February 3, 2011
Sacramento News & Review
Painting innocence
Photo-realist Gottfried Helnwein uses children for perspective in his artwork
Born in 1948 in Vienna with a Catholic upbringing, the physical and emotional postwar environment profoundly affected young Gottfried Helnwein. And his steadfast disdain for authority, as well as violence and injustice, are all major themes in his artwork. His series Murmur of the Innocents, for example, involves young girls, sometimes holding guns, sometimes in bandages, sometimes lying in pools of blood.
Gottfried photographs his subjects, hired models or acquaintances, then projects the images onto massive canvases, where he traces details then creates extraordinarily convincing photorealistic paintings.
Although he left Austria in 1984, his accent remains, as SN&R discovered during a meeting at Crocker Art Museum this past week. Dressed head to toe in trademark black with tinted glasses and skulls—printed on a bandana that wrapped around his cranium, nearly pingpong-ball-sized skull rings—Gottfried explained why he paints Disney characters, why talking technique is annoying and what almost made him cry.
He spoke in front of two towering photographs of Marilyn Manson wearing Mickey Mouse ears; Helnwein famously hosted Manson’s wedding to Dita Von Teese in 2005 in his castle, Gurteen le Poer, in Ireland, where he lives during the summer. He inhabits Los Angeles during winter.
I read that Marilyn Manson calls you a mentor. Do you have any mentors yourself?
No, not really. There are many artists who inspire me … but I never had anybody that directly influenced my work. It was more indirect, more the spirit. My first artistic influence, or inspiration, was when I was a kid, I read the Donald Duck comics by Disney artist Carl Barks. He’s the best artist that Disney Studios ever had. He was a genius.
So a Disney artist is the inspiration for the cartoons in your paintings?
As a kid, it was the first, the only great culture that I really encountered, because I lived in Austria after the war. It was a devastated and depressed place. … And when the first American comics came, it was Disney’s Donald Duck Stories.
Is there anything contemporary that has an impact on you?
There’s not much that I like in contemporary art. I think much of the stuff is overrated; it’s crap. Some of it is crap, some is mediocre, and just due to amazing marketing strategies, people pay millions for a piece. I mean, the most successful artists are mainly marketing geniuses—absolutely amazing. But it’s kind of detached from the artistic aesthetic qualities these days.
How’s your work different?
I think my work is different because I was always very independent in the fashion of art. … I didn’t like, from the beginning on, any of society’s rules. And the art market became a very tight society with very strict rules. I always like to break rules like that. …
Today the public is just listening to the expert because they don’t understand most of the contemporary art in the first place. … So the interpreter, the theorist, the writer becomes more important than the artist. … Very few people collect stuff they like. Investment is much more important than anything else. … So curators become enormously important.
Some people think you’re trying to generate shock with kids holding guns, but you say shock is basically useless when it comes to art?
If someone really tried to do that, it would be stupid and senseless. But if someone looks at the work and sees what I’m doing is something really different, with more layers and aspects, I don’t really care what the evaluation by other people is. It’s not really influential for me.
Trying to do that is stupid and senseless. If you look at my work you will see that there is more to it than superficial shock, my work has many layers and aspects, I don’t really care what the evaluation by other people is. It doesn't influence me.

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