Ireland
September 1, 2002
Lead White Gallery
Dublin
Mic Moroney
Helnwein
Helnwein
Group show
Helnwein's painting - both cheekily and totally in homage - appropriates the great paintings, "The Polar Sea" (1824) by the leading German Romantic landscape artist Casper David Friedrich. Helnwein here re-renders the painting in a gloomy, cinematic blue-black duochrome, and hugely magnifies it from its original scale (about 1 metre by 1 metre 30), although the foundered ship still seems dwarfed and pulverised by the splintering ice sheets. It remains a fine example of that particularly Germanic celebration of heroic humanity dashing itself against the majestic cruelty of nature. Helnwein, in his wry title and borrowing of the image, is suggesting an uncomfortable paradigm behind Friedrich's painting - a perpetual sense of momentous revolution within nature, raw humanity and indeed artistic culture. These ideas pervaded Friedrich's work, as well as that of composer Richard Wagner and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche - all of whose works were later so mistakenly absorbed into the "superhuman" aesthetic of Nazi ideaology and doctrine.
Gottfried Helnwein is an international artist in his early 50s, whose work is now housed in such prestigious collections as the Smithsonian Institut in Washington, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the Chinese Museum of Art in Beijing. Personal clients include the major American collector Kent Logan and the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Originally from Austria but now resident in County Tipperary, Helnwein grew up into a claustrophobic, bourgeouis, post-war Viennese society which, unlike much of Germany, had not been truly deNazified. This unease with, and yet celebration of German-language cutlure continues to inform Helnwein's work, not least in this large piece, "The Silent Glow of the Avant Garde"
Helnwein's painting -- both cheekily and totally in homage -- appropriates the great paintings, "The Polar Sea" (1824) by the leading German Romantic landscape artist Casper David Friedrich. Helnwein here re-renders the painting in a gloomy, cinematic blue-black duochrome, and hugely magnifies it from its original scale (about 1 metre by 1 metre 30), although the foundered ship still seems dwarfed and pulverised by the splintering ice sheets. It remains a fine example of that particularly Germanic celebration of heroic humanity dashing itself against the majestic cruelty of nature.
Helnwein, in his wry title and borrowing of the image, is suggesting an uncomfortable paradigm behind Friedrich's painting -- a perpetual sense of momentous revolution within nature, raw humanity and indeed artistic culture. These ideas pervaded Friedrich's work, as well as that of composer Richard Wagner and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche -- all of whose works were later so mistakenly absorbed into the "superhuman" aesthetic of Nazi ideaology and doctrine.
Gottfried's work has evolved from his early realist, often grotesque drawings and bandaged "Aktionen" (performances) on the streets of Vienna to a moody, very contemporary photorealism. He is happy to work through different media, and has collaborated with a number of theatre and opera directors on large-scale set-designs in Germany, as well as rock artists in Germany and the US, where he is currently working with Marilyn Manson. But Helnwein's work is not without its humour -- as when he appropriates the image of Mickey Mouse and invests him with growling menace, or celebrates his lasting appreciation of the saintly everyman persona of Donald Duck.
Helnwein has also produced paintings specifically for reproduction, such as his well-known piece in an Austrian news magazine in 1979, of a child's face slumped, dead, by a food bowl. He produced it to sharpen the debate in Austria about the then appointment to the Head of State Psychiatry of the former Nazi psychiatrist, Dr. Heinrich Gross, who had "humanely" killed retarded children by poisoning their food. Gross was forced to resign the post, and is still, in his 90s, fighting off indictments for war crimes.
Helnwein caused a stir at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2001 -- in his first exhibition in Ireland. This featured both a gallery show of paintings in the Butler House, and an exhibtiion of huge, printed, public works. There was initial controversy at his enormous photomontages on the walls of Kilkenny Castle -- images of a contemporary Madonna and child, adulated by young, doltish SA stormstroopers; or in another image, senior SS men. The mother and infant sat angelically in the position that Hitler occupied in the original propaganda photographs.
Another strand of the public-art work which Helnwein mounted in Kilkenny involved photography of local children which Helnwein then rendered huge -- with their eyes closed, in a moment of meditation which suggests sleep or even death. Beautiful and yet haunting, there was something about the freckle-faced uniqueness of the Irish character in these faces which intensified the various emotions these faces suggested -- from serenity and timeless wisdom, though pain and disturbance -- or in one, hung over the entrance to a bank, the irresistable urge to burst into a fit of giggles.
Like the French artist Christo, who wraps various international landmarks in canvas (from the Reichstag to his failed attempt to get Dublin Corporation to allow him to wrap Stephens Green), Helnwein has repeated this strategy in a number of cities around the world, such as St. Petersburg and most notably Köln in 1988 to mark the 50th anniversary of Kistallnacht on November 9th 1938, when the Nazis finally unleashed their full wrath up on Jewish shops and busnisses all over Germany and Austria.
Next year, Gottfried will become the first Western artist to exhibit inside the Forbidden City in Beijing. Once again, the central image will be a gigantic portrait of a girl-child's face, her eyes closed in a peaceful, breath-taking slumber.
Gottfried's work is primarily about the positioning of images to produce emotion and debate -- which frequently addresses the vulnerability and centrality of children in our lives, and the unnerving shadow of totalitariansim over contemporary civilisation.
Now that Helnwein splits his time between here and his studio in Los Angeles, he is working on a series of what he calls his "American Paintings" -- based on photographic archive images from the Los Angeles public library -- and a number of Irish landscapes which emerge from composite photographies and panoramas.
This is the first time Gottfried's work has been exhibited in Dublin.
Untitled (After Caspar David Friedrich)
mixed media (oil and acrylic on canvas), 1998, 200 x 260 cm / 78 x 102''




back to the top