John F Kennedy made the front cover of Time on the 20th anniversary of the president’s assassination. Andy Warhol and Muhammad Ali posed for him; he shot the cover for one of Michael Jackson’s albums. Examining his imaginary from the 1970s to the present, one sees influences as diverse as Bosch, Goya, John Heartfield, Beuys and Mickey Mouse, all filtered through a postwar Viennese childhood.
Helnwein also has a strong sense of theatre. He has worked in opera, designing sets and costumes for Maximilian Schell and working with the equally notorious Austrian choreographer Johann Kresnik. His poster for the 1988 production of Lulu at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg caused outrage across Europe. A tiny Sigmung Freud in a long coat stares up at a gigantic woman, who lifts her skirt to expose her vagina. The opposite of porn, it provocatively illustrates Wedekind’s view of a sexually ambiguous bourgouis society on the brink of destruction. This iconography overturns the 1929 screen image of Louise Brooks as Lulu in G W Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. Whereas that film presents us with a face, Helnwein shows the pubis. Of all his paintings, the most disturbing is Epiphany (1996), for which he dips into our collective memory of Christianity’s most famous birth. This Austrian Catholic Nativity scene has no magi bearing gifts. Madonna and child are encircled by five respectful Waffen SS officers palpably in awe of the idealised, kitsch-blonde Virgin. The Christ toddler, who stands on Mary’s lap stares defiantly out of the canvas. Helnwein’s baby Jesus is Adolf Hitler.