1 août 2010
Friedman Benda Gallery, New York
Peter Frank
Peter Frank talks with Gottfried Helnwein
On the occasion of Helnwein's Solo Show "I Was a Child" at Friedman Benda NY
The first child I collaborated with in my performances was Sandra, a six-year old girl. Her parents considered her a problem child and I think her mother had a hard time coping with Sandra’s twisted sense of humor. One time, when she confined her daughter to her bedroom as punishment for something, Sandra cut up all her mothers clothes into tiny little pieces, arranged them in a neat pile in the middle of the room and called her mom with her innocent voice. Another time she set fire to her parent’s apartment. She was one tough and mean little lady, but I liked her instantly. She had the pride of a Latino street gang leader. When she looked at you, her piercing little eyes had a very clear message: “don’t mess with me”.
Yours is not an art that comforts. You go back and forth between tender, if ominous, portrayals of figures – notably children – and figural images displaying the most horrific results of some sort of violence, or being subjected to the most perverse interrogations. In between, you depict human figures in improbable interaction with anthropomorphized creatures, animated toys, cartoon characters come to three-dimensional life, and other dreamlike encounters. Do you want to move us to action, to make the world a better place? Or do you want us each to come to terms with our own demons?
I didn’t become an artist because I thought I knew the answers. But I had questions.When I started painting I was like an autistic child. I had no contact with the so-called “Higher Arts.” My aesthetics were inspired by poorly painted saints from the late 19th century, Donald Duck comics, Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, and the Rolling Stones.
Originally I didn’t even want to become an artist. As a kid I thought painters were boring old guys with beards and berets standing in front of easels and painting abstract canvases all day long. Being a member of the Rolling Stones seemed to me more like the ideal form of existence as an artist.
I deeply despised the world I was born into. Vienna a few years after the Second World War was a dreary place. My parents’ generation had just lost the war. I remember the empty streets, dark and cold churches cluttered with pictures of tortured saints, ruins of bombed houses, rust, rubble, no colors, no sound. There was a sense of despair. All the grown-ups I saw were ugly, grouchy and rude. I never saw anybody laugh, I never heard anybody sing. I was born into a fucking twilight zone. I had no idea how I got there but I knew for sure that I didn’t want to be there.
There was an enormous void because the Nazis had destroyed and suppressed all free expression and arts. Museums were looted, books were burned, and anybody creative or visionary was either dead or in exile. There was total destruction: bombs had flattened whole cities, Gothic churches, Baroque palaces, museums, libraries, opera houses. An era of the greatest art and architecture was turned into ashes. It was the final triumph of stupidity and mediocrity.
There was such a silence when the war was over, and everybody was hastily trying to get rid of the past, to forget, to bury everything, their history, their identity and their memory.
Maybe it’s a defect, yet ever since my earliest childhood I have seen violence all around me, as well as the effect of violence: fear. I absorbed any piece of information I could get hold of on persecution and torture like the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, tyrannical regimes such as that of Pinochet’s Chile, the Inquisition…and finally, the general mistreatment of children.
The obsession with inflicting maximum pain on others, in particular on the defenseless, that runs throughout human history has always been a mystery to me. The creativity that people develop in committing such atrocities is startling.
How can someone show anything but love and admiration to children? I have seen pictures taken by forensic doctors of children who had been tortured to death, often by their own parents, images that will not let you sleep well for awhile.
That was the reason I began to paint; aesthetics were not my primary motivation.
By the age of 18 I finally realized that art was probably the only possible way of defending myself against the impertinences of society. For me art was a weapon with which I could finally strike back.
Your work manifests your bleak regard for the condition of the human race and your anger and frustration at the seeming intractability of this condition. Has your view changed over the years?
My first paintings were little watercolors of wounded, disfigured and bandaged children. I was incredibly naive at that time and completely uninformed about any aspect of traditional art; deliberately, because I rejected anything that came from my parents’ generation.
Once I learned about the Holocaust, I realized its implications, and saw the collective denial and amnesia in Austria at that time. Everything froze for me and I refused to move on from that point. Maybe due to my infantile obsession with ‘justness,’ something broke for me, and from then on I felt detached from my ancestors, their traditions and values.
I avoided all established cultural institutions like museums, and I never visited a gallery. I was a proud ‘orphaned’ street kid, glad to be ignorant. I only cared about the so-called ‘trivial arts’ like comics and rock music.
In a way, I was privileged when I began painting because I was completely free. I had no influences from other artists and I had no goals regarding a career. I took cheap watercolors and started to paint. It was like talking to myself, I didn’t know where this would lead to and if anyone would ever notice my little paintings. I had no idea if they were any good either because I had nothing to compare them to.
But soon something strange happened. People started to react to my work, other students came to see it, and even people from outside the university who had heard about my paintings came. Their reaction was usually very emotional and sometimes violent. Some attacked me, some had tears in their eyes, and others laughed hysterically. I got offers to exhibit my work, which I rejected. I had no intention of showing my work in a gallery.
But these reactions changed everything for me. At first I could hardly believe that my little watercolors would have such a profound effect on grown-up people. It was like a revelation, and I got an inkling of the potential power of an image.
From that moment on my art became a dialogue.
My audience became the great love affair of my life. All I have wanted to do with my art is to touch, to move or startle my onlookers, and to hold them tight – and sometimes I want to kick their ass. That is all I care about. But I also listen to them and take their responses seriously, because they and other artists are the only people that ever taught me anything. As Duchamp put it, “The work of art is always based on the two polarities of the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from the bipolar action gives birth to something – like electricity.”
You are a photographer as well as painter and draughtsman. Did you take up photography, at least initially, as a supportive practice to your painting? Or did you always approach photography as a discrete medium?
From the very beginning, photography has been an important factor in my work. Our reality today is almost entirely based on the second-hand information of two-dimensional photographic images in print and electronic media. How we view and conceive the world is to a high degree shaped by the flood of images that we are constantly exposed to.
I was always amazed at how much people trust a photographic image which is considered to be objective and is generally mistaken for the truth. Most people think they have personally experienced or witnessed something because they saw it on TV or in the papers. Yet nothing is more easily manipulated, distorted, or entirely faked than a so-called photographic image. But faith in the veracity of a photograph is so deeply seated in us that it is practically ineradicable.
I was always fascinated by the unlimited possibilities of constructing new realities in a painting, inspired by different photographic resources. When I started to paint I used all materials that came to hand: watercolors, colored pencils, inks, and airbrush.
From the beginning, I developed my own methods of painting and didn’t care much for the traditional rules. I created my own kind of realism which I drew from reproductions in newspapers and magazines. But after awhile I couldn’t find what I was looking for anymore, so I started to make photographs myself. At first it was to get more resources for my paintings, but soon it gained a momentum of its own and became an independent medium for me. From that moment on, I moved back and forth between different media. I painted, drew and photographed in black and white, and did performances that I often documented photographically.
I changed everything when I moved to Germany in 1985. I switched to oil and acrylic on large canvases and started to combine different media in triptychs, installations and performances.
I started relatively late with computers and digital technology, around 2000. I always tried to avoid it due to my aversion to everything that has to do with electronics, but I have to admit that digital technology is an amazing tool. In the 21st century it’s hard to avoid this technology even in the creation of an artwork. But I was never really interested in techniques as such. For me they were always mere necessities to achieve a certain effect. I have always been only interested in the result: what is it that you see at the end?
My working procedure is anarchic and my decisions regarding what medium or what technique to use for what end are spontaneous and based on my intuition of the moment. My course is sometimes inconsistent and mercurial, and at times I like to step into new and unknown territory and risk my neck.
Your combination of the classic and the grotesque, of veristic manner with violent and nightmarish subject matter harks back to symbolism, surrealism, and Die Neue Sachlichkeit (the “New Objectivity”). Do you feel a kinship with any of those movements?
My interests and inspirations are very diverse and eclectic.
In my early days of childhood I was in the firm grip of Roman Catholic iconography. I spent lots of my time in cold churches and stared in awe and fascination for hours at all these tortured and blood-bathed saints that squirmed in ecstasy while their bodies were spiked with arrows or nailed against crosses; or the pale Madonnas with their cold and strange beauty, ripping their dresses open and revealing a big, floating heart pierced by tiny swords. These were the images that haunted me in the sleepless nights of my childhood.
That all ended one day when I opened my first Donald Duck comic book. It was like seeing the daylight again for someone who had been trapped underground in a mine disaster for many days. I squinted because my eyes hadn’t become used to the dazzlingly bright sun of Duckburg. I was now at home in a decent world where one could get flattened by steamrollers and perforated by bullets without serious harm, a world in which the people still looked decent, with yellow beaks or black knobs instead of noses. The Duck comics by Disney artist Carl Barks had an enormous impact on my generation in Europe. Many artists and writers – Elfriede Jelinek, Günter Grass, H. C. Artmann, Theodor Adorno – were influenced and inspired by them.
I was also fascinated by medical books, especially from the 19th century, with their lithographic depiction of open bodies and organs. In the ‘80s I discovered the great collection of medical artifacts in the Pathological-Anatomical Museum in Vienna. The museum had been founded in the 18th century, when people became interested in natural science. I repeatedly visited this collection, most of which was not open to the public. I found endless hallways and rooms with grotesque-looking people made of wax, disfigured by strange diseases but very realistic, with hair, glass eyes and clothes.
I also found hundreds of stillborn babies in glass jars, floating in green or amber-colored formaldehyde, many of them strangely deformed. I was very moved when I looked at these little bodies frozen in time. I realized that 200 years ago somebody lived here for a second and then died, leaving this odd looking little body behind, as a quasi imprint of his soul. Each body had distinct features and emotional expressions and each one was absolutely unique and individual. Some looked peaceful and relieved, others confused, as if struggling or in pain, or caught in some bad dream. Some of them didn’t even look very human, and it was impossible to read their expressions closely. But I found all of them incredibly beautiful.
The first art movement that had a great impact on me was the Romantic Era of the late 18th to early 19th centuries, especially Caspar David Friedrich, and writers like Poe, Hoffmann, Goethe, Novalis, Eichendorff, Stifter, Hugo, Hauff and the brothers Grimm.
Later it was Rimbaud, Kafka, Gogol, Dostoyevski, Bulgakov, Witkiewicz, Pesoa, Burroughs, Artaud, Bukowski, Jelinek.
I feel a great closeness to Goya, Francis Bacon, James Ensor, Marc Rothko, Malevich, Duchamp, Mayakowski, Matthias Gruenewald, Max Beckmann, Munch, Caravaggio, Artaud, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Bruegel, McCay, Bosch, Rockwell, Mishima, Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) as photographer as well as writer.
In contemporary art: Kiefer, Tansey, Rauch, Richter (especially his “October 18, 1977”), Sherman, Close, Witkin, Guston, Boltanski, Crumb.
Many commentators have emphasized your reliance on popular culture, as a source both for your imagery and for your technique. How – and how much – do you indeed feel moved by popular culture or by any contemporary artistic movements?
As I said before, in the early years I didn’t know much about other artists and art movements.
But I think my work is nevertheless deeply rooted in the Austrian cultural tradition. When I was seventeen I started my first performances where I cut my hands and face and bandaged myself. Later at the Akademie for Fine Art, I painted, drew and photographed and moved my performances into the streets and other public spaces, eventually including children.
Only then somebody handed me a catalogue of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, who I had never heard of before. He was one of the protagonists of the Viennese Aktionists, whose existence was formerly unknown to me. I was in shock, because some of his photographs that documented his performances were so similar and close to mine that it took my breath away.
But also their ‘Aktions’ took place in relative seclusion within a narrow circle of friends. This group caught my attention for the first time in the late 1960s, when the so-called “Uniferkelei” (University-mess), a happening at the Vienna University in ‘68 made headlines. But back then it was impossible for the press to describe the graphic details of what really happened, so they squirmed and resorted to helpless circumlocution, talking of ‘pigs that made a mess’ at the university. Nobody knew what the hell really happened there.
I believe that every society has the art it deserves. No artist is fully autarkic; in one way or another every artist reacts to the society and phenomena of their time. And I think this kind of aesthetic reaction was in the air in Vienna in those days.
I think the biggest distinction between my performances and that of the Viennese Aktionists was that my work was focused on children.
The Viennese art historian Peter Gorsen commented on that aspect:
“As shown also by his many actions with children in public, the group portrait with children has become a permanent subject for Helnwein. His commitment to the rights of children has nothing to do with “infantomania,” as manifested in a socially isolated “children’s culture,” in a commercialized “children’s media,” in the child as a pedagogical subject, and in the ideological transfiguration of one’s own childhood.
Helnwein must also be set apart from Viennese Aktionism as he does not reduce the child’s body to mere aesthetic material (as in the “material actions” of Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, and Otto Muehl), but instead endows it with a symbolic function in representing defenseless, sacrificed man. The sexualistic concept of the child in (Freud-influenced) Viennese Aktionism is countered by the moralist and utopian Helnwein with the child as a sexless salvation figure.”
(Peter Gorsen, “The Divided Self,” in Der Untermensch, Heidelberg: Edition Braus, 1988)
The first child I collaborated with in my performances was Sandra, a six-year old girl. Her parents considered her a problem child and I think her mother had a hard time coping with Sandra’s twisted sense of humor. One time, when she confined her daughter to her bedroom as punishment for something, Sandra cut up all her mothers clothes into tiny little pieces, arranged them in a neat pile in the middle of the room and called her mom with her innocent voice. Another time she set fire to her parent’s apartment. She was one tough and mean little lady, but I liked her instantly. She had the pride of a Latino street gang leader. When she looked at you, her piercing little eyes had a very clear message: “don’t mess with me”.
I asked Sandra if she would like to participate in some art performances with me. “What’s in it for me?” she replied with the cool of a Yakuza negotiating business. “What do you want?” I asked her. “A bicycle” she said. So we had a deal. I bandaged her and she would stand or lay on the street or sidewalks at different locations in Vienna, amidst the stream of irritated pedestrians. Sometimes she would walk slowly like a sleepwalker and bump into people. She took these actions serious and was very dedicated but always with a cool head - no emotions involved.
I did a series of photographs with bandages, strings and surgical instruments and I was careful not to hurt her, but she was acting with a professional curiosity and encouraged me to try more extreme distortions of her face. Sandra was my first model and she appeared in photographs, short-films and my early watercolors of the “beautiful victim” series. I had a great respect for her. We never talked much, but there was always implicitness and an almost telepathic communication and understanding.
Your imagery is invariably provocative, and the virtuosic, visually gratifying precision of your style only serves to amplify the imagery’s unsettling, sometimes horrific aspects. Can you conceive of producing imagery that is itself pleasant, or work in an approach that was far less refined?
‘Pleasant’ is an extremely subjective term. At different times and at different places, depending on education, cultural background, social class or ethnic tradition, people have very different notions about what they consider pleasant or unpleasant.
Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Children, Gruenewald’s tortured Christ in his Isenheim Altarpiece, or Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 paintings of the dead Baader-Meinhof gang are very pleasant works of art in my opinion. Today everybody considers Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling one of the most beautiful artworks ever, but back then many critics were shocked and angered by the nudity: Pope Adrian VI described the ceiling as “a stew of naked bodies” and ordered the destruction of the ceiling. (God obviously didn’t agree because he let him die instantly).
The only thing I am looking for in any art is the aesthetic quality, power or intensity.I actually don’t care much about style, genre, subject or medium. I was never able to think in common categories like beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant etc. I actually don’t even know what people mean when they use these terms.
“That is beautiful which is produced by the inner need...” said Kandinsky.
When I look at a work of art I ask myself: does it challenge me, does it emotionally touch, move or inspire me? Does it startle or amaze me - do I get excited, upset? Does it change the way I conceive the world to some degree.
That is the test any artwork has to pass: can it create an emotional impact on a human being? Even when that person has no education or any information about art?
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