May 30, 2008
Los Angeles Times
Arts & Culture
Lynell George
Gottfried Helnwein - Dark Inspiration
The artist, who has taken on war crimes, Catholicism and the Holocaust in his works, is inspired by the city.
Some might think that Los Angeles - its unrelenting sun, its one-step-away-from-reality perch -- is an incongruous place for someone like Helnwein. What he creates, regardless the medium - watercolor, oil, photography, performance art, sculpture - is a thorny psychological excursion into our sublimated self, our obscured corners and dark humors. His explorations into war crimes, Catholicism, disfigurement and the Holocaust are both unflinching and surgical. His work is in museum collections around the world, including those of LACMA and the Smithsonian, and critics have labeled it grotesque, fearless, disturbing and "veer[ing] dangerously close to offensive." People are surprised, he says, when they discern that he doesn't "seem insane."
Los Angeles Times, "Dark Inspiration"
2008
As much as what he physically keeps close by while he works -- the books, newspapers, CDs, rubber dolls and plastic figurines -- the city's essence itself feeds his dark, uneasy work, which tends toward hyper-real renderings of violence and the grotesque: bandaged, broken children, scenes of torture, pooling blood, grimacing visages. "Ireland is paradise," he says, "but almost too. For my work I need an urban environment."
Some might think that Los Angeles -- its unrelenting sun, its one-step-away-from-reality perch -- is an incongruous place for someone like Helnwein. What he creates, regardless the medium -- watercolor, oil, photography, performance art, sculpture -- is a thorny psychological excursion into our sublimated self, our obscured corners and dark humors.
His explorations into war crimes, Catholicism, disfigurement and the Holocaust are both unflinching and surgical. "Epiphany I (Adoration of a Magi)," a 1996 painting, renders the infant -- interpreted both as Hitler and Christ -- as being visited by not three men but five, in S.S. uniforms. His work is in museum collections around the world, including those of LACMA and the Smithsonian, and critics have labeled it grotesque, fearless, disturbing and "veer[ing] dangerously close to offensive." People are surprised, he says, when they discern that he doesn't "seem insane."
The visceral reactions, he's come to realize, have as much to do with what's already in the viewers head as what he's created. "It's not my piece of canvas with tiny fractions of pigment," he explains. "The . . . art . . . has the potential of putting that finger on the spot, and it can trigger something that you'd rather not like to look at. But it's [already] in your own mind. That's what I think art can do."
L.A., says Helnwein, "has this strange magic." He'd been visiting for years, and something about the city took hold. "I can give you a long list of things that are going bad right now, but if you want to look for something good, if there is a place that comes close to really, total freedom, L.A. is that place. . . . L.A. allows you the freedom to dream up impossible things."
'Struggling with the world'
HE walks the seven minutes to the studio from his home, often in the dark of morning, always surrounded by the theater of his thoughts. "I read a lot and study every day," he says. "The ideas are always in me. Most of the time I'm working in my head, not on the canvas. It's like I'm struggling with the world around me."
By the time he's in the studio and has made a cup of tea, Helnwein has already processed the morning's news. It hums in his head. The walk allows him to synthesize.
Helnwein stands in the studio's entry room, a spacious, high-ceilinged space surrounded by 13 grand, new canvases in various stages of near-completion -- a bandaged young girl with a bloody head wound; the nose of a gun pointed at a doll; a raging Mouseketeer in blackface. Helnwein himself is as shrouded as one of the gauze-wrapped, back-lighted figures in those paintings -- his forehead is wrapped in a bandanna, and glasses with opaque lenses hide expression, intention. He's just nose, a flash of smile, a slick cowlick of hair jutting up, eluding capture.
Although he lives with a loop of disquieting images in his head and on his walls, there are plenty who eagerly pay to possess them -- Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn and Robert Wilson among them. He's collaborated with Marilyn Manson, done cover art for the Scorpions, designed sets and costumes for U.S. and European operas, including a much-discussed L.A. Opera production of Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" in 2005.
On the afternoon of this visit, an exhibition deadline breathes down his neck. "But!" he stresses, extending an index finger, pressure is the best catalyst for his work. "My canvases always arrive wet. They dry on the wall. Now it's like the last days of Pompeii." One of his sons will come by later to carefully cart up and ship the work. "That's why you have children. They have to help you." A flash of teeth, a laugh follows. "Seriously, we have four children," he says. "I like it when kids are running through the studio. We are like a band of Gypsies."
He winds through the narrow hallway that runs parallel to a series of smaller rooms -- hidden nooks, a loft where his wife, Renate, makes a stream of business calls. On the south-facing wall of his work space hang several unfinished canvases from a current series titled "Disasters of War." "It is in memory of Francisco Goya because 200 years ago, when he witnessed the war and cruelties in Spain, he made this series. I felt it was time to do it again. Completely different because with me the central theme is always the child. I want to see what's going on through the child's eyes." They are, he says, metaphors, "for the potential of innocence."
Shaped by World War II
ON one end of the brick-walled room, a long rolling table holds scores of books, there to flip through for quick reference, inspiration: volumes on Vermeer and Bosch, "Movies of the Thirties," "R. Crumb Handbook," "Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots." Another table is a jumble of paint tubes and brushes. Within a long arm's reach of his work in progress are a set of steel baker's racks holding a stereo and piles of CDs -- Beethoven, Schubert, Bach. "I listen to classical music and the blues. My daughter Mercedes . . . knows anybody who ever was singing the blues." The rest of the shelves are taken up with audio books -- "Buddenbrooks," "Huck Finn," James Ellroy's "Suicide Hill." "There are all these things that I want to read, but I don't have the time. So this is fantastic," he explains, "because when you paint so realistic . . . you need to sometimes paint hour after hour, and so I found out that I can listen so intensely."
His work routine extends his obsessive study of the world. "The task for me, for my life, since I was a kid, [is] I want to find out what is really going on," says Helnwein. "I was born in Vienna after the Second World War. Vienna was a very depressed place. And it was dark. I remembered never seeing anyone smile a lot. I never heard a song. People were broken. The Second World War was lost -- the Nazi time was over -- we were wrong again. Overnight, everybody was for democracy. So you can guess what that means."
The turnabout made him suspicious. It also filled him with questions that made people squirm. "Art, for myself, is a way to carry on this research in an aesthetic means. You always have to question: Why is that guy saying that now?"
Just behind the CD stacks, a few hundred or so dolls, rubber superheroes, manga characters, dismembered Kewpies, blackface salt and pepper shakers recline on a shelf. "These are some of the models for the paintings," Helnwein says. "What I'm really interested in is the artificiality. The strange reality -- like you have in these video games and animated movies."
He may splice the dolls together with scenes of everyday reality -- an image drawn from his loop of thoughts. "The pieces are narrative," he says, "like one frozen second of a story. There is always something after it and always something before it. That's what I pass on to my viewers, 'the onlookers.' "
Much of his aesthetic inspiration, he explains, comes from America -- film, rock 'n' roll, comics. "Because when I was a kid, I was living in this limbo. My parents seemed strange to me. There was this strange silence." Somewhere in that blank, dark space, landed an American comic book -- the adventures of Donald Duck.
"It was like stepping into this miraculous universe. . . . There were no limits. You could be pierced with a bullet and walk again. I felt right away at home," he says. "America was winning throughout the world so kids [here] wanted to identify with heroes. And Donald Duck is the opposite. In Europe, where everything was destroyed -- Donald Duck the loser, fitted much more. I love this duck. It is amazing he made it at all."
What occupies most of the wall space, like a still to-be-mined thought, is a sampling of the past, older paintings, each a starkly different point on a map of his evolution: A noir-esque series based on "these images of my childhood, like black and white movies." A monochromatic diptych dedicated to writer Antonin Artaud. "He was one of the great, amazing artists. Completely failed of course. He was too radical," Helnwein says. And grouped on a far wall, a photo montage, "48 Poems," images distorted to the point that they mimic the effect of peering through steam or clouds.
"It's people who died a violent death," he explains. "I collected the photographs from different morgues in Europe . . . photographed them again, and then again until it started to get blurred. Each face is connected to a real story, a tragedy.
"When you come closer, the less you see. But if you go away the more you see. Close up, it's just an abstract nothing. Almost nothing. It's connected to a real human being's story, but at the same time it's fading away like an old memory."
He steps closer, then steps away; repeats the motion once more: "You have to force people not to forget. This is why Goya painted all of those cruel themes. Not because he was a sadist but because he knew we'd forget. That's the mechanism I don't understand. There needs to be somebody who holds it in your face. All the time."
Los Angeles Times, "Dark Inspiration"
2008
Los Angeles
2003
Controversial
Helnwein's work have been labeled grotesque, fearless and disturbing. "There needs to be somebody who holds it in your face", he says. People are surprised, he adds, when they discover that he isn't insane.




back to the top