Three decades later and Helnwein's art still provokes a reaction. Whether fear or admiration, disgust or respect, his visceral drawings and huge photorealist canvases contain subject matter that can be both disturbing and beautiful in the extreme. Often depicting images of disfigured children subjected to cruel medical experiments or self-portraits in which he himself is depicted in a similar vein, he has since the early 1970s employed a technique of "visual disturbance" intended to attack the repressive structures of a culture uneasy with its own past.
Born in Vienna in 1948, Helnwein grew up in a society that was in a profound state of denial. Right up until his teens, he learnt nothing of his countrymen's sympathetic response to Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938, nothing of their positive collaboration with the Nazis throughout the war. Indeed, official policy in Austria in the 1950s was to represent the Nation as a "victim" of Hitler rather than as a willing participant in his schemes. The consequences of such suppression of history was that although under Allied control until 1955, Austria was never properly denazified as shown by Jörg Haider's electoral success earlier this year.
As a young man living in Vienna in the 1960s, Helnwein was often abused for having long hair. It was not uncommon for people to scream at him, "Hitler should come back and gas you!" - in fact, it was an everyday occurrence. Faced with such condemnation, Helnwein fought back. His portrait of Adolf Hitler in blood was one such early act of rebellion, a theme that he pursued in an exhibition in 1972 entitled "Führer, We Thank You!" Here Helnwein exhibited a portrait of the Führer in traditional oils around which he placed several watercolours of wounded or disfigured children. The reaction of the crowd was immediate although somewhat unusual. On entering the exhibition space most visitors were amazed by the portrait of Hitler and only after a few moments did they notice the damaged children that surrounded him. Indeed, so powerful was the allure of Hitler's image that many viewers managed to block out the presence of the children altogether. For Helnwein, this proved to be an important lesson that revealed more about the visitors to the exhibition than the work on show.
"Visual images sometimes go really deep," Helnwein argues. "They cut through everything and cause a level of communication that is immediate. This show was an amazing learning curve for me that started even before I had hung the show. The taxi driver who helped me to transport my paintings took one look at the portrait of Hitler and became transfixed. He got so excited that he went to his car and got out a small box in which he kept a silver skull, the insignia of the SS. He said, 'That was me! That was us!' and then told me, 'Those were great times, a time when the German race stood together as one being and controlled the world!' He just kept on talking and talking and I became so embarrassed because I thought that if he would stop and look at me he would realise that I was everything that he hated. I was his worst nightmare, a hippie with long hair dressed like Jimi Hendrix. But he couldn't help talking because of the picture. The same thing happened with the taxi driver who took me home."
Such apparent misinterpretation of his work became a source of fascination for the young Helnwein. In the years that followed he started upon a path of artistic disturbance that played upon the preconceptions of an audience whilst simultaneously subverting that belief system from within. Through a combination of traditional painterly expertise and fine art mannerisms, an interest in cartoons, and a Catholic iconography, he fashioned an aesthetic that was capable of lulling his audience into a false sense of security only to behold imagery that challenged their innate prejudices. His street performances of the early 1970s are perhaps some of his most radical public interventions to date although in the beginning such actions were considered to be more acts of personal defiance than modes of artistic self-expression.
"I didn't think it was art, I just did it," Helnwein explains. "I wounded myself. I bandaged myself. There was no aesthetic aspect attached to these acts. They were spontaneous. The moment that you are full of blood everything changes. All the rules are different. People treat you in a different way because they think you are insane. People stay away."
Performances such as "Aktion Hallo Sufferer", "Aktion Café Alt Wien" or "Aktion Always Prepared", which took place in the streets of Vienna in 1973, all feature Helnwein bandaged around the head with surgical instruments attached to his skull. Similar in feel to the work of Rudolf Schwarzkopf and other Viennese Actionists of the previous decade, although predominantly conducted within the public space of a busy street, these acts confronted the average Viennese citizen with a spectacle of surprising vulnerability. Symbolic in their delivery, they conjured up not only memories of the past suffering (in the 1940s Jews had been forced to scrub the streets of Vienna with water mixed with acid) but also highlighted a contemporary experience, loneliness of the soul. The use of surgical instruments and restraints in his paintings of the same time also invoke a similarly emotive response.
"I use them because in a picture if you have skin that is soft and vulnerable, the most opposite material would be steel. It is cold and inorganic. It can manipulate living matter. So in my paintings it made a lot of sense to incorporate these things. They become a metaphor for the way that everyone around us is in some way disfigured or wounded. By painting these images I feel that I get somewhere near this unspoken truth."
"Embarrassing", produced in 1971, a painting that Helnwein considers to be one of his most important works, is a perfect example of this fusion of beauty and horror as one. Depicting a young doll-like infant of perhaps two years old, sitting in a pretty pink dress and loosely holding a comic book in her bandaged left hand, the significance of this image is haunting. Scarred across the cheek and mouth, it is as if the skin has been peeled back to reveal the gruesome reality beneath. What is most disturbing about this image is that the wound inflicted upon this child unsettles the viewer just as the painterly execution of the portrait entices one to gaze further. The infant has a surprisingly calm demeanour. It is us, not her, who find this scene distressing.
"When I look at a child that I bandaged you really don't know if it is wounded but you can guess. Often in my paintings, the child is bandaged around the face so that it cannot see anything. They can't talk because they have something in their mouth. Their hands are bandaged so that they cannot touch. They are trapped in this moment of absolute isolation but at the same time you can see that they don't suffer. They are very defiant, calm and serene. It is a very strange juxtaposition."
The juxtaposition is further magnified by the sublime nature of the image. The fact that it has the power to both attract and revolt simultaneously is part of its magnetism. Helnwein's use of traditional art techniques such as watercolour or oil ensures that his paintings are able to infiltrate our everyday consciousness. Often misconceived as a photorealist painter, his work plays on established modes of visual communication whilst simultaneously subverting them from within. Malcolm Morely, a leading member of the photorealist movement in the 1970s, once asserted, "I accept the subject matter of a painting as a by-product of the surface." For Helnwein, it is the content of his paintings that is paramount. Aesthetics become but a strategy for the presentation of an idea.
"The material that I work with as an artist is aesthetics," he explains. "You can take any subject matter at all and make it sublime. If you look at the work of Goya and his depiction of the horror of war, it is horrific yet beautiful. That is, emotional. News reporting portrays the horror of war in a very precise and clinical way. Art is different, it shows you the true nature of things. I want to work with images that reach real people."
Ironically, Helnwein's art has often been misunderstood by art critics and members of the public who are unable, or unwilling, to see its positive intent. This is due in part to his refusal to "Play the game" and produce a body of work that may be easily assimilated into the hierarchical and systematised canons of modern art or public sensibility. His work functions on an emotional plane and is therefore difficult to fit into ready-made, proscribed categories. Within the confines of the art world in Austria, its refusal to be silenced makes it even more difficult to digest.
A major underlying theme to many of Helnwein's more recent paintings and public installations is the treatment of the Jewish community under the brutal Nazi regime. This questioning of the Holocaust and the endemic racism at the heart of fascism is represented through a series of subtle, often ironic plays on the visual fantasies of the far right. In his 1989 installation "SELEKTION" (Simply translated in English as the provocative enunciation "Select"), Helnwein chose to erect an extensive 100-metre "picture wall" incorporating the images of 17 children's faces aged between six and seven years old.
"I chose the title 'SELEKTION' because in German it is a magic word, the key word that describes the Nazi ethos: the idea that a small group of people can select or decide who is subhuman and who is superior. They would decide whether you lived or died, whether you were transformed into a super being or turned into a lampshade. These choices were based on the form of the body. On race and race alone."
Produced for the 50th anniversary of "Kristallnacht", an infamous night of terror on November 10, 1938 when Brown Shirts first beat the Jews into submission, Helnwein's installation became a poignant reminder of the Holocaust. Situated along the platform of a busy public railway line that ran between the Ludwig Museum and Cologne Cathedral, each child's face is painted an unearthly hue of white, giving them all the melancholy visage of death. With eyes half closed or staring blankly ahead, they represent the collective ineptitude of racial selection. As if to drive the point home, Helnwein chose to include insidious examples of Nazi racial propaganda, black and white pseudo scientific charts that outlined the supposed differences between the perfect Aryan type and inferior subhuman degenerate.
"Very few artworks deal with the issues of life," explains Helnwein, when asked why he had chosen to make this grand statement against horrors of racial purity. "Important art should reflect the struggle of its times. 'SELEKTION' reflects the history of a people which is still pertinent to the present."
As a work of art, "SELEKTION" was but one way for Helnwein to highlight the horrors of racial selection by celebrating the innocence, beauty and vulnerability of youth. The final result, however, was more disturbing. Within a few days of its erection every image had been vandalised, their throats cut with a knife. Such violence against a singular piece of art is by no means uncommon and Helnwein has learnt to expect a degree of brutality when displaying his work in public. An advocate of art that has the power to create a lasting impression, Helnwein has always sought a degree of confrontation with his paintings.
"I found out early on that my paintings were able to cause emotion," he reasons. "That people would react. It still amazes me that a single piece of artwork can make somebody so nervous. That it could instigate violence. That people would attack me personally for a painting. That process has always fascinated me."
In 1979, in response to the appointment of the Nazi sympathiser Dr. Heinrich Gross as the Head of State Psychiatry in Vienna, Helnwein painted a picture entitled simply "Lebensunwertes Leben" ("Life Not Worth Living"). This painting, depicting a dead child with her head slumped face down into a plate of poisoned food, was in reaction to a newspaper interview conducted by Dr. Gross where he admitted to having poisoned hundreds of mentally disabled children in the 1940s. Considered part of an extensive euthanasia programme set up by the Nazis during the war, he maintained throughout the article that he was innocent of any crime and instead stated quite openly that he had acted in the best interest of his patients.
"He actually thought of himself as a 'Mother Theresa', that the killing of these children was the right thing to do at the time. But that was not the worst thing. After reading the interview I was shocked because in the rest of the general press there was no reaction. At least 100,000 people must have read this article but nobody seemed to want to speak out. At the same time, a newsreader on Austrian television went on air without wearing a tie. 3,000 members of the public wrote in to complain that this was a catastrophe. He even had death threats made against him and his family. I figured that the reason nobody spoke out against Gross, but were so affronted by this newsreader, was because they couldn't read, so I simply painted a picture of what Gross had said."
The painting, published alongside an open letter ironically congratulating Gross on his "humane" treatment of his subjects during the war, had the necessary effect. The image of a dead child was considered too real, too appalling and forced those who saw it to confront the realities of Gross's crimes. A few weeks later Gross resigned. "That was one of the first occasions when I saw that an image goes deeper," exclaims Helnwein.
"That is what is so perfect about a powerful image. There are no language barriers. The same work can have similar impact all over the world. It becomes a universal language."
His belief in the authority of an image to change public opinion had also led Helnwein to a series of public interventions that incorporated the ruling mechanisms of power such as the popular press. In 1973 he completed a cover design for the political and cultural magazine Profil, the first of many such acts of visual and political subversions, for their lead feature on suicide. Driving the message home as radically as he could, Helnwein produced a drawing of a child cutting its wrists, the arc of red blood cascading above in a provocative, almost defiant, act of transgression. Public reaction to this image was so strong that many readers cancelled their subscriptions. Again between 1996 ad 1998, his series of paintings entitled "EpiphanyI", "II" and "III" so outraged certain members of the Austrian and German establishment that they threatened legal action against him.
In particular "Epiphany I" or "Adoration Of The Magi" caused the greatest consternation. A large scale painting that incorporates the broad iconography of religious art, it appears as any other classical image of the Madonna and child except that in this case the child clearly bears the features of Adolf Hitler and the Magi are none other than SS officers. In "Epiphany II" or "Adoration Of The Shepherds", the Madonna and child are again surrounded by paid up members of the Nazi Party who watch the every move of the infant messiah with adoration. Finally, in "Epiphany III" or "The Presentation In The Temple", a lone girl is left lying on a wooden table encircled by a macabre group of disfigured war veterans, the one furthest to the right bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Führer. In all these images Helnwein draws on authentic photographs from the 1940s, modifying them to create a feeling of uneasiness. This sense of anxiety is in part due to the coupling of religious iconography and the Nazi cult of the Führer, although embedded at the heart of these paintings is a subtle deconstruction of the Nazi faith and its inherent contradictions.
"When I showed 'The Adoration Of The Magi' in America, many older members of the Jewish community all said the same thing," Helnwein recalls. "That the officer to the right is looking to see whether or not the child is circumcised. Very often during the terrors of the Third Reich, when Nazi officials were unsure of your religion, they made you drop your pants so that they could see for themselves. If you were circumcised you were gassed. As simple as that."
Such racial suspicion of the Führer by one of the party faithful would have been deemed the highest form of sacrilege, although in this case, such scepticism may have its roots. Helnwein expands: "Reality can often be far worse than the imagination. I don't know whether you know this but Hitler had Jewish blood in him. His grandfather was Jewish. Hitler was so good at suppressing this fact that he nearly managed to extinguish all traces of his heritage. Still today hardly anyone is aware of the truth of his ancestry."
In the end, Helnwein chose to exhibit all three "Epiphany" paintings alongside a series of photographs of 19th century stillborn foetuses in an exhibition entitled "Apokalypse". Hung together in a Dominican church in Weinstadt in Austria, the final effect was one of haunting beauty, each child framed magnificently within the high vaulted ceiling of the church. The juxtaposition of these serene yet poignant images of "beings that never were" placed next to paintings that recalled the ideological terrors of the past, created a synthesis of values as politically dynamic as they were aesthetically entrancing. Yet throughout his career as an artist Helnwein has never ceased to use his work as a way to question his immediate surroundings. His artwork has always incorporated the memories of the past as a reminder to the present. Currently working on an installation for the "Temple of the Ancestors" in China's Forbidden City, the first Western artist ever to have been invited by the Chinese authorities, Helnwein's 30-year battle against the tenants of repression will have reached its ultimate test.
"It is actually a very interesting time right now because there is no centre. Nothing is safe, nothing is sure. It is really a time when everything is changing constantly and with complete uncertainty. If you look at previous centuries there was always some basic consensus but today nobody seems to know. Our basic values have shifted. Today we have to be vigilant at all times."