Robert Flynn Johnson
Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Helnwein catalogue, Robert Sandelson Gallery, London
The art of Gottfried Helnwein cannot be properly considered without surveying
the terrain of modern and contemporary art from which it developed. To understand
Helnwein is not just to see what movements and artists he embraced and was influenced
by, but also what he rejected. For Helnwein, creativity is not a vocation but
a mission. His art is the visual equivalent of a contact sport. It not only
has put Helnwein at odds with much of the history of post-war art, but also
has positioned him in the forefront of the highly regarded confrontationalist
movements of contemporary art so active in America and Europe today.
After World War Two, the tear glands of the world dried up from over-use. It is this world for which Warhol is spokesman. Lucy R. Lippard, 1966
It is startling and disturbing to reflect that if one walks through the galleries of major museums exhibiting art of the fifties, sixties, seventies, and even into the eighties, there is a virtual dearth of art whose subject matter involves an emotional response to the human condition or which comments on the major social issues of the day. For those major painters and sculptors it is as if the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movement did not exist. It is not that one would expect many to choose such subjects but that virtually none did is noteworthy.
Of course, there were a number of artists who continued the crusade (which reached its peak in the 1930s) to use art as a weapon of social activism. Artists like Stanley Spencer, Ben Shahn, and Leon Golub created provocative work but they were seen as peripheral to the avant-garde by critics, collectors, and museums alike.
Europe, the scene of so much destruction and displacement during the century, had a greater number of artists attuned to human values in their art than America. In France, Picasso continued to utilise his canvas to mirror his psyche and libido to the world. However, as passionate as he was, Picasso rarely allowed his art to go beyond his own life as he did in the earlier monumental paintings Guernica (1937) and The Charnel House (1945). The Swiss-born Alberto Giacommetti created stark and unnerving images of man in his sculptures and paintings. Jean Dubuffet drew as much inspiration from the art of the insane as real life in his contorted comic personages. Germany and Austria in this period, however, were marked by suppression, not expression in their art. Mannerists such as Paul Wunderlich and Ernst Fuchs were in vogue but only the seemingly random photorealism of Gerhard Richter and Franz Gertsch and the tormented expressionism of Anselm Kiefer and Horst Janssen struck a truthful note.
One oasis of creativity, during this period, where deeply expressed ideas about the nature of man existed was London. Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud were at the forefront of a group of artists that eventually included Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, David Hockney, and the expatriate American R.B. Kitaj.
In America, several popular artists made the odd detour into this area of expression. Examples would be James Rosenquist's painting "F-111" (1969), Claus Oldenberg's sculpture, "Lipstick (Ascending) On Caterpillar Tracks" (1969) and Roy Lichtenstien's romance comic paintings such as "Drowning Girl" (1963) which contain more parody than pathos. The two American artists who most often utilized the headlines of the day were Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Concerning Rauschenberg, the potentially volatile use of photographic images such as President Kennedy and NASA rockets was defused by their use for purely aesthetic purposes. There is a skillful seductive look but no discernible message beneath the virtuoso surface except that raw media can become high art.
Andy Warhol's images strike a deeper chord. Warhol realised that for his generation (and generations to come?) the purpose of art was to replace the symbols of an earlier devout and unchallenging age (Christ, The Virgin Mary, kings, queens, and political leaders) with the practical and popular replacements of a shallower era (Brando, Monroe, and other celebrities). Warhol's genius lay in his making a physical reality out of a phenomenon that was already uneasily entering our consciousness before his first silkscreen paintings ever existed; the notion that nothing was sacred or profane anymore. Anything or anybody could and would become art. Whim was more useful to Warhol than values. In retrospect, the banality and irony of his vision made him the most brilliant yet soulless artist of his era.
Grainy newspaper wire photos were the raw material of Warhol's vision. His subjects included plane and automobile crashes, wanted criminals, electric chairs, race riots, Jacqueline Kennedy in mourning, and women who died from consuming tainted tuna fish. The one thing, however, that is consistent in all these works is that Warhol professed no feelings one way or the other about the subjects at hand. These potentially "hot" subjects have been desensitised of their pathos. The bleached out photo imagery screened onto seemingly random coloured backgrounds evoke neither approval nor dissent by Warhol. They are provocative simply by existing as works of art.
An artist who seriously treated portraiture as the focus of his art was Chuck Close. From the end of the sixties until today, despite having had to overcome the effects of a stroke, Close has concentrated on the human face. As astounding as these works are, evolving through a series of virtuoso styles, there is a strangely unmoving quality about them. Something with the potential to engage the viewer in human terms ends up conveying the impersonal identification of a drivers' license photo.
The overly intellectual and formal aspects of most painting and sculpture from the 1950s until the beginning of the 1980s was not shared in other areas of culture. One need only mention, for example, the names of Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus in photography; Roberto Rosselini, Elia Kazan, and Michaelangelo Antononi in cinema; Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Harold Pinter in theatre; and James Baldwin, Gunter Grass, and John Updike in literature who embraced and made the turmoil of human existence a focal point of their art.
Something was brewing amongst visual artists that began in the sixties, took hold during the 1970s, and only became a vital aspect of the avant-garde in the 1980s. Theory, design, and decoration were no longer enough. Artists had to break out of the supplicant to patron mode.
The artist's feelings became more important than the collector's appetite. The result carried on by artists of widely diverse styles contained a pent up angry "nothing to lose" attitude. The past, the present, the future, sex, death, gender, politics, religion were all worthy of artistic scrutiny. The desire for individualism and self-examination in art that flickered to life in the late sixties has become a full-blown prairie fire of emotionally charged art in the nineties. The career and the art of Gottfried Helnwein parallels this course in the history of contemporary art.
I made a promise to myself to remember everything I saw; if someone should pluck out my eyes, then I would retain the memory of all that I had seen for as long as I lived. Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird
Artists are the visual, verbal, and audio guardians of our collective consciousness. For example, few can remember the politics or history of 18th century Europe, but the music of Mozart and the paintings of Watteau continue to be a source of inspiration. We might not always like the message, but it is artists that distil the essence of an era. They serve as thoughtful messengers to a sometimes unperceptive present but an often receptive future.
In 1948 Gottfried Helnwein was born in Austria, a country that willingly had embraced Nazi Germany. For decades after its defeat, the Austrian population could not come to terms with the evil with which it had associated. The fervent acceptance of the Anschluss was replaced by a sense of wounded denial in the years after the war. It was in this dysfunctional society that Helnwein spent his youth. Helnwein wrote of this time:
"My childhood was a horror - born right after the war, I lived in a world of deep depression and unlimited boredom. All the grown-ups looked ugly and devastated. I never saw anybody laughing and I never heard anybody sing. I always felt I have landed in limbo. A two-dimensional world without colours, my real life began when I got my first Mickey Mouse comic book from the Americans - when I opened a three-dimensional world full of colours and wonders. My first encounter with art was totally opposed to the torture art of the church. Very early I started to research. I knew something had happened, but all the adults were unable to talk about it. Nobody wanted to answer my questions. But I found out what I wanted to know and I'm still finding out."
"Head of a Child 5", 1998, 100 cm x 160 cm, oil and acrylic on canvas
Vicki and Kent Logan, San Francisco
Gottfried Helnwein is an intelligent individual whose art is influenced, but not overwhelmed, by his awareness of history, culture, and politics. As a young man, his artistic energy needed to be encouraged, channelled, and refined. In 1969, with the support of the artist Rudolf Hausner, Helnwein was admitted to the Vienna Academy of Art, the crucible of creativity in Vienna since the days of Gustave Klimt and Egon Schiele. The four years that Helnwein spent there were not for instruction, for he required and received little. It was for the structure and the process. To work within one of the great ateliers, to interact with fellow artists, and to see art as a vehicle for expression to a wider audience. Helnwein wrote of this period: "When I started to paint in the first years, I did not want to know anything about High Art and the art world. Different than most artists I knew, for me it was never a matter of decoration, style, or art reflecting and dealing with the problems of art. It was the politics, society, history, media, news, that provoked, shocked, and motivated me and the so called trivial world of comics, advertising and Rock and Roll. Art, for me, was not only a way to explore the subject matter of war, violence, and society but also a way to fight back - a way of resistance - of not agreeing with what an oppressive, manipulating ruling society is trying to force on us. I felt I could strike back with my pictures and force people to look at things they'd rather forget."
It was during this period that Helnwein expanded his creative imagination into the areas he is best known for today. The art of drawing and painting was and is the bedrock of his art. However, Helnwein did not want to be confined or categorised and felt free also to involve himself in photography. Further, he wanted to take his art out into the streets, to confront the world with his images and ideas. This form of art, now generally referred to as performance art, was called "Aktions." In America, in the early sixties, it was called "Happenings," but their true origin goes back to the early days of the Dada movement in Switzerland, France, and Germany. Each of these different artistic enthusiasms informed his art. A photograph would inspire a watercolour. A painting would inspire an Aktion. Helnwein wrote of this period, "In the beginning I was almost autistic... I didn't know about Richter, Schwarzkogler, the Wiener Aktionism and all other works. Much later, in the early eighties, I started to research and I was amazed to see how many connections and similarities I found with other artists' works which emerged at approximately the same time. However, there was no direct inspiration or influence."
Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot, which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie. Jean Cocteau
A clarity of vision in his subject matter was emerging in Helnwein's art that was to stay consistent throughout his career. His subject matter was the human condition. The metaphor for his art, although it included self-portraits, was dominated by the image of the child, but not the carefree innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead created the profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative image of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within.
In art history, before the end of the eighteenth century,
the child as an independent subject matter hardly existed. The child usually
appeared symbolically or allegorically as cupid, putti or angel. The child
also appeared as a miniature adult as in the depiction of young gods,
kings or, in Christianity , Jesus. This, however, was to change with the
advent of the Romantic movement in Europe. Around 1800, artists such as
William Blake, Louis Leopold Boilly, and Phillip Otto Runge (above left)
began to have children appear as individuals in their works, disconnected
from their previous symbolic baggage. The image of this now liberated
child was one that promised innocence, freedom, and curiosity. However,
now made mortal, there was also the necessary introduction of emotions,
sexuality, and the prospect of pain, suffering, and death.
There are a number of these earlier artists who were especially meaningful to Helnwein in their portrayal of children. Among them were Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) with his adoration of feminine adolescence (above left); Edvard Munch and his depiction of suffering and sexual awakening (left); and Balthus (below left) with his preoccupation with secrets and the erotic.
The children in these works have a knowing look in their eyes. There was a sense of life experienced, both good and bad, which made these works so intense and in their own day, so controversial. It was apparent from the reception that these artists and others received, however, that any derivation from the most bland representation of children as innocents was cause for violent backlash from society. The public was then, as it is now, very uncomfortable about showing the child as having a sexual identity, however subtle, or as suffering in any way whether physically or emotionally. Artists like Munch were willing to risk the wrath of propriety in seeking out this un-explored area of human experience. For Gottfried Helnwein, it became the major theme of his career.
How can 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? Heiner Müller
Looming out across a Helnwein canvas over twelve feet in length, Mickey Mouse, 1995, stares back at us. He is, at once, both benignly sweet and threateningly sinister depending on your age and viewpoint. Helnwein has written, "what do I associate with the name Disney? The inspiring sacred comics of my childhood, that gave me a chance to escape from the cold Nazi-country into a world of joy and wonder, or Michael Eisner's multi-billion dollar machine that smothers the world." 8 The truth is, this image could represent both viewpoints, just one, or neither. As Pablo Picasso once remarked, " a picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it."
A flag painting by Jasper Johns is neither pattern nor patriotic. It is both a beautiful act of pure painting but also an image pregnant with meaning because of the symbolic nature of the subject matter. This is also true with Helnwein's painting. Often overlooked in the discourse over the subject matter or meaning of Helnwein's art is the appreciation of the compositional and painterly beauty of his work. The technical virtuosity of his art makes acceptable certain images that more crudely executed by others would be unbearable. "Mickey Mouse" hovers between carefree and carnivorous in our consciousness. It is the unease of our age that Helnwein has seized upon.
"Sunday's Child" (1972), is a disturbing tour de force of the young Helnwein. It is a multi-layered vision convincing in its hyper-realism (notice the beautifully rendered reflections of the apartment buildings in the window) at odds with the absurdist fantasy of a knapsack toting duck with a popsicle. Between these two competing tendencies appears an adolescent girl, the true subject of the picture. She stands in winter coat and mittens in front of the glass doors of a store festooned with the advertisements of mass consumerism.
"Sonntagskind" (Sunday's Child), 1972, 102 cm x 73 cm
watercolor, colored pencil and pencil on cardboard
Private collection, Germany
On her arm is a cloth armband signifying that she is blind although it is clear
that she is not. In her hand is a large chocolate bar. Blood runs down her legs,
staining her tights. Is she bleeding from early menstruation or the result of
a sexual encounter (rape?) of which the chocolate is her reward or to buy her
silence? Her face is a contradiction. She sticks her tongue out to the viewer
with a smirk. Is it an innocent expression or a lascivious gesture?
Helnwein makes our mind swoon between the simply bizarre and the truly perverse. What holds this outrageous work together is the painstaking detail of his watercolour rendering and the baffling mystery of what it represents. Like many of Helnwein's best works, it is a drama without narrative. Despite all its visual information, it only raises questions, not answers them.
Tennessee Williams once said that all good art was an indiscretion. In Helnwein's case, it is a confrontation. Since his earliest work, Helnwein has linked children and pain. The wounded child has become his metaphor for the chaos of our emotionally vacant world.
The writer Peter Gorsen wrote of Helnwein's work, "The child is the embodiment of the innocent, defenceless, sacrificed individual at the mercy of brute force. As an innocent, child of light, whose head and hand injuries emit light rays like self-radiating stigmata, he is heroized into a sufferer and a saviour figure." The wounds of Christ and the martyrdom of saints so often depicted in countless paintings, sculptures, and car dashboard shrines no longer have the power to shock. Despite our general indifference to general suffering in the world, the thought or better yet, the image of a child in pain still gets through the emotional defence mechanisms to our feelings. Helnwein understands this and exploits this knowledge in his art.
"Beautiful Victim I", 1974 was inspired by a 1972 altered photograph "Child of Light II", which was carefully arranged and posed by the artist. The magic of this watercolour lies in its balancing of beauty and horror. The work itself is subtle in colour with exquisite Vermeer-like light bathing the exquisitely rendered outstretched body of the young girl. Contradicting the peace is the shocking bandages and tubes that surround and obscure the child's face. We are repelled and entranced at the same time. There is no explanation for her wounds, no explanation for what she is doing on the floor. Helnwein's aim is not to tell a story but to trigger a response.
"Beautiful Victim I", 1974, 53 cm x 73 cm, watercolor on cardboard
Helnwein has always been interested in photography as both a catalyst in his painting and an end in itself. He has written, "I think photography is the key medium for all artists who work in some kind of realistic manner. People today perceive and know the world mainly through two-dimensional reproductions and film. It's a highly manipulative media and I'm fascinated by its almost unlimited possibilities to shift and twist the reality. When it looks like a photograph people think it's real. So I always had the feeling a very photographical image has more impact, more suggestive power."
Just as Helnwein creates paintings that appear photographic, in "Phoney Death", circa 1990, he has created a photograph that takes on the composition and scale of one of his paintings. The subject is both autobiographical and symbolic. Helnwein uses the comic book as a symbol of freedom. As a child he sought refuge in the escapist fantasy these comics delivered. Here this refuge, although in the possession of the child, is denied. Because of her bandages, her hands cannot turn the pages and her eyes cannot see. The starkness of the child's white world is in contrast to the inviting colour and energy that the comic book promises.
Helnwein has increasingly preferred to paint in grisaile (monochrome) utilising a deep blue-black. (Another contemporary artist who employs this method is Mark Tansey who usually opts for a brick red tonality in his works.) For Helnwein, the restriction of colour to a single tone removes extraneous visual distractions and focuses attention on the subject at hand. It also links his paintings with photographic sources in an interesting way. A black and white photograph is both extremely real in its technical ability to capture a moment in time and, at the same time, completely false in that we do not live in a world purged of colour. In his monochrome paintings, Helnwein has taken advantage of our mind's photographic experience and expectations to create paintings that have that same degree of reality/falsehood. "Night V (Phoney Death)", 1990 is a chilling revisiting of the wounded child whose bandages cut her off from the world. In this case, however, the bandages might be a blessing. The only light in the scene comes from a glowing television ... a source of information and enlightenment but also a vehicle of propaganda, commercialisation and control. On top of the television is a mechanical bank in the shape of a racially stereotyped black man. Next to it is a sculpture that vaguely resembles the work that the Nazi's put on the cover of the violently anti-Semitic Degenerate Art exhibition catalogue in 1937. Behind the child reclines a beautiful yet unsmiling nude woman of uncertain ethnic background. The scene resembles nothing so much as a contemporary updating of the old master imagery of the torment and temptation of Saint Anthony. The blinded child is surrounded by symbols of lust, commercialism and prejudice...all vices of an adult world. The escapist comic book, even with its implied violent subject matter of "Phoney Death" on its cover is preferable to the alternative world that awaits this child.
We live in an age of euphemisms to cocoon ourselves from getting too close to the truth. Bombs that kill civilians do not inflict casualties but only cause "collateral damage." The greatest cause of unnatural disaster to humanity over the centuries has not been the result of economic or nationalistic forces, but by the inhumanity unleashed by organised religion on one group by another. The use of brutality under the banner of religion is a profound perversion of anything sacred. "Untitled" (Madonna and Child), 1994 is Helnwein's response to the ethnic horrors unleashed in the Balkans since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Based on a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), Helnwein has painstakingly replicated the composition in monochrome, except for one telling detail. In the case of the Christ Child, he has depicted the face as terribly disfigured and maimed. Helnwein is symbolically confronting the hypocrisy of Christian Serbs who, while conducting their reign of terror and murder, under the euphemism of "ethnic cleansing," maintained that they were defending Christianity against the inroads of the Moslems. It is history repeating itself and Helnwein utilises history to comment on the latest failure of civilisation to be civilised.
"Anyone who sees and paints the sky green and pastures blue ought to be sterilised." Adolf Hitler
This single sentence sums up the essence of the totalitarian mindset. The world must adhere to an order of which no variation or independence is acceptable. "Epiphany I", 1996 is from an important series of three paintings created over a three-year period. This seamless stapling of a version of the Adoration of the Magi into a scenario out of the Third Reich is in keeping with Helnwein's desire to press the limits. Helnwein wrote, "In the Epiphany trilogy, I refer directly to my (our) own historical background. The most significant issue on the time track of the occident is Christianity and the male dominated world of conquering and oppression. The constant slaughter of the "weak"-women, children, the Jews, and other ethnic minorities, through holy wars, crusades and the constant extermination of the inferior."
The apparent blasphemy of this scene of Nazi evil encountering the Madonna and Child is not so clear cut in Helnwein's mind. It is a more symbolic case of unconditional evil (the Third Reich) meeting conditional evil (the Catholic Church). It takes on a further significance with the knowledge of the complicity of Pope Pius XII, in matters of moral responsibility, with Germany during World War Two. The surreal atmosphere within the picture is attributable to Helnwein creating the veracity of a carefully composed news photo within a traditional Renaissance composition.
There is a basic misconception that any given face at any given time looks more or less the same: like a statue's face. Actually, the human face is as variable from moment to moment as a screen on which images are reflected ... Gottfried Helnwein's paintings and photographs attack this misconception showing the variety of faces of which any face is capable. William S. Burroughs
For Helnwein, the nature of portraiture is not the mere artistic replication of physiognomy or capturing the essence of a person's character. It is more complex than that. Helnwein, like many other artists today such as Cindy Sherman, Sally Mann, Christian Boltanski, Fang Lijun and Ron Mueck have shattered the traditional sense of identity through formal portraiture and reassembled the concept in a multitude of different styles and concepts.
In many of Helnwein's works, what at first glance appears to be the portrait of an individual in truth comes to be seen as a more generalised conception. This is true in "Untitled", 1996. The immediate reaction to the work is one of mystery. Is the fragmentary depiction of the child's face simply caused by shadow or is there no illusion? Is the face a fragment like some broken Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum? Is the child depicted asleep as our subconscious hopes or dead as our subconscious fears? Restricting the tonalities to a blue-black pallor reinforces a mood of solemnity. Helnwein gives us enough information to care, but not enough information to know.
Not content with a consistent artistic viewpoint, Helnwein creates a very different dynamic in "Untitled", 1998. At first glance, Helnwein has created a more straightforward portrait. It is in naturalistic colour executed with photorealist precision. It is not a generalised conception but the specific portrait of a beautifulyoung girl with blond hair and blue eyes. The work has a luminosity inspired by the paintings of Georges de la Tour and Carravaggio.
Beyond the general attractiveness of the subject and the virtuosity of the execution of the work, what makes us care? There is a quiet drama going on in this painting. Her face comes out of darkness and is starkly and artificially lit. Her face is partially in darkness, one eye in the shadow, the other distinct and staring from the centre of the canvas. It is an unnerving picture. Although the girl displays no distinct emotion, one has a sense of unspoken dialogue between subject and viewer. There is knowledge and one could even project a subtle judgmental quality to her stare. It is as if a youth were to say to an adult: "How could you have screwed the world up so badly?" Ultimately, Helnwein's portraits follow what Oscar Wilde perceptively observed, "Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."
I cannot bear the crying of children, but when my child cries I don't hear. Anton Checkhov
Surprisingly, the works of Gottfried Helnwein have something in common with the art of Alfred Hitchcock. Both often deal in suspense and mystery. Both often deal with violence or the threat of violence. What is also true, however, is that both deal in scenes leading up to violence or the aftermath of violence but rarely the act of violence themselves. Like Hitchcock, Helnwein well aware that stimulating the imagination of a viewer can create far greater drama than a literal depiction.
In "Untitled", 1998 Helnwein has presented us with an effect without knowledge of the cause. In his characteristic monochrome, Helnwein has a young girl, naked except for a pair of panties, kneeling upon a floor within a bare room. Her head is obscured by her hands that cover her face in an implied gesture of grief, pain, or shame. The only other piece of visual information in the work is a pail to the right of the girl. Does the pail indicate a task forced upon the child à la Cinderella? The image is haunting; the emotion of the child is undeniable, yet the viewer is left to come to her or his own internal conclusions.
Viewing "Kiss I, 1998" is like visually eavesdropping on a potentially explosive situation . . . or is it? Starkly lit within a dark background, an adolescent girl in a blue dress stares out at us as a woman, naked from the waist up, holds the girl as she kisses her. Is this the prelude to a sexual assault? The erotic nature of the woman's nakedness, the seemingly suggestive lifting of the girls dress by the woman's right hand and the limp response of the girl to the kiss imply the worst. But wait, could this not just be an act of tenderness by a young mother to her daughter and the look of the child, the natural aversion of adolescents to acts of affection? There is no answer from Helnwein. For the answer, the viewer must look within himself or herself.
There are three things that cannot be seen, even though they may be right in front of our eyes: the sun, genitals, and death. Georges Bataille
Until recently Helnwein has restricted himself to dealing with the child as victim, wounded physically or mentally by a world it cannot comprehend or control. Implicit in these works is that which logically follows suffering and pain in the extreme is death. However, the subject of death has rarely appeared in Helnwein's work until now. In the summer of 1999, Helnwein was commissioned to do a major installation for the Dominikanerkirche in Krems, Austria. The installation, entitled Apokalypse was a visual assault on the senses and the emotions. Besides the three large canvases of the Epiphany Cycle 1996-98 and the painting Late Regret 1997, Helnwein created four new series for this installation. The series Angels Burning depicts, in garish colour, the faces of children as if severely burned. Saints Silent, also in colour, depicts portraits of men grotesquely disfigured as if from war wounds. Salved is a series, in monochromatic blue, of men and boys both burned and disfigured. The final most monumental and clearly disquieting of the series is Angels Sleeping, a group of photographs with painted additions. The subject of these are fetuses floating in a stillborn liquid atmosphere of which they will never emerge.
"Angel Sleeping I, 1999" was part of the installation and representative of the whole. It is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. This is not an image from which one can get an intellectual distance such as Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living that placed a shark in formaldehyde. Helnwein's work is an image that was the beginning of a human being, an individual with the prospects of feelings, aspirations, a future ... now lost. In today's contemporary art, it carries a more pessimistic tone than the oversized infant sculptures of the British artist Ron Mueck, but is less cynical than Marcus Harvey's portrait of child murderer Myra Hindley made up of what appear to be the imprints of children's hands. It is worth noting that this work would surely be interpreted differently in the United States than in Europe. For Americans, the image of a stillborn infant would be seen as a symbol of the debate over the abortion issue ... the right to life movement versus a woman's right to choose. The potential for polarisation is far from the sense of universality that Helnwein intended with this work.
If Gottfried Helnwein were simply the skillful renderer of facile paintings, drawings, and photographs without meaningful content (like so many practitioners today) his art would not be of significance. If, in turn, Helnwein were an artist bursting with original and provocative ideas without the skills to render those ideas into meaningful art (also quite common in today's art world), he would not merit the attention he deserves.
The fact, however, is that Gottfried Helnwein is the genuine article; a skilled artist with a constantly evolving conscience that seeks release through his art. A character in the 1976 film Network tells a vast television audience to go to the window, open it up and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Gottfried Helnwein shouts with his paintbrush.