Gottfried Helnwein, The Child, Robert Flynn Johnson, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Helnwein's subject matter is the human condition. The metaphor for his art is dominated by the image of the child, but not the carefree innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead creates the profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative image of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within.
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  Gottfried Helnwein, Untitled, Detail
Gottfried Helnwein, Untitled (detail), photograph, 1987








Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot, which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie.

Jean Cocteau


All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.



I wanted to discuss the suffering of humanity in general, but perhaps we'd better confine ourselves to the sufferings of children.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Brothers Karamazov


Maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.



When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults and they enter society, one of the politer names of hell. That is why we dread children, even if we love them, they show us the state of our  decay.

Brian W. Aldiss


The genius of art finds sanctuary among children and madmen to survive.That is who we are.

Marilyn Manson
about his collaboration with Helnwein


Ich werde nie die Empfindung vergessen, die ich hatte, als Gottfried Helnweins Bild "Kindskopf" im Russsischen Museum enthüllt wurde.
Und nicht nur weil dieses enorme Gemälde (6 x 4 Meter), wohlbekannt von Reproduktionen, in der wirklichen, gleichsam monumentalen Ausstellungshalle des Museums eine völlig neue Wirkung zu entfalten schien. - Ich erkannte, dass ich den zuinnersten Gehalt dieses innovativen Bildes aus einer völlig neuen Sicht betrachtete.

Alexander Borovsky
Kurator für Zeitgenössische Kunst , Staatliches Russisches Museum St. Petersburg
anlässlich der Gottfried Helnwein Retrospektive 1997


I'll never forget the sensation I had at the unveiling of Gottfried Helnwein's "Head of a Child" in the Russian Museum. And not just because this enormous canvas (six metres in height, four in breadth), well-known from reproductions, seemed to operate in a whole new way in the real, quasi-monumental space of the museum's exhibition-hall, - I realised that I was looking at the inner content of this innovative picture from a whole new point of view.

Alexander Borovsky
Curator for Contemporary Art at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
at the Gottfried Helnwein retrospective 1997


I always feel so much more comfortable communicating with children than with grown-ups. Everything is far more simple and makes so much more sense – to me at least. In the world of a child anything is possible, there are no limits for imagination, and magic and miracles are a natural part of life. Communicating with adults, on the other hand, sometimes seems to be so limited and incredibly complicated. And usually boring.
Unfortunately it’s the grown-ups that rule the world and make the laws and all kids have to go through their demolition-program called education. Once they come out on the other side they are usually broken, and their magic is gone.
And then they can be citizens, soldiers, clerks, psychiatrists, politicians, bankers, undercover agents, prostitutes or other interesting things like that.

Gottfried Helnwein
in an interview with Yuichi Konno for Yaso, Japan


Genius is childhood recovered at will.



O innocence! innocence, innocence, innoc..., plague!

Arthur Rimbaud


I needed to purge myself of all the attention my parents had given me - I wasn't neglected enough as a child.

Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet)


When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults and they enter society, one of the politer names of hell. That is why we dread children, even if we love them, they show us the state of our decay.

Brian W. Aldiss


The Voice of the child is in all my work. Critics used to say that I am the child in my plays. I don't think one has to be so literal, but for me it makes the work believable. I think it is necessary that we se the child and his point of view at all times.

Robert Wilson
The Biography, Prestel


An alternative title to "Angels Sleeping" for this exhibition could be "All Hail to the Wounded Child," as many of the works center on irreparably wounded children (both externally and internally) as the innocent victims of war. The children in Helnwein’s works may also represent the lost or destroyed child in all of us, not only as victims of war, but as victims of modern society, with all its mindless violence and perverse attraction to aggressive mobs and disturbances. If there were a soundtrack to this exhibition, it would be a long, endless scream.

The Prague Post
Tony Ozuna
about the Gottfried Helnwein exhibition "Angels Sleeping"
at Galerie Rudolfinum Prague, 2008


Helnwein is the next generation’s final ally, a skilled provocateur forcing us to confront the legacy we have bequeathed upon our children. Helnwein is our chronicler, our conscience, the antidote to our failing memories. He refuses to let us forget.

Colin Berry, 2004


In addition to sketches of ballet-dancing hares, booted cats, and strangled and stuffed ducks, there are studies or imaginative drawings of the heads of ill-treated children, whose mouths are grotesquely disfigured by braces and pink coloured scars. The grimaces on these mocking distorted faces signalize disobedience, opposition and turmoil, as well as a kind of childlike autonomy in the depraved world of adults. The grin found on the faces of ill-treated children, a grotesque picture puzzle which includes both the martyrdom and subversion of mankind is entirely Helnwein’s invention. It is manifested in the metamorphic images of injured bodies. It is an obsessive pattern which is repeated in Helnwein’s pictoral representation of the world and in his staged artistic actions, serving as a metaphor for the invulnerability and invincibility deeply seated in man...

Peter Gorsen


Neben Skizzen von Ballet tanzenden Hasen und gestiefelten Katzen, strangulierten und gestopften Enten finden sich Studien oder eher Wunschzeichnungen zu malträtierten Kinderköpfen, deren Münder durch Spangen und rosige Narben grauenhaft entstellt sind, aber gleichzeitig durch ihre höhnischen, Fratzen schneidenden Grimassen Ungehorsam, Widerstand, Aufruhr, so etwas wie kindliche Autonomie in der depravierten Erwachsenenwelt signalisieren. Das Feixen des malträtierten Kindes, ein groteskes Vexierbild, in das Märtyrertum und Subversion der Menschenkreatur gleichermaßen eingeflossen sind, ist ganz allein Helnweins Erfindung. Sie offenbart sich in den vielen Metamorphosen des Phantasmas vom versehrten Körper als obsessives Grundmuster seiner Bildwelt und aktionistischen Darstellungen, als Metapher einer im Innersten des Menschen vorhandenen Unverletzlichkeit und Unbesiegbarkeit...

Peter Gorsen
excerpt from an essay for the Helnwein-exhibition at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, 1985,


Das Bild des Menschen in der Leidensnot, des unschuldig Verfolgten und Gequälten, das aus der Kunstgeschichte in zahllosen Märtyererszenen bekannt ist, entsteht immer wieder neu. In den Bildern von Gottfried Helnwein ist Betroffenheit über Schmerz und Ausweglosigkeit in der Situation des Kindes dargestellt. Das Kind ist die Gestalt des Unterlegenen, Abhängigen, Ausgelieferten und Ausgenützten. Unter dem Druck einer auf Anpassung drängenden Erwachsenenwelt werden ihm tiefe Verletzungen eingeprägt, entstellende Traumata. Die Bandagen bei Helnwein oder schon zuvor bei den Wiener Aktionisten (Schwarzkoglers Bandagenaktionen) verweisen sowohl auf die Entstellung des Körpers wie auf das Verborgene dieser Verletzungen. Sie üben auf dem Hintergrund einer Tabuisierung von Verwundung, Behindertenexistenz und Tod eine starke Wirkung aus und setzen heftige Reaktionen frei.

Herbert Muck
Philosoph und Theologe,
Kunstwerke und religiöse Vorstellungen des 20. Jahrhunderts


Adults bring a trunkful of contradictory cultural baggage to any representations of children. That's what makes the work of Helnwein so powerful. In his show, "The Child," at the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, deformed infants and bandaged children stir feelings of pity, defiance and uneasiness about exploitation. There's an ambiguously disturbing painting of a girl aiming a gun into an open refrigerator and another of a bare-breasted mother and child surrounded by Aryan soldiers. But the most haunting images may be the ones of children who seem strangely oblivious to the adult gaze. Some of Helnwein's children peer right past the onlooker. Others sleep, dreaming of anything but us behind their silky eyelids. And some, like the enormous, half- shadowed "Head of a Child" see straight through us with cloudless, infinite blue eyes.

San Francisco Chronicle
Steven Winn, 2004


I feel there is a strong bond between artists and children and all other sacred fools.

Gottfried Helnwein
in an interview with Yuichi Konno for Yaso, Japan


Gottfried Helnwein is a brave virtuoso of versatility. In his work, he forces us to confront, via his visual wit, brio, and candor, the human face of violence and angst.
Helnwein's work prods us to react, yet not simply because it is "shocking". His main message in fact is: be brave. Be daring. And most importantly, be willing to confront even the darkest side of human nature - after all, it's something we cannot escape.

Flash Art
Reena Jana, 1997


What Helnwein creates, regardless the medium - watercolor, oil, photography, performance art, sculpture - is a thorny psychological excursion into our sublimated self, our obscured corners and dark humors. His explorations into war crimes, Catholicism, disfigurement and the Holocaust are both unflinching and surgical. His work is in museum collections around the world, including those of LACMA and the Smithsonian, and critics have labeled it grotesque, fearless, disturbing and veer[ing] dangerously close to offensive. 'People are surprised', he says, when they discern that he doesn't seem insane."

Los Angeles Times
Lynell George, 2008


The most powerful images that deal with Nazism and Holocaust themes are by Anselm Kiefer and Helnwein, although, Kiefer's work differs considerably from Helnwein's in his concern with the effect of German aggression on the national psyche and the complexities of German cultural heritage. But Kiefer and Helnwein's work are both informed by the personal experience of growing up in post-war German speaking countries...
William Burroughs said that the American revolution begins in books and music, and political operatives implement the changes after the fact. To this maybe we can add art.
And Helnwein's art might have the capacity to instigate change by piercing the veil of political correctness to recapture the primitive gesture inherent in art.

Jewish Journal, Los Angeles
Mitchell Waxman


BLACK MIRROR. Eine Erzählung von Stephen King. Ein amerikanischer Schüler, zwölf bis dreizehn Jahre alt. in der Lamgeweile einer Kleinstadt fasziniert von Dokumenten über die deutschen Konzentrationslager, wie seine Mitschüler von Superman, die Formel seiner Faszination THEY JUST DID THOSE THINGS, erkennt, an seiner täglichen Bushaltestelle, ein Gesicht, das er auf Fotos gesehen hat, unter der schwarzen Mütze mit dem Totenkopf, über der schwarzen Uniform der SS. Der Junge erpresst den unerkannten Mörder zum Erzählen: HOW DID YOU DO THOSE THINGS? Der Mörder erzählt um sein Leben. Aus der Neugierde wird der Drang zur wirklichen Erfahrung: Die beiden gründen eine Mord GmbH und säubern die Kleinstadt von Hunden, Tramps, und anderem "Unwerten Leben"...
Wie hält ein freundlicher Mensch wie Helnwein es aus, seine - exzellente - Malerei zum Spiegel der Schrecken des Jahrhunderts zu machen? Oder hält er es einfach nicht aus, das nicht zu tun? Reflektiert sein Spiegel nur die Jahrhunderthaltung, LIEBER EIN SCHRECKEN OHNE ENDE ALS EIN ENDE MIT SCHRECKEN, die aus der Überbewertung des Todes kommt, Folge seiner Tabuierung durch Statistik.
Perseus, der die Gorgo im Spiegel guillotiniert, und wenn der Kopf fällt, ist es der eigene. Wie viel Köpfe hat ein Mensch / Mann in unserem Zeitalter der Spiegel?

Heiner Müller


A story by Stephen King. An American schoolboy, twelve or thirteen years old, fascinated in his small-town boredom by documents on the German concentration camps - the way his classmates are by Superman - the formula of his fascination: THEY JUST DID THOSE THINGS...
At his daily bus stop, he recognises a face he has seen in photographs, under a black cap with skull insignia and above a black SS uniform. They boy blackmails the unidentified murderer to tell HOW DID YOU DO THOSE THINGS. The murderer tells to save his life. Curiosity becomes the urge for real experience: the two of them found Murder Inc. and rid the small town of dogs, tramps, and other "unworthy life".
... How does a friendly person like Helnwein stand making his - excellent - painting into a mirror of the terrors of this century? Or is it that he can't stand not doing it? Does his mirror just reflect the attitude of the century? TERROR WITHOUT END IS BETTER THAN AN ENDING IN TERROR. It comes from the over-evaluation of death, a consequence of "statistics" making it taboo. Perseus guillotines the Gorgon in the mirror -, and when the head falls, it is his own. How many heads does a person/man have in our age of mirrors?

Heiner Müller


Scale is an important part of his strategy because, he wants to engage with the widest possible public. To this end, transgression is also central.
An extremely impressive work "Selection", made in 1988, consisted of a series of uniform, huge images of children's faces, stretching from Cologne's Ludwig Museum to its cathedral. The subtitle, (Ninth November Night), gave the clue to the event the work marked - the start of the Holocaust on Reichskristallnacht, November 9, 1938.
In presenting people with a series of entirely neutral, if rather beautiful, pictures of innocence and implicitly pointing out that just such innocents were sorted and selected for extermination, Helnwein was resurrecting an aspect of the past that most Germans and, perhaps even more so, Austrians, have preferred to forget.
It certainly annoyed someone to the extent that they came and vandalised it, symbolically cutting the throats of some of the images. Selection shares with Helnwein's more sensational work a desire to prod us into thought about our own attitudes and roles.
The real horror, as his work reiterates, is indifference and complacency.

The Irish Times
Aidan Dunne, 2001


Gottfried Helnwein's paintings evoke complex layers of history and psychology. Working with extraordinary technical sophistication, Helnwein seamlessly fuses traditional craftsmanship and contemporary conceptual investigations.

Gary Garrels
Curator, Museum of Modern Art New York


Helnwein's work is perfectly executed proof of the mastery of all the available means to outdo the reality in depiction.
Only in this way was Helnwein able to trigger the shock that he intended, a shock with a possible healing effect.
Helnwein developed a visual language depicting apocalyptic visions 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.

Peter Zawrel
Director, Museum of Lower Austria



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