Wild at Art

It’s with pleasure we introduce another guest blog by regular Bear Skin contributor Damien Shalley:

Damien Shalley” TM is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ultra-Precision Heavy Manufacturing Concern, Fukuoka, Japan.  He owns a secret stash of the discontinued cologne “High Karate” and its successor fragrance, “Mucho Macho”.  He would like to test the legal limits of the theory that all men are created equal, especially when he’s wearing his cologne. Damien Shalley is not “feeling the Bern”, but does sometimes experience a mild rash.  If he owned a sinister cat, he’d call it Chairman Meow.

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Wild at Art – Visual Artist Gottfried Helnwein

by D. Shalley

(Thanks to Coco)

Vienna, Austria: one-time epicentre of European high culture, birthplace of psychoanalysis, safe ground for Nazis during the Second World War.  This unique milieu created (and continues to create) a distinct sensibility within the Austrian national character.  Less precise than the Germans, more artful than the Swiss, highly aware of the past yet forthright defenders of their independent future, Austria today is a wealthy nation with an important role in the modern European Union.  Yet students of history who visit the country often describe it as eerie – almost like a historical haunted house – a physical representation of the darkness at the heart of the human condition.  Visitors can feel the ghosts of “old Europe” roaming.  They are present in the architecture, in the monuments, in the confronting history.  And from such frighteningly fertile ground, great art grows.

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Gottfried Helnwein is Austria’s most successful modern art identity and a major celebrity on the global art stage.  He has been described as the artistic manifestation of Austria’s post-World War Two social anxiety, confronting hidden guilt and exposing it to unflatteringly bright daylight.  He involves himself in many different forms of visual art; oil and watercolour paintings (including portraiture and landscapes), drawings, photography, installations, and even theatre and film.  He is noted for his photo-realistic oil paintings, as well as his expressionist pieces using acrylic and ink.  He became well-known for photographic prints featuring celebrity subjects and is regarded as a stylistic influence on modern rock video imagery.  The predominant theme of his work is the intersection of purity and corruption, where goodness and guiltlessness are confronted or co-opted by an often disguised evil.  A signature theme of his work is the approach of malevolence towards an unknowing child – innocence meets the armband.

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Much has been made of the fact that Helnwein grew up in post-World War 2 Vienna, in a German-speaking country that collaborated with the Nazis and witnessed terrible atrocities.  He acts as a tour guide through realms of unnecessary human sadness and also chronicles how easily beauty can be destroyed.  He is a perceptive documentarian, contrasting the banality of evil with the innate beauty of goodness.   This beauty is easily damaged, often severely, but it retains unmistakable nobility.  A pre-eminent motif is his use of stylised military looks and the sense of authority these impart.  He leaves viewers to determine for themselves the moral implications of the imagery.

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Many of Helnwein’s painted works are unusual in that they feature a photo-realistic style most identified with classical art, a style that fell away almost completely in the modern era.   After the invention of the camera, artists chose not to depict (this task was now redundant), but rather to express.  Techniques other than direct, naturalistic representations of a subject were favoured.  As such, a new art movement was born – “Expressionism.”  Helnwein, however, manages to straddle both worlds comfortably.  His striking “classical” representations, particularly of children’s faces, are noteworthy because they are uncommon.  The seldom-seen becomes the cause célèbre.   And yet he also freely creates expressionist works, typically mixed media pieces on canvas using acrylic and ink. (Ironically, he often also uses a camera for this purpose).  Helnwein is so proficient in this style that he was once described as the heir to throne of European expressionism.   Either way, he is capable of delivering a jolt to audiences – sometimes one of joy at beauty, sometimes one of shuddering recognition that innocence is always at risk of predation and that evil can appear before us in disguised forms.

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One of Helnwein’s most famous and evocative works is “Epiphany 1 – Adoration of the Magi”.  (This is one of three “Epiphany” works, but it is the most well-known).   It is an astoundingly beautiful and simultaneously chilling work, overtly referencing famous German and Dutch nativity scenes.  However in Helnweins’s painting, the baby Jesus is not being offered tributes by wise Magi.  Instead, he is surrounded by S.S. officers (the Waffen S.S. operated in Austria to horrifying effect).  The infant they admire is a strong-willed child, alert and knowing.  Mary is depicted as an idealised Aryan, a perfect Germanic female.  The child is standing, his pose is determined.  The officers offer him adulation – the Reich has its’ Fuhrer.  The piece was instantly controversial due to a misguided belief that it represented a tribute to Nazi ideals, whereas it was actually an attempt to skewer such ideology.  The Simon Wiesenthal centre praised the work.

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“Epiphany I – Adoration of the Magi”

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“Epiphany III – Presentation in the Temple” is more obvious but equally sinister.  The “Epiphany” pieces were created between 1996 and 1998 and obliquely represent a repudiation of Nazi ideology.

 

Helnwein’s eerie “Mickey”, a gigantic portrait of the Disney mouse, is one of his signature pieces.  It puts a subtly disturbing spin on an iconic character.  This is Mickey as a symbol of “corporate paedophilia”, an antiseptically clean yet totally duplicitous creation.  This Mickey consumes your childhood and infects your future.  Mickey is depicted in greyscale, perhaps in the way an adult might perceive a faded childhood memory. He is a representation of the past, of childhood innocence.   But his smile is sinister.  Helnwein’s Mickey is the representation of your “now”, the terrifying reality of your oppressive adulthood and your eventual extinction.  Helnwein’s work reminds us that, all along, Mickey has hinted at the things to come.  We were just too consumed by his omnipresent, corporate-funded charms to pay attention.

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“Mickey”

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Fascist symbols: overt and covert?

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In his early career, Helnwein created a watercolour painting entitled “Peinlich”.  It depicts an innocent baby girl holding a comic book.  She is pretty and doll-like, but a horrible cut deforms her face.  It destroys her beauty and along with it, her future.  Her adulthood won’t be Disney-esque.  “Mickey” and “Peinlich” share undeniable artistic DNA.  Interestingly, it is common to hear Euro-Disney World referred to by locals as “Mouse-chwitz”.

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“Peinlich” 

 

Helnwein also exhibits fine art photography and has ventured into portraiture, working with commercial rock acts like Rammstein and Marilyn Manson.  He became so famous in his native land that he moved to Ireland in 1997 to escape public attention.  (He still lives there today with his family – in a castle no less).   Primarily a European art star, in 2004 the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco opened Helnwein’s first U.S. exhibition, unsure as to the extent of his American fandom.  One hundred and thirty thousand people attended.

As part of his exhibitions, Helnwein enjoys placing his artworks in the public sphere.  He sometimes creates enormous photographic representations of his works and posts them in open spaces.  An impartial observer might concede that scale of some of this public art is truly spectacular.

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Helnwein remains highly productive and his Belgrade exhibition “Between Innocence and Evil” opened in late 2015 to positive reviews and considerable attention.  He is highly regarded by many prominent artists – including creative people in fields such as film and literature – and has created a powerful global reputation that will ensure an enduring legacy.  His daughter Mercedes is also an accomplished visual artist.

Robert Flynn Johnson, curator of Helnwein’s breakout 2004 U.S. exhibition, summed up the artist by declaring that we are the subject of his art, or more precisely, the vagaries of our collective human condition. Helnwein expresses this through an avatar – the child.  According to Johnson,

 The metaphor for his art is the image of the child, but not the carefree, innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead creates profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative images of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within. [“The Child – Works by Gottfried Helnwein,” The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2004, pp 9–23].

Helnwein’s children are soulful representations of profound inconsistencies at the heart of the human condition.  Damage the children, damage the world – and the damaged world will damage the children further.  What would Sigmund Freud, Vienna’s other favourite son, have made of this?

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Selected works

Between Innocence and Evil
One man exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, Nov 2015 – Jan 2016

Helnwein
Retrospective at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, 2013

Face It The Child, Works by Gottfried Helnwein
One man exhibition, Lentos Museum of Modern Art, Linz, Austria, 2006

The Child, Works by Gottfried Helnwein
One man exhibition, San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, 2004

Gottfried Helnwein Retrospectives

Angels Sleeping, Rudolfinum Gallery Prague,2004

Monograph, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, 1997

Ninth November Night
Documentary – A Commemoration of the 65th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Los Angeles, 2003

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