Exhibitions
July 31, 2004 - January 16, 2005
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Robert Flynn Johnson
Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
GOTFRIED HELNWEIN: THE CHILD - One man show, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor
..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 is the human condition. The metaphor for his art, although it included self-portraits, is 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. . "Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot, which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie." Jean Cocteau
Modern Sleep I
photograph, 2003, 99 x 300 cm / 38 x 118''
GOTFRIED HELNWEIN: THE CHILD
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
31 July 2004 —28 November 2004
THE CHILD , Works by Gottfried Helnwein
Essay by Robert Flynn Johnson
Curator in Charge
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
I Walk Alone
mixed media (oil and acrylic on canvas), 2003
Press Room, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Gottfried Helnwein
Legion of Honor, Galleries 1 & 2
31 July–28 November 2004
The presentation at the Legion of Honor of The Child: Works by Gottfried Helnwein marks the first one-man museum showing in the United States of the work of Internationally-known Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein (b. Vienna, 1948). The display of approximately 19 paintings, 13 drawings and watercolors, and over 20 photographs spanning a 35-year period from the early 1970s until the present, features a major theme that has consistently appeared in his work: innocence as embodied by the child.
The subject matter of Helnwein’s art concerning the child ranges from subtle inscrutability to stark brutality. Many of his works are large format, which further increases the impact of his themes, which are often difficult and shaded with menacing undertones. Says Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Art, "Despite the technical beauty and virtuosity of Helnwein’s art, what makes his art significant is, instead, its ability to make us reflect emotionally and intellectually on the pertinent subjects he chooses." He adds, "Many people feel that museums should be a refuge to experience quiet beauty divorced from the coarseness and brutality of the world. This notion sometimes sells short the purposes of art, the function of museums, and the intellectual curiosity of the public. While this exhibition will inspire and enlighten many, it may also upset others, as sometimes does art that deals with important themes in our society."
Innocence and the Betrayal of Innocence
The child, for Helnwein, is the symbol of innocence, but also innocence betrayed.
In today’s world, the malevolent forces of war, poverty, sexual exploitation, and the numbing predatory influence of modern media assault the virtue of children. Helnwein--who grew up in Austria in the years following World War II in the somber atmosphere of a defeated country that had embraced Nazism--has an emotional tie to children who have been robbed of experiencing childhood without trauma. Since his earliest works, he has linked children with pain, or the suggestion of pain. The wounded child became for him a metaphor for the chaos of an emotionally vacant world.
Frequently his works suggest to viewers that they are witnessing a scene taking place in the midst of a disturbing drama that is sometimes heightened by the inclusion of Nazi officers or Nazi symbols. The drama, however, is presented without narrative, which creates the uncomfortable effect of raising but not answering difficult questions. The tension thus created puts the viewer in the position of having to examine his or her own responses to provocative and ambiguous vignettes.
Epiphany II (Adoration of the Shepherds)
The exhibition is also the occasion for the inaugural showing of Helnwein’s 1998 painting Epiphany II (Adoration of the Shepherds), a major gift to the Fine Arts Museums from San Francisco gallery owner Martin Muller. This imposing (8 ft. x 10 ft.) painting is a key work in Helnwein’s oeuvre during the 1990s and in his continuing involvement with the theme of the child.
Epiphany II is from an important series of three paintings created by Helnwein over a three-year period and in which he refers directly to his "own (our) historical background." Says the artist, "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 …constant extermination…."
The seamless melding in Epiphany II of a version of the Adoration of the Magi with a scenario out of the Third Reich is in keeping with Helnwein’s desire to press the limits of juxtaposed imagery. Says Robert Flynn Johnson, "The apparent blasphemy of this scene of Nazi evil encountering the Madonna and Child in a stadium setting is not so clear cut for Helnwein. Rather it is a more symbolic case of unconditional evil, the Third Reich, meeting "conditional evil," the Catholic Church, particularly in light of Pope Pius XII’s alleged moral complicity during World War II." The surreal atmosphere within the picture is attributable to Helnwein’s insertion of the veracity of a carefully composed news photo into a traditional Renaissance composition.
Post-Nazi-Era Childhood Informs Helnwein’s Art
Gottfried Henlwein describes his childhood as "a horror, " and "a world of deep depres-sion and unlimited boredom" that was permeated with the knowledge that something had happened about which no one wanted to speak. One of his signal memories is being given his first Mickey Mouse comic book from an American. Receiving the cartoon book was tantamount to being released from a two-dimensional world without color and being propelled into a three-dimensional world full of colors and wonders. Comics and Mickey Mouse, his childhood vehicle for escaping from what he refers to as "the cold Nazi-country into a world of joy and wonder," still figure in his mature work. An example is his signal painting, MIckey Mouse (1995), a 12-foot-long canvas. Even a cartoon character, however, in Helnwein’s vernacular becomes ambiguous. In this case, Mickey looks both benignly sweet and threateningly sinister. He could represent either the wondrous fantasy world of the child or the global reach of a powerful corporation that, in Helnwein’s view, "smothers the world."
Gottfried Helnwein began his formal training in art when he was admitted in1969 to the Vienna Academy of Art, where for four years he immersed himself in the structure and the process of making art. There, in one of the great ateliers of the world, he interacted with fellow artists and expanded his creative imagination into the areas for which he is best known today. He explored the use of politics, society, history, media, news, and the so-called trivial world of comics, advertising, and rock and roll as a means of addressing in his work the subject matter of war, violence, and a manipulative ruling society. Building on painting and drawing, the foundation of his work, he added the medium of photography. At this time he also became interested in taking his art out into the streets and confronting the world in an a form of art called Aktions, which now is generally referred to as performance art. All these pursuits interacted in Helnwein’s work, with a photograph inspiring a watercolor or a painting inspiring an Aktion. The result is a multi-layered body of work that delivers in a variety of mediums the same message of resistance and challenge to the dysfunctional post-war society in which Helnwein came of age.
Catalogue
A fully illustrated catalogue printed in color with black and white documentary illustrations will be available in the Museum Stores. 152 pages, approximately 70 images; 9" x 12". Cloth edition with special binding.
Kiss of Judas
India-Ink on paper, 1985
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