Helnwein, Catalogue for Apokalypse – November 30, 1998
exhibition "APOKALYPSE" at Krems/Austria
AGAINST HARMLESSNESS IN ART
The enigma of Helnwein's paintings always has to do with guilt and atonement, perpetrators and victims, accusation and remorse. He has never escaped the Christian world of ideas and images of his childhood, but instead has used it for his own artistic purposes.
In 1965, when the seventeen year old Gottfried Helnwein began his training at the "Höhere Graphische Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt" in Vienna, the austrian Freedom Party, which is not being headed by Jörg Haider put up posters for 1 May that demanded: "Forget about the past! Look ahead at the future!" Just a few days later earlier the anti-Fascist Ernst Kirchweger had died of the severe injuries that violent right-wing extremists had inflicted upon him at the demonstration against the National Socialist university professor Taras Borodajkewyez. While working with burins and knives at the "Graphische Lehranstalt" Helnwein spontaneously turned accidental minor injuries into his first self-inflicted wounds and in 1969 painted a portrait of Adolf Hitler.
As a consequence he was expelled by the school on the grounds that anyone reminding people of the National Socialist era was damaging the school's reputation. By that time the artists known as the Wiener Aktionisten had already been forced into exile or thrown into prison as a consequence of their Aktion at the University of Vienna entitled Kunst und Revolution/Art and Revolution in 1968, the year of the international student revolts, although in a political sense no such revolt actually took place in Austria. Günter Brus' Wiener Spaziergang/Vienna Walk (1965), in which he addressed random passers-by in public spaces, marked the climax and end of the original Wiener Aktionismus, which had always started with an Aktion directed towards a specific object or subject and carried out in a non-public space. In the subsequent aggressive phase the artists attempted to find a way to turn from art to reality. Between 1965 and 1969 Rudolf Schwarzkogler staged his own reality to be captured by the medium of photography, which Helnwein did not know about until the mid-70's. During his student days Helnwein had been too busy creating his own outsider's world. In contrast to the Aktionsisten, form the very beginning his world was meant for a wide and undifferentiated public, to be covered by the media.
What must have been obvious about the Aktionsisten was the campaign which the media waged against them. Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Peter Weibel, Oswald Wierner and Hermann Nitsch had attacked bourgeois moral concepts and behavioural norms and broken aesthetic taboos, without ever taking up an obvious political position. Helnwein, on the other had, did the opposite. He conquered the media world-in 1973 he did his first cover for the newly established news magazine Profil, and his later works for Kronen Zeitung have made Austrian media history-by providing for the aesthetic establishment what it expects of the arts, namely the perfectly executed proof of mastery of all available means to outdo reality ijn its depiction. Later he furnished proof in front of the camera in his studio that art implies technical mastery but that alone is not enough to be an artist.
Only in this way was Helnwein able to trigger the shock that he intended, a shock with a possible healing effect whose first target was the repression of the greatest trauma of our century. the repression of National Socialism, the Austrian people complicity in it and its consequences had been declared an official policy in Austria. In this way the generations born after 1945 had no chance to deal with the barbaric, neither with its outbreak a few years earlier nor with its lingering latent presence. Everything had become harmless again. The revelation occurred only in 1986 when Kurt Waldheim became President of Austria and a "case" that was discussed world-wide. Based on this specifically Austrian situation Helnwein developed a visual language of apocalyptic vision that can be understood all over the world. The beautiful and the ugly, the fear of the terrible and the power of its fascination, the clearly recognisable and that which cannot be interpreted but lurks outside the painting as well as outside the nursery door, and more closely intertwined in these pictures than those of any other living artist. Today a younger generation of artists likewise tries to subject the viewer to shock therapy with a radical ruthlessness.(2) However, usually the staging and the intermedia approach or allegorical representation prevent that involved similarly which does not express itself directly in the rejection of something disgusting but begins as a slight uneasiness that may in extreme cases turn into panicked worry. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it, and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.(3)
Apocalypse means Revelation; in the biblical sense it is the vision of the imminent end of the world, the vanquishing of Satan and ensuring kingdom of God. The end of the world will be brought about when the "Saviour" opens the seven seals of the mysterious book which the Lord of the World holds in his hands. The terrible consequences have been described by Saint John the Divine-who is not identical with Saint John the Evangelist-in images that have captured the artists' imagination for almost two thousand years with undiminished force, which does not mean that this fascination must necessarily be reflected in an illustrating interpretation of the traditional text with its abundance of images.
One characteristic of the apocalypse is the intensification of all opposites, the forcing of a decision. The archangel Michael thrusts the dragon Satan down upon the earth, which determines the fight against evil in heaven, but also triggers that inferno on earth which is the precondition for passing through the Last Judgement into the "New Jerusalem"
For the current exhibition in the Dominican church in Krems-doubtless a place that further enhances the intensity of Helnwein's painting due to its aura and cultural-historical and cultic significance-Helnwin has supplemented a number of existing worlds dating back to 1986 which new painting creating specifically for this exhibition. Apocalypse, the title chosen by the artist, is to be understood not in the colloquial meaning of the word but in its real meaning in the sense of a "revelation of the last things". These are terrible and in Helnwein's painting there is no bypassing the darkness of anguish which they elicit.
While Gottfried Helnwein is preparing this exhibition in Ireland NATO had begun the war in Serbia and as I am writing this test the latest horror reports are being broadcast hourly about the expulsion of the Albanian people from Kosova and the attempt to eradicate them. We become witnesses of how the people living on the Balkan peninsula are being traumatised for the third time in this century and we understand that for an artist like Helnwein, who has chosen pain, danger and exacting demands- see note 1! - there is no reason to paint other kinds of pictures.
In 1965, when the 17 year old gifted draftsman Gottfried Helnwein began to conquer the world of art, political conflicts erupted in violence not only in his small native country of Austria. After the Viet Cong attack on the American bases at Pleiku and Que Nhou in February 1965 the United States had stepped up thier bombing of North Vietnam. The Vietnam war was the first war of the media era. Although its character was not yet determined by the media - as was to be the case with later wars- for the first time the reports on an ongoing war triggered world-wide protests. It was also the first time that it became easy to understand what it means when the inconceivably horrible does not occur at some distant future point in time - "looking ahead at the future"" - but RIGHT NOW.
The photograph taken by a war correspondent shows a child mutilated by shell splinters on a hospital shop in Dacany. The photographic rendition of reality always leaves it in its original site. The distance between the viewer and that which has been photographed remains irreconcilable. The American artists Aziz + Cucher work with digital photography. They represent a new generation of artists who have grown up in the media age and recognise simulation as the only truth that we can rely on. Helnwein, on the other hand does not supply us with anything we can rely on. He pulls away the ground from under out fee, both in terms of our distance to the object and the subject's reassurance.
The war correspondent who reports on the terrible and the virus so at the computer are existences that we can easily grasp. Anyone, however, who can create a painting like Helnwein's famous Peinlich/Embarrassing of 1971 must make the viewer uncomfortable.
How can one represent visually not only the presence of the terrible Other, but also its actual superiority that no one can escape from? In 1979 Apocalypse Now, the so-called Vietnam epos by Francis Ford Coppola, caused the world-wide irritation of movie-goers by its uneasy balance between accusation and an aesthetic glorification of war, which the director stages with an authenticity that endangered his own existence and that of his crew. The same accusation is regularly raised against Helnwein. It is due to the fact that Modernism has made it more difficult for us to gain access to works of art that use mimetic techniques in an almost classical sense, ie that try to make us grasp reality by copying it and by various degrees of transformation. Although in an attempt to clarify misunderstandings Peter Gorsen has repeatedly written tests to go with Helnwein's works, it was only Klaus Honnef who succeeded in proving that from the viewpoint of any advanced pictorial theory Helnwein is a "media-artist" and "media critic""2 who works conceptually, albeit ina radically different sense from that of the new electronic media: the only truth that we can still rely on is not simulation but the "subversive force of art" which is able to instrumentalize any available medium for its own purposes(4).
Only by a subversive strategy of transferring familiar pictorial types into a new context of utilisation, by the substitution of pictorial motifs and a syncretistic intensification of carriers of meaning of different origin is it possible to make fascism, violence and abuse "aesthetically commensurable" (Gorsen 1988): to show the world as it is and not as it is portrayed to us by the media apparatus.(5)
A decisive aspect of Helnwein's art is that he does not show the causes of the terrible. The tortured children of his early years, the self portraits as victim, the staging of groups of person whose meaning remains enigmatic, the heads of the Poems and the free painterly designs of heads that appear damaged: all these pictures are part of an iconographic tradition in Western painting and refer to familiar types of pictures (portrait, group portrait, pictures of saints, vanitas motifs, etc)
At the same time they do not provide what usually makes pictures readable, namely an unambiguous interpretation in terms of the reality portrayed. These pictures lack the one story that can be narrated whose culmination they are. They can be recognised as being linked to photography and some of them resemble film stills - such as the Nacht/Night series created after 1989: in other words they remain indecisive in their relationship to a possible before and after. Helnwein never shows the act of violence as such. Instead he shows it results and its latent threatening existence. This distinguishes his oeuvre significantly from that of his frequently quoted "precursors" - from Hieronymus Bosch and @Francisco de Goya to Alfred Kubin, all of whom represent a surreal attitude.
In Helnwein's paintings more than in any of his "precursors" we find open narrative structures of the kind developed in film. Helnwein himself never referred to traditions of "high art". He had repeatedly and intentionally provocatively pointed out that he has been influenced more by 20th century popular media than by a bourgeois art-historical canon that has also appropriated Modernism including its avant-gardes. Thus the visitors to Hermann Nitsch's Six Day Spectacle at Prinzendorf are no more to be considered addressees of Helnwein's pictorial world than people who fly somewhere for a weekend to see an exhibition of Monets or Vermeers. Helnwein has refused - even though in part certainly only rhetorically - to appropriate this canon. Nevertheless in reflecting upon his oeuvre the influence of photography and film has not yet been sufficiently considered. Omission - a fundamental technique of filmic narration - and ambiguity as it was cultivated by Alfred Hitchcock as "suspense" - throw the viewer of Helnwein's paintings into a state of inner turmoil which is familiar to us from the movies. At first sight it seems paradoxical to be able to paint "suspense" given that a painter has only one frame at his disposal, to speak to cinematographic terms. That it is nevertheless possible is explained by the fact that Helnwein's paintings raise questions and demand explanations that leave no way out, no loophole, for the viewer.
In 1975, the year the Vietnam war ended, one of the most shocking films ever made reached the cinemas, but was immediately forbidden in most countries: Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom, which shows how in 1944/45 in a villa in Salo - where Mussolini had proclaimed the "Republic of Salo" in 1943 - eight young people were slowly and painfully tortured to death by four powerful men with the aid of four whores. Each frame of the film, even those or especially those frames that do not show violence, can throw the viewer into panic as to what might happen next or may already have happened although we have not seen it. This is the same effect that Helnwein achieves with his paintings and it allows for a surprisingly high degree of enigma.
Due to its superficial banality and lack of content a particularly interesting example of this approach is the painting entitled Türkenfamilie/Turkish Family, which esists in two versions of approximately the same dimensions. As the title explains the painting depicts a Turkish family. Four children and a middle aged woman are dressed traditionally and inconspicuously. The kids wear Micky Mouse ears, a device to demonstrate their cultural assimilation. Two young blonde women in seductive poses are dressed in fashionable "Western" clothes. Three personal computers are intersperses between the people. The 1988 version somewhat resembles a photograph for which the family is posing. The children look at the camera with bored expressions or at the floor in embarrassment, the woman in the centre smiles proudly and one of the two young ladies on the bed who look out of place between a clothes drier and Turkish carpets likewise smiles at the viewer. it is obvious that the painting shows two different cultures, their appropriation and rejection. However, a good painting always has more than one level of meaning and how come Helnwein paints such pictures? One has to look at this picture for a long time before one notices that something is not right. if the two long-legged "assimilated" Turkish daughters were to stand up they would be out of proportion to the other figures although they would still fit into the painting. In the 1966 version this effect was further enhanced by the perspective and the tension between the people depicted was heightened by the arrogant look and pose of the two daughters. Usually when the unity of one many and the surrounding space is disturbed in Western painting by a being that is strange and arrogant it is an angel, beautiful, terrible and all the more seductive when it is a fallen angel.
In this three Epiphanies that were created between 1996 and 1998 Helnwein achieved a hitherto unknown degree of complexity in the relationship between photography and painting. In the Adoration of the Magi, which shows Nazi soldiers and the Führer in the style of a group photograph, Adolf Hitler was replaced by a young blonde women with an infant what clearly bears Hitler's features. Like the photographic staging of Nazi propaganda the representation follows a common type: the infant looks straight at the viewer who thus participates direly in the salvation emanating from him while the Madonna presents her son with a casual gesture and a proud mien. It looks as though the soldiers decorated with oak-leaf and Iron Crosses were to be rewarded here.
They are stand-in for the viewer in a painting that demonstrates to us in an underhand manner and not at all innocently what can be
done with the pictorial inventory of our culture. The syncretism of different media (photography, painting), types of picture (group photograph, epiphany) and cultures (Christian religion) Nazi cult of the Führer) creates a feleing of uneasiness (7).
A similar strategy underlies the Adoration of the Shephards, which shows the infant Jesus as a blind seer whose utterance obviously meet the merry approval. The Presentation in the Temple is different. It is based on a photograph of World War I British prisoners of war disfigured by shell splinters. They are standing around a table on which a girl lying, which the soldier on the right paradoxically bearing Adolf Hitler's features. The iconography refers to the "anatomy lesson" which was a popular them in 17th century Netherlandish painting: a group portrait depicting scientists standing around a corpse or skeleton. Here the Presentation becomes a "sacrifice", which it is in the proper sense of the word, and that in turn becomes an "examination"; the representation of an unmaking of power which is still future emphasised by the reversal of the child's sex, which makes one think of the circumcisions of girls in the so-called "third world". are the perpetrators victims themselves? Why do victims become perpetrators? One thing is clear: children, particularly girls, can only be victims. Similar consideration apply to Helnwein's painting Späte Reue/Late Regret (1997), which was inspired by a photgraphy from Aktion Sorgenkind (1972).
On question that is raised by all these paintings is: Who is the fictitious viewer for whom these people pose-not to be confused with the painter Helnwein or the photographer who took the original picture. Who are these people looking at? Helnwein has succeeded in updating this literary level of meaning for our time. He turns the actual viewer of the paintings into an involuntary accomplice of the fictitious viewer who-it is pretended - has made these pictures at the site where they occurred. it is this subversive mixture of a strange, inexplicable content - which we readily accept as something invented! - and a brilliant visual rendition whose effect is more powerful then that of any photograph - of which we would know anyway that it might be manipulated. Anything that Helnwein shows seems possible. Tat is upsetting. The way in
which he shows it is facetious, since it is a painting, but it is so concrete that is seems "close enough to touch". This is even more disquieting.
Helwein went a step further in pointing out this relationship between documentary naturalism and artistic fiction in the group of world entitled Poems (1996), reworked photographs of deceased people. By making their identity unclear the dignity of those depicted is preserved: what we do not want to see too closely, however, upsets us even more if we cannot actually see it in detail.
The past has been withheld from us just as the sight of death has been withheld. This is the meaning of the apocalypse: the appropriation of that which has been revealed. With Helnwein appropriation is always painful. The Poems have their pendant in the heads of the German music group Rammstein, which Helnwein photographed in 1997, squeezed and deformed by adhesive tape. These photographs have been used as the basis for a painterly transformation by the artist. For the first time he has not maltreated his own face, but someone else's. Whenever Helnwein has depicted children he has shown them bandaged or otherwise victimised. Here the face is subjected to a distancing effect and the "Other" is pointed out. It is only the deformation which reveals the willingness to also be a perpetrator. The terrible is coaxed from that which seems harmless.
Helnwein chose the exhibition title Apocalypse not because this is what he paints or because the apocalyptic in the broadest sense of the word is the theme of this paintings. Instead these paintings themselves want to be an apocalypse, a revelation. The biblical text is called "Revelation". The mysterious is an integral part of any apocalyptic vision. Helnwein's paintings contain a recognisable mystery. That does not mean, however, that they cannot be understood. Quite the opposite is true. At the end of this century a considerable proportion of contemporary art has become unintelligible to most people. Is it not as though the works had become so hermetic that their enigma can only be solved with relevant training and connoisseurship - this has always been the case- but rather because the mysteries have disappeared from art. In this way it had often become harmless.
The enigma of Helnwin's paintings always has to do with guilt and atonement, perpetrators and victims, accusation and remorse. He has never left the Christian world of ideas and images of his childhood, but instead has used it for his own artistic purposes. Nevertheless he has not become a John of painting like the John of the biblical Revelation, who depicted his compelling visions. Instead Helnwein uses his entire oeuvre as a weapon in the apocalypse of this world. For this alone can be the revelation of his art. that salvation has to occur in reality rather than in art.
Catalogue for Apokalypse by Paul Zawrel
Director of the Museum of Lower Austria