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8 août 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
Carolyne Zinko
Staff Writer
Vivid images challenge status quo
His show "The Child," at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, comes with the equivalent of a PG-13 rating, for pieces that feature children and themes of emotional and physical pain. He finds the warning ironic, given that the gallery next door is full of Renaissance paintings depicting religious beheadings and stabbings, but has no warnings about violent content. He knows that his paintings are disturbing ("I'm very bad for people who want decoration," he laughs) He theorizes that entertainment today is passive, but his art causes people to think and "co-create" to fill in the blanks. "Any civil society needs provocation and I think the artist, the role of the artist, is also to provoke and challenge people, because every society usually wants to hold on to the status quo,'' he said. "True artists challenge reality. You don't accept it. We want the world different."
installing "Modern Sleep"
2003
Gottfried Helnwein likes to stand shoulder to shoulder with museum patrons when they look at his work, but he doesn't bask in his own glory.
The Austrian photorealist aims to provoke, so he is interested in viewers' reactions, and that is easier to accomplish when he's blending in with them. Feedback is hard to come by when he's painting alone in his studio 10 hours a day.
His show "The Child," at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, comes with the equivalent of a PG-13 rating, for pieces that feature children and themes of emotional and physical pain. He finds the warning ironic, given that the gallery next door is full of Renaissance paintings depicting religious beheadings and stabbings, but has no warnings about violent content.
"Excuse me -- what is depicted here?'' asked one man, pointing to a painting of a woman with a naked torso, kissing a preteen girl on the cheek, one hand holding the girl's face, the other arm grasping the girl close, a hand on her thigh.
"In many of my paintings,'' said Helnwein, "the meaning is open. When a couple came to the studio, the woman said, 'How nice, the mother is kissing her child.' The man says, 'uh oh,' because it looks more sinister."
"What did you have in mind?" the visitor pressed.
"Just that, what you see,'' Helnwein said.
That his work confuses people is something he seems to enjoy. It makes them talk about what they're thinking.
That didn't seem to happen a lot when he was growing up in post-World War II Austria, where memories about the Holocaust and guilty feelings loomed large, but were not publicly expressed, Helnwein said.
Life was colorless and morose, and he felt from the start he didn't fit in. "It was bombed, it was bleak and dark. People were grouchy. I never heard anybody sing or saw them smile,'' he recalled. There was no TV, no radio. The only art he saw was in his Roman Catholic church, "tortured people, with blood, nailed on crosses.''
When he was 4 or 5, he came across an American comic book, bright with color. It was a huge moment in his young life, he said, "like walking out of a black-and-white silent movie and into a 3-D world.''
Donald Duck became his hero, and he, like his peers embraced all that was American, including packages of chewing gum that came with miniature pictures of Elvis Presley playing a guitar. "I thought he was the most beautiful human being I'd ever seen -- all the adults I'd seen were ugly.''
He grew up rejecting his parents' generation, which had committed "the highest crimes against humanity,'' Helnwein said. But he was unsure of his career ambitions. He didn't know where he fit in.
He had gone to graphic art and fine art school, but had no interest in being a painter -- sketching nudes bored him. (It is often reported that he was kicked out for using his own blood to paint Adolf Hitler. Not true, he says. "It was red paint, but blood makes a better story.'')
It was only after he realized that art could be a form of protest, provocation and expression that he decided to be an artist. Visual images, he thought, might register in a way that the written word didn't. "It was the only way to communicate,'' he said. "It was to express what was haunting me.''
He had always been curious about the Holocaust, and followed the news, disturbed to learn that many high-ranking government leaders had Nazi pasts and had never been jailed.
His first show in Vienna featured watercolors of wounded children in concentration camps. He paired it with an intentionally kitschy oil painting of Hitler against a sunset. He painted it "as a test,'' he said, because nobody was painting Hitler at that time. The experiment worked. "It was like a dam breaking -- everybody talked.''
Everybody including a taxi driver helping him unload the painting, who thought Helnwein was a kindred spirit and began sharing his happy memories as a Nazi. Years later, a young man walked into his studio asking about "the Fuhrer painting,'' and fell to his knees in adoration, telling him that there was a nascent movement to quietly fill government positions with fans of the long-dead leader.
Helnwein's art was also influenced by a newspaper story of a former Nazi psychiatrist who, before the war started, had killed many mentally disabled children -- deemed inferior and unfit to live -- by poisoning their food. The doctor had never been prosecuted for his crimes, and there was no public reaction to the story. "My belief in justice was shaken,'' he said. "If they killed children, they should be in jail. My main concern was why people could harm and torture children. I never understood.''
What drew more public outrage and thousands of letters, he said, was a TV anchorman who refused to wear a tie on the air.
In reaction, Helnwein painted a dead child at a table whose head was on a plate to symbolize the poisonings, accompanied by a sentence that sarcastically thanked the doctor for being kind and helping the children to heaven. The portrait ran on a full page in the local newspaper, and sparked outcry. Years later, the psychiatrist had to retire "in disgrace,'' Helnwein said.
He lived in Germany for 12 years, and in 1988, for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, financed his own exhibition to remind people of the horror.
It featured a series of large portraits of children's faces, spanning the ethnicities in Germany at the time, and the single word, "Selektion" to illustrate the Nazis' practice of selecting those they deemed subhuman for extermination.
Helnwein, who looks a bit like a rock star, dressed in tinted glasses, a black scarf headband tied around a shaggy hairdo (to keep his hair out of the paint), a black blazer, black shiny cargo pants and black and red Nikes (to cushion his feet in his cement-floored studio) has also collaborated with various rock artists on album covers "to provoke the art world,'' he said.
"If you're a fine artist, you're not supposed to do that,'' he said.
The Scorpions and Rammstein used existing paintings, but he worked with Marilyn Manson, (whom he admires for his interest in performance art based on the Dada movement, among other things) to create six possible covers for "The Golden Age of Grotesque," only one of which was deemed suitable for use by the record label.
Helnwein, 55, is married to a former psychiatric nurse, Renata, who is the family manager and organizer. Together they have four children: Cyril, 28, a photographer and Helnwein's assistant; Mercedes, 24, a writer; Ali Elvis Donald, 23, a composer; and Wolfgang Amadeus, 17.
For seven years, the family has lived in Ireland, fond of its green spaces and tranquility. Helnwein had a studio in New York, but moved it to Los Angeles two and a half years ago, feeling that New York was "dead." He revels in the contrast between the peaceful and chaotic, and loves that "L.A. is everything," specifically talking about the diversity in ethnicities, religion, income and educational levels.
And in its expansive diversity, L.A. also offers anonymity, unlike smaller cities in Europe, and through that, freedom, he said.
"It's a city without a memory -- it's only (the here and) now,'' he said. And yet, "It's the best place in the world for art. It's so underestimated. There's no organized art scene. It's out of control. It's a kind of peaceful anarchy.''
Much of his work centers on children, but he has also staged opera productions, and will do stage, costume, light and makeup design for the Los Angeles Opera's forthcoming "Der Rosenkavalier.'' The China National Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing will show a retrospective of his work in 2005.
He knows that his paintings are disturbing ("I'm very bad for people who want decoration,'' he laughs) and is glad that there are collectors (former Bay Area residents Kent and Vicki Logan, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger among them) who have bought it anyway.
He theorizes that entertainment today is passive, but his art causes people to think and "co-create" to fill in the blanks.
"Any civil society needs provocation and I think the artist, the role of the artist, is also to provoke and challenge people, because every society usually wants to hold on to the status quo,'' he said. "True artists challenge reality. You don't accept it. We want the world different."

E-mail Carolyne Zinko at czinko@sf
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