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June 18, 2005
Los Angeles Times
Scott Timberg
Times Staff Writer
Gottfried Helnwein arouses creative tumult.
Must everything be such an opera?
"For me, art is a way to fight back against everything I've experienced: I wanted to respond, but I didn't know how to articulate it. But I could paint it. That medium opened all doors. Certain images can reach so deeply into people's souls. "And I feel also like a witness to my times - that's my duty, my responsibility." One role of art, he believes, is to "force people to look at things they would rather not look at," an impulse he sees in Goya and Shakespeare.
Gottfried Helnwein arouses creative tumilt", "Los Angeles Times
2005
Gottfried Helnwein, who designed the sets and costumes for 'Der Rosenkavalier,' arouses creative tumult.
As a student in Vienna, the Austrian-born Helnwein, now 56, was kicked out of school for creating a portrait of Hitler with his own blood. Decades later, as a successful artist, he painted a Renaissance-inspired mural in which an infant Christ is greeted by three wise men — wearing SS uniforms. The piece nearly led to a lawsuit by a soldier's widow. In the '80s, an unknown assailant slashed the throats of the children in the canvas mural; at an art festival in 2001, someone set fire to a girl's portrait.
Helnwein's art, curator Robert Flynn Johnson wrote of a recent San Francisco show, "is the visual equivalent of a contact sport."
His "Rosenkavalier" will receive its last performance of the season Sunday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (with Margaret Thompson stepping in for an indisposed Alice Coote as the love-struck young nobleman Octavian). But the criticism began even before it opened, with an ad he photographed showing two fetching young women on the verge of a kiss. The objections grew louder after audiences got a load of his whimsically grotesque vision — including monochromatic sets and minor characters who seem inspired by Dr. Seuss — of an opera originally set in 18th century Vienna.
Helnwein himself, it turns out, is serious, thoughtful, almost grave; his temperament and constant sunglasses suggest a Germanic Roy Orbison. He says he has no urge to shock, but he appears to find controversy sadly inevitable.
"Great music, amazing singers — for many opera fans that is enough," he says, sitting outside his studio in downtown L.A.'s artist district. "But I believe in the idea of Gesamtkunstwerke, the art that includes all art. And that means you have visual art, you have directing, you have choreography, and of course you have the music and the singing. What makes opera such an interesting art is that everything comes together."
Some viewers have been captivated by this "Rosenkavalier," only the second opera for which Helnwein has designed the sets and costumes. Times music critic Mark Swed called the production "terrific" and described its look as "sensational." The New York Times was also enthusiastic.
The Orange County Register, on the other hand, concluded that the production "has been commandeered by a gum-chewing dandy in a bandanna and sunglasses. He is the scenery and costume designer and no doubt an artiste, and someone must have given him the company's American Express card and said, 'Go to it.' "
Similarly, the Daily News said Helnwein and director Maximilian Schell's conception "leaches layers of meaning from the opera, rendering emotionally complex ideas flat and distracting us from both the music and the less obvious aspects of the drama."
But Helnwein says his unorthodox take on Richard Strauss' 1911 masterpiece, and his use of a single color to dominate each act, came after he had seen several decades' worth of productions whose bland sets and "corny, fake rococo costumes" he calls visual "disasters."

In working with Schell — who knew him from the posters he created for the director's 1984 documentary about Marlene Dietrich — Helnwein says he sought to be true to the spirit of Strauss but "wanted a piece you could see was made in the 21st century and made in Los Angeles."
He drew from research into the doomed, extravagant rococo-era Vienna.
"I wanted to have something of that exaggeration as I told the story visually," he says. "And there's a connection between rococo and the spirit of this city, of Hollywood. So I wanted to have some elements of that in the piece. It seems to contradict, but it doesn't really."
Though his paintings of smiling Nazis, retro crime scenes and wounded children have long given him a reputation for provocation, Helnwein says his art comes from a psychological need.
"For me, art is a way to fight back against everything I've experienced: I wanted to respond, but I didn't know how to articulate it. But I could paint it. That medium opened all doors. Certain images can reach so deeply into people's souls.
"And I feel also like a witness to my times — that's my duty, my responsibility." One role of art, he believes, is to "force people to look at things they would rather not look at," an impulse he sees in Goya and Shakespeare.
Helnwein was born three years after the conclusion of World War II, when Austria was still reeling and consumed with guilt and silence.
"In my memory, my childhood was horrible. As a kid, I always felt I'd landed in the wrong place. If you lose two world wars, and your houses are bombed, you are not in a very good mood. Everything was ugly and threatening. People didn't talk. I never heard anybody laugh or sing."
He calls his discovery of Mickey Mouse comics left by American GIs "my big awakening and revelation.... When I opened my first comic book, it was like opening a door to a world without boundaries. That's where I wanted to live. I couldn't read, but I could read the pictures."
He was especially taken by the Donald Duck comics drawn by Disney's Carl Barks, for whom he would years later curate a touring museum show. Another jolt: a chewing gum wrapper that included a small picture of Elvis Presley — "the most beautiful person I had ever seen."
"America became this myth for us, because there was nothing we could identify with in our parents' generation: It culminated in the explosion of the '60s. We didn't want anything to do with their culture or their crimes or their fascistic past. I believed in comics and rock 'n' roll."
The other key influence on the budding artist was Roman Catholicism.
"The only art I saw as a kid was the art in the churches. They were usually torture scenes, people nailed and cut into pieces, sacred corpses. I was scared — I had nightmares — but I was fascinated, of course.
"People who come from Roman Catholic countries have as their heritage millions of pictures. And Puritan or Protestant countries, especially when they're Calvinistic like America, are very different."
Helnwein says he always felt out of place, like a Gypsy, even after leaving Austria to settle in Germany. So in the '90s, after visiting rural Ireland largely on a whim, he decided to relocate there and in New York. Then, in 2002, he moved his TriBeCa studio to downtown L.A.
Upon arriving here, he wasn't sure his photorealist painting and painterly photography would be welcome in a city dominated by entertainment. But he found a public and fell for L.A.
"I love it for everything — the corniness, the ugliness and the beauty. L.A. is the most underestimated city in the entire world," he says, describing its ability to draw exiles, émigrés and dreamers from everywhere.
He points to Billy Wilder, Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney — as well as his friend and countryman Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has collected several of his paintings. "I'm interested in people who are not satisfied with the world as it is and have impossible dreams."
The L.A. art scene, less organized and hierarchical than New York's, suits him as well. He likens it to the "peaceful anarchy" of the city's many ethnic groups and religions.One aspect of local culture that Helnwein has not experienced from the inside is Hollywood. He's designed for theater and ballet — and developed a series of graphic photographs with rocker Marilyn Manson — and is increasingly interested in working for the movies, perhaps with his friend Sean Penn. But he admits that he doesn't bend easily when working in a group and says collaboration entails "an ethics question to be true to your vision."
Los Angeles Opera's artistic director, Edgar Baitzel, praises his work but acknowledges that there was more creative tension than usual during the "Rosenkavalier" production process.
"Sometimes we really had to stop him and say, 'No, that's it. No, we cannot.' We all love him here, but it was not an easy job. He's just not used to compromise or working with a creative team. This is artistic energy — you can't predict it."
Schell calls Helnwein "a genius" with a great feel for "the closeness of love and death" but notes their partnership was "two perfectionists coming together. On certain things we could not agree: He is so obsessed with what he's thinking out."
Helnwein has just left for Europe, where he opened a show in Oberhausen, Germany, before returning to Ireland. He finds the green hills, peat-scented air and antique culture of Tipperary to be a necessary respite from L.A.'s "urban decadence" and lack of historical memory. But both are important to him.
"I also want to really experience our times. And I think we are in a decadent time where things are really falling apart. It's like the great Western culture is finally coming to an end. It has many parallels to the last days or Rome, when everything fell apart. And I want to experience that with open eyes, you know?"
Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss
2005
Gottfried Helnwein
2005




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