Ireland
November 11, 2001
Irish Tatler
Alex Bunbury
photographs by James Fennel
Artist's Impression
A castle in Tipperary is the setting for this most unlikely of squires. Politics, paint and provocation are the life and blood of Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein and his work.
Ireland got its first real glimpse into the mind of Gottfried Helnwein in August of this year when he headlined the increasingly high profile Kilkenny Arts Festival. Across the medieval city, familiar landmarks were draped in gigantic posters bearing the Helnwein trademark. Huge freckle-faced Kilkenny children - their eyes closed and vulnerable yet possessed of a curious wisdom - occupied the walls from St Canice's Cathedral to the courtyard of Kilkenny castle. Dominating the Castle entrance was a massive print entitled "Epiphany", depicting a voluptuous mother proudly displaying her naked young boy to a gathering of sharp-dressed officers. It is only when one registers the swastikas and iron crosses on the officers' uniforms that one looks again at this toddler and beholds the unmistakeable mug of Adolf Hitler Junior. This was a bold statement by Gottfried in which he was effectively drawing a comparison between the iconoclastic and suppressive nature of the Nazi system and the more disturbing tenets of Roman Catholicism.
Irish Tatler
2001
2008
It is a magnificent granite neo-Gothic castle situated on the south bank of the river Suir, about five miles north of Clonmel, County Tipperary. For more than 800 years, this estate belonged to one of the great Anglo-Norman families whose staunch devotion to the Roman Catholic Church led to their eventual expulsion from the Protestant English establishment.
Count Edmund, Private Chamberlain to Pope Pius X, commenced the building of the present castle in 1866. The design was by Samuel Roberts, of Boer War fame.
In 1997 the castle was purchased by an Austrian couple, Gottfried and Renate Helnwein. There was nothing particularly unusual about this. Europeans had been coming to Ireland and snapping up castles at rock bottom prices for decades. Not many people in County Tipperary had heard of him before, but Gottfried Helnwein was apparently an artist of considerable repute in his Austrian homeland. What sort of an artist, nobody was quite sure. Some said he painted children's portraits. Others insisted he worked as an animator for Walt Disney. Some maintained that he had something to do with the Nazis but whether he was for them or against them, they couldn't be quite sure. The one thing everyone agreed upon was that Gottfried Helnwein was an enigma.
Ireland got its first real glimpse into the mind of Gottfried Helnwein in August of this year when he headlined the increasingly high profile Kilkenny Arts Festival. Across the medieval city, familiar landmarks were draped in gigantic posters bearing the Helnwein trademark. Huge freckle-faced Kilkenny children - their eyes closed and vulnerable yet possessed of a curious wisdom - occupied the walls from St Canice's Cathedral to the courtyard of Kilkenny castle. Dominating the Castle entrance was a massive print entitled "Epiphany", depicting a voluptuous mother proudly displaying her naked young boy to a gathering of sharp-dressed officers. It is only when one registers the swastikas and iron crosses on the officers' uniforms that one looks again at this toddler and beholds the unmistakeable mug of Adolf Hitler Junior. This was a bold statement by Gottfried in which he was effectively drawing a comparison between the iconoclastic and suppressive nature of the Nazi system and the more disturbing tenets of Roman Catholicism.
Epiphany I, Adoration of the Magi
digital print, 2001, 756 x 1200 cm / 297 x 472''
Born in Vienna in 1948, Gottfried Helnwein knows as much about anarchy as any man. For close on 35 years the highly acclaimed concept artist has been tiptoeing up behind the Establishment and making very loud and rude noises with this paintbrush. "I tackle issues that have to do with human existance," he explains. "I think the same tragedies happen over and over again. People keep forgetting. It's alwas a fight for freedom, a struggle for survival."
It's hard to know which of Gottfried's anti-Establishment bees buzz the loudest. He's certainly had his rows with the Roman Catholic Church into which he was born and reared as a child in post-war Vienna. However, with the decline of the Vatican's influence his sights on Calvinism which he holds responsible for spawning such destructive hate groups as the Ku Klux Klan and Combat 18.
Politicians don't fare well in Gottfried's litany of pet hates either. "I have no illusions about governments. Ninety percent of all politicians are corrupt. They are safe because if they get in trouble they find a solution where they pay a bit of money and they are out of trouble. The real danger is when the government gets so disconnected from the people that they need more police an secret services to keep control."
If politicians merit a genuine get-out-of-jail-free card, it is because they are merely pawns of the multinationals, believes Helnwein. "Consumerism is the biggest danger to spiritualism. Everybdy wants more things and more satisfaction. Yet they allow themselves to be distracted by cheap sensations and infantile games. They are entertained to death 24 hours a day. I think Western capitalism is the smartest suppressive system that ever existed."
That a man whose favourite bedside reads include "1984" and "Brave New World" should postulate such a sinister present might seem predictably paranoid. But there is something disconcertingly logical about the way in which Gottfried explains himself. This is after all the man who assisted in the downfall of one of the highest-profile members of the post-war Austrian political elite. In 1979, a Viennese magazine published a painting by Gottfried entitled "Not Worth Living". The watercolour depicted a pretty young girl apparently dead in her bowl of soup. The painting was accompanied by a letter from Gottfried congratulating Dr. Heinrich Gross on his appointment as head of Austrian State Psychiatry.
The painting was inspired by an interview with Dr. Gross in which the top psychiatric said that he had taken part in fatal experiments performed on captive children during the war. Since the end of the war, Austrian society had been determined to portray themselves as guiltless victims of a German-inspired Nazi phenomenon. Gottfried's resolve to smash down this facade had driven him since long before he was expelled in 1966 from Vienna's unjustly named Experimental Institute for Higher Graphic Instruction for painting a portrait of Hitler in his own blood. The controversy created by "Not Worth Living" proved so powerful that Dr. Gross was forced to resign. In March 2001 Dr. Gross appeared before a court in Vienna but was ruled too mentally unfit to be tried.
For Gottfried, the hype surrounding "Not Worth Living" propelled him to the forefront of the post-modern movement. Over the course of the 1980s and '90s, his work graced the covers of "Der Spiegel", "Time", "L'Espresso" and "Rolling Stone". He counts William Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson among the numerous icons whom he has met and photographed. His exhibitions in Germany and America have drawn hundreds of thousands of admireres. Nearly anything that he touches now commands a buying price not dissimilar to that of a very nice Porsche.
Gottfried spends his summers in Ireland and his winters at a studio in downtown Los Angeles, a city he describes as "so commercial that it is already a sort of anarchy". He moved to Ireland in 1997 partly because he loved the place and partly because the German paparazzi were hounding him and his family every time they stepped outside of their previous home, a splendid Baroque castle near Cologne. He maintains that living here in Ireland has been among the happiest experiences of his life. It would seem that we as a nation have so far fanded off the worst excess of consumerism and its brain-numbing inluences that so affect other parts of Europe. He als points out that the Irish landscape itself escaped the unimaginable horrors that befell mailnland Europe during the war.
"Ireland is still very untouched and innocent," he explains. "There is a magic here that was lost in Europe. I see people sitting in the pubs listening and playing music and it is a simple and spiritual experience."
Gottfried believes that "fresh blood" is good for Ireland because newcomers invariably appreciate the qualities of living here as much, if not more, than the Irish themselves. The Helnweins have certainly thrown themselves into the swing of things. Gottfried's fascination with the complexities of Irish history is well-matched by Renate's evolving prowess as an Irish dancr. In medieval times the coupld would have been prime targets of the Statues of Kilkenny implemented by the English to put a halt to the rapid and unexpected Gaelicisation of original Anglo-Norman settler families, like the de la Poers. whose memory lives on in the fading tapestries, ancient swords and full length portraits that share the inner walls of the castle with some of Gottfried's own works.
The Helnweins seem to like nothing better than sharing the magic of the castle with others. "When we first arrived this castle was musty and dusty from not having been lived in. We opened up the windows and let fresh air in and swept the floor. This castle was made for a tribe! It needed to be filled with life!"
And so the castle has become a sort of creative powerhouse to which sculptors, musicians, writers and other artistic souls can come for inspiration. The variety of house guests is fairly staggering. Guest book signatures to date include American music maestro Beck who stayed before Creamfields 2001 and Dr. Antje Vollmer, Vice-President of the German Parliament, whom Gottfried proudly deems to be one of the 10% of politicians who are honest.
"The great thing is that most of the people who come here have never been to Ireland before and many of them say this is the best place they have ever seen in their life. These are people who are always travelling and entertaining and suddenly there is this peace and quiet and they are utterly enchanted."
The library
2008
In the meantime, Gottfried is preparing for his next major project, a public exhibition in Beijing. Although keen to raise issues such as Tibet and Tianenmen Square, he is aware that caution will be required or the government of the People's Republic of China will ask him to leave. He is planning a series of 1000 portraits of Chinese children in a style not dissimilar to those arresting images of the freckle-faced Kilkenny youngsters. His motive is as charming and as straightforward as the man himself.
"Children are very small. Society doesn't look at them much. They are put aside as unimportant. I find that blowing a kid up big, you change all the proportions. It makes adults stop and think and hopefully remember that they too were children once."
Mary-Sheila Walsh, Aoife Connelly and Eimear Connelly
2001




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