly "fun" didn't at all fit in with my ideals. I was stuck in the Victorian era and Mark Twain's great America and the blues. I thought a lot about how much better it would have been to be living a century or so earlier - except of course that they didn't have Jimi Hendrix, and he would be hard to live without.
I know you always felt similarly about that. I remember you being OBSESSED with needing a castle when we still lived in Vienna. You would whine(?) about it on a daily basis.
GH
Well, I was born into this middle-class family right after the war in Vienna, where everything was seriously fucked-up by the two world wars, thanks to the stupid generations preceding us. I found myself in a limbo with a bunch of ugly and frightened people.
As a little kid I felt like beeing marooned on a small hostile and forgotten island. I didn't want to be there. And I looked around and asked myself: "where is my castle?"
Everything was so small and narrow-minded then. All the grown-ups around me tried to live little lifes and be as small and gray and invisible as possible. Everyone seemed to be competing in being the most boring and mediocre.
I knew I had to get out of there. Vienna has a strange and dark gravity though, so it took me many years to actually leave.
MH
You told me once thought that you didn't want to be a painter because you thought it would be boring.
GH
The only art that I experienced as a kid were the paintings of tortured saints in the cold churches were I spent most of my early years. What I saw was: People nailed on crosses or pierced by arrows, Jesus ripping his shirt open and reveiling his sacred heart surrounded by a crown of thorns, bleeding and burning.
These were the images that hounted me in my childhood-dreams.
Until that memorable day, I must have been 4 or 5, when I opened my first Donald Duck Comic-book and stepped onto Duckburg soil. In that moment I knew- there was a way out.
some years later I opened the wrapper of a chewing-gum that contained a tiny, badly printed picture of Elvis. I was in a state of shock, because I didn't know that a human being could be so beautiful. I didn't know who he was, and I didn't know his name, but he was an epiphany for me that filled my heart with excitement, because I knew now there was a better world somewhere out there. Later it was the Rolling Stones, Hemdrix, Captain Beefheart, Muddy Waters and others that kept me alive. When I was 16/17 I was convinced that the ultimate state of existence was to be a member of the Rolling Stones. Everything else that the world around me had to offer at that time disgusted me.
The last thing I wanted to be was some weired painter with a beard, a smock and beret standing in front of an easel and painting abstract paintings, squares and triangles or shit like that.
MH
So, why did you end up studying painting?
GH
I scanned through all the possible occupations the society had to offer, and one day I realized that there was no way that I would ever fit into this system. There was only one thing left: to be an artist. The last resort where you have a certain amount of freedom, where you can make your own rules and your own decisions. I thought maybe with aesthetics I can express and formulate, what I felt deep inside, and maybe it could even have a certain impact on the society. That's when I decided to become an artist.
MH
That's true -- there are no restrictions really in art, and if you have an honest, sincere and intense vision you can accomplish quite a lot in that field...
GH
I knew immediately what to paint: wounded and bandaged children. It was intuition. I never cogitated about it for a second. It upset many people, and I was amazed how many emotions and how much excitement my little water-colors could trigger in grown-up people.
MH
I thought recently that there are probably two types of artists: the ones who are in love with the paint and the medium and act of painting or dawing etc., and those that feel like they have to do it to bring across some kind of communication and use art more as a means for accomplishing this. Both are valid I think.
GH
Kandinsky said: "In Art everything is allowed" And that makes it so hard. Every artist has to find out for himself what he has to do -- the hard way. The basic decisions have to be made by yourself. Nobody can really help you with that. You are on your own. You don't have to justify what you do, and there is only one person that knows if you are doing the right thing: you.
MH
Yeah, a work of art can't solely depend on great technique if there is no backbone or nothing giving life to that work of art. It's kind of exciting that everything is allowed in art. I think the only thing that maybe should be illegal is insincerity in art. You can really smell something that is fake.
Who would you say are the artists you most admire?
GH
There are so many: Goya, Francis Bacon, Munch, Carravaggio, Leonardo, Caspar David Friedrich, and many others, but the artist that moves and touches me deeper than anybody else is Rembrandt. Some years ago I visited the National Gallery in London with a painter friend and we looked at all these great paintings and discussed all the various details and aspects of them , but at the end I got stuck on a little self-portrait of Rembrandt. It was actually technically not that good and one of his less important self-portraits, but it touched me so deeply that I got tears in my eyes. I had no explanation for it. This little painting impressed me more than anything else in the whole Museum.
MH
I remember when we looked at the Rembrandts at the Met. It's really true. Once you had pointed that out about Rembrandt I examined his paintings very carefully, and it's almost shocking how much human life and emotions are in his paintings. It's so strange that emotions can be in paint...
GH
Whenever I encounter a work of Rembrandt, I never think of it as paint, oil and resin and on canvas.
It's of a total different category - it's like a field of energy, a window to another dimension.
Very few artists reach that level.
You have the same phenomenon in music and literature. There are these religious moments when all words and explanations fail.
MH
Yes, absolutely. It's also very personal -- a song or painting or a sentence probably effects everyone who comes in contact with it a little differently.
I get really excited when I encounter a great contemporary artist, be it music, literature or whatever. I feel that now-a-days all the fields of art are kind of being suffocated and adulterated by all kinds of substitutes, so when something real comes along, I'm almost taken aback. Like the White Stripes.
It's such a relief to encounter something that can really blow your mind. I was starting to be so disappointed with music. I really thought it was over -- dwindling down to some kind of embarrassing halt. Then somehow the White Stripes emerged. I remember just lying on my bed in the middle of the afternoon listening to their album -- almost paralyzed because I just couldn't believe my luck.
GH:
The White Stripes are like a good rain in Death Valley.
Well, we live in the golden age of materialism where religion is replaced by psychiatry and art by "entertainment".
I guess if you don't like that, you have to create your own micro-society where art still rules. I always wanted a big family, lot's of kids, friends and dogs and a nice castle. Castles are practical things because you can get a lot of people into it and a nice big studio.
So one day we moved to Germany and bought that run-down, medieval fortress.
MH
That was a good place to spend a bulk of childhood. I don't think we ever watched any television while living there, and we definitely didn't even know what computer games were.
GH
I wanted to take revenge for my own frustrating childhood in "middle-class" hell. I always thought: "One day I will have a bunch of kids and I'll give them all the freedom that I was craving for and adventures and we will travel together and explore the world. They will be my closest friends, not subordinates, and we will be a gang."
I don't know, but I kind of like the concept of a tribe. I wanted to create an island where people respect each other, and in my world children are people. I always wanted to live in a creative society with a high culture, aesthetics and peaceful anarchy. I hated this over-regulated bureaucracy, where all these half-wit, self-appointed authorities tell you what to do and, what to think, and especially what not to do and not to think. I wanted people around me that make their own observations, draw their own conclusions and make their own decisions.
I loved hearing you kids roaming around in the courtyard of the castle and hearing you laugh and yell while I was in the studio.
MH
We probably grew up the opposite of how you grew up. Peaceful anarchy is a great way of describing it. I remember that you never wanted to travel anywhere without at least one kid, and so we ended up going pretty much everywhere - art fairs, museums, printing workshops, gallery openings, backstage at theater rehearsals and premiers, meeting other artists. Like when you took ali to meet Muhammad Ali...
GH
Yeah, that was in Los Angeles when he lived there at that time. The Austrian and German Television was producing a documentary on me and I insisted that Muhammad Ali be in the film. I loved how he challenged the white puritan establishment, how he danced in the ring and shouted to the world: "I am the greatest". The media and all the old farts hated him for that, but I loved him. I named your brother Ali after him. Muhammad was so sweet when we met him. He approached little Ali who was three at that time, hugged and kissed him, and then he started to spar with him.
MH
I remember that from the documentary.
GH
At our castle you were usually the leader of the kid-gang. You organized theatre-plays, games and films. Everybody was always wearing costumes and make-up.
MH
(laughing) Yeah, I liked to have everything under control I think. In the absence of T.V. kids will get quite creative to evade boredom. We used to put on elaborate plays and build stages, and EVERYONE in the castle - assistants, secretaries, the housekeeper, guests, other artists - everyone would have to buy a ticket and sit through those long, weird plays. Those performances probably seemed quite avant-garde from the audiences point of view.
I also remember drawing Ali from life an awful lot. I don't even know how he managed to sit still for so long while I tried to get him down on paper. Then I'd draw weird repetitive patterns on his sweater - like lots of little elephants.
GH
And besides all your projects you guys were kind enough to model for my paintings and photographs. I painted your faces, bandaged and put medical instruments in your mouth.
MH
Mainly Ali. I wasn't as patient as he was.
GH
But you were creative and you always came up with great gestures and facial expressions. Only Amadeus, the youngest refused to pose.
MH
You never used Ami?
GH
No, he was a little stubborn diva, but I respected that.
MH
That fits to him. He was a really cute kid, very innocent looking, and he really knew how to use that to his advantage. He had all the babysitters and grown-ups under his control. It's funny also that he's the only kid in the family that insisted on going to college.
GH
I guess he wanted to break out of our freak-circle and get academic honors. But he wrote some really great poems, so I am not worried.
MH
We all ended up in the middle of some field of art quite early on, only too glad to skip college or university. And you and mom never even mentioned college to us.
GH
I don't believe in that education-system very much. I actually encouraged you to stay away from school.
MH
You said it would be better to get right into whatever field we wanted to be involved in. It wasn't like we wanted to be doctors or lawyers or anything like that anyway. It seemed that going to college for any of the arts was more of a delay or a waste of time or a way of actually avoiding what you ultimately wanna end up doing.
And also, you said once that you don't have to go to a school to learn how to draw. All you have to do is draw, draw, draw - and just continually draw things from life. You said that that's pretty much all you did in school anyway.
GH
The most important thing is to stay curious and look around and keep learning as long as you breathe. In our family there was never a distinction between work, study and private life. It is all one.
And I have the impression it made sense to you guys because Cyril, your older brother became a very talented photographer and Ali, besides playing the violine, conducting and composing, founded his own chambre-orchestra last year. Your boyfriend is a musician and so is Cyril's wife Kojii.
I guess we are all lost cases for Technocracy.
MH
True. We never even took any family vacations. All the trips we took were related to work - art. Your work was pretty much going on all the time. Life in an average family was very alien to me. I just kind of knew it from movies -- where the mom stays at home and cooks, etc. and the dad comes home at 6 every evening and says "Honey, I'm home!" Our life was definately more surrealistic than th
GH
I think we are the normals ones; their world is the one that's actually surrealistic, with all their peculiar rules and habits.
MH
That's a good way of looking at it. And every once in a while you'll stumbled upon someone else who's also normal and looks at the world as baffled as you do.
GH
What I really enjoy is the ongoing dialogue with you and our whole extended family. Nothing really changed, we are still together and we talk about art and artists, writers, musicians and their work, about history, aesthetics, philosophy and politics…
MH
We still all live together more or less too, moving back and forth from Ireland to downtown L.A.
GH:
I think moving to Ireland 10 years ago was a good decision. I love it when we are all at our Irish castle, family kids and dogs and other artist friends, everybody working on somethimg somewhere in the house, and when we all meet in the dining room for lunch, with Bach or Vivaldi music... it's very italian and Baroque. And I like the contrast to downtown LA where we spend the other half of the year.
MH
L.A. and Ireland are probably opposite from each other in every conceivable way- down to the air. They're like two different planets. Going back and forth between the two of them you don't really miss out on anything.
GH
For my work I need the urban decadence, anarchy and insanity of LA. It's a great inspiration. If you want to know where the world is at in its course of the 2nd fall of the roman empire - LA is the place to be.
MH
I agree. It's a great place to work, because you're smack in the middle of not only so much creation, so many different cultures and weird visuals but also so much of what is wrong with everything in the world. It's easy to be invaded by ideas under those circumstances.
GH
But, of course, its easier to live in that chaos when you know that over there is that little green island where the air is crisp and clear, where everything is green and lush and people are not insane.
MH
For sure. It would be a little claustrophobic to have no escape from L.A.
It's a very intense place, so you need to be able to get out when necessary to be able to breathe and gather some sanity.
GH
I always love going back to Ireland. When we first arrived here, ten years ago, I had that feeling of being "home" for the first time in my life. I feel so connected to that land, the people and their struggle throughout history. Whenever I come back and see that green island through the window of the plane, I am deeply moved.
On the other hand it's so idyllic and peaceful to live in the midst of these bucolic landscapes, that after several months I know its time to go back to Gotham City to connect up with reality again.
MH
There's something about America in general…it's such a fascinating place to me. It brings so many things to the table - good, bad and weird.
GH
In a way it's also "home". I discovered that when I opened my first Disney comic book.
MH
And that's where the obsession with ducks began in the Helnwein family.
GH
Donald (Duck) was my saviour - he opened my eyes.
MH
And the Carl Barks library was the family bible. We used to read those comic books all the time.
GH
Of course. I made sure that you'd get a proper education.
MH
I think I can safely say that Duckburg has been imprinted in our memory.
GH
I really liked Uncle Scrooge's money bin. It was such a joy to dive together with the old banker into his piles of money borrough through it like a gopher and toss it into the air.
Everything that inspired and excited our generation came from America: Disney, Elvis, Chaplin, Chuck Berry, Noir films...
MH
And the blues, which is one of the most important artistic contributions to the world, it think. I guess the blues is to me kind of like what Donald Duck is to you.
Although, I do like ducks a lot too.
GH
And Mark Twain and your old love, the South.
MH
Yes, I don't know what it is about all that, that I get so excited about. I love Mark Twain and I've always wanted to time-travel to meet him, and see this world that he was describing. I guess Twain, Steinbeck, the blues are all different angles of this same thing that I feel so attached to.
GH
And a lot of those influences ended up in your novel.
MH
Well, my first novel really couldn't be about anything other than America. I think I owe it that much. Writing it, I was definitely fueled by all the impressions the American culture and history has left in me, but at the same time, I wanted this to flavor the story not to suffocate it. The story itself is focused on the characters. It's called "The Potential Hazards of Hester Day" - which pretty much gives you a good idea of what it is about. Hester Day is the main character, and there are definitely potential hazards where she is concerned.
The American Midwest just backs it up. In fact, I took my first few trips through the south and mid-west for this book. I'd been dying to do that for years! Writing a book is always a good excuse to do all those things that are hard to justify otherwise.
GH
Between writing and drawing/painting - would you say one is more important for you, than the other?
MH
Well, I mean they're so different. They require different moods, different skills - I feel drawing is very easy to do in the sense that you can blank out, listen to audio books or music while drawing, even have the T.V. on, and let your mind wander all over the place. But with writing you have to be right there - writing that sentence. It's always felt a little like surgery to me, but on the other hand, you get the opportunity to be literal - words are very powerful, and it's extremely gratifying to put something down on paper exactly how you want it and then serve it up. Plus, writing a novel is like being god. You can do whatever the hell you want - make your characters go through whatever whims you happen to have that day.
I'd say that writing and drawing are both equally important to me, because in the end, they're both extremely gratifying - no to mention addictive.
Gottfried Helnwein and his daughter Mercedes
2007
Andy Warhol with Gottfried Helnwein and his son Cyril
1981, Museum of Modern Art, Vienna
Sol Niger I
photograph, 1987
Mercedes with gun
1987
The Helnwein Family in the library
2004
Last Supper II
photograph, 1987
Helnwein working on Kindskopf (Head of a Child)
oil and acrylic on canvas, 1991
Helnwein works on "Head of a Child" (Kindskopf)
1991
Mercedes and her brother Cyril
1982
Helnwein, performance with his son Cyril
1985
Self-portrait
1986




back to the top