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

“Empire of the Sun” a reflection on Memory and Story

J G Ballard’s 1984 novel Empire of the Sun was made into a Hollywood film in 1987. In his article, published in The Guardian he reflects on 40 years of memories and how story re-wrote them.

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Memories have huge staying power, but like dreams, they thrive in the dark, surviving for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed. Hauling them into the daylight can be risky. Within a few hours, a precious trophy of childhood or a first romance can crumble into rust.

I knew that something similar might happen when I began to write Empire of the Sun, a novel about my life as a boy in Shanghai during the second world war, and in the civilian camp at Lunghua, where I was interned with my parents.

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Coming to England after the war, and trying to cope with its grey, unhappy people, I hoarded my memories of Shanghai, a city that soon seemed as remote and glamorous as ancient Rome. Its magic never faded, whereas I forgot Cambridge within five minutes of leaving that academic theme park, and never wanted to go back. The only people I remembered were the dissecting room cadavers.

During the 1960s, the Shanghai of my childhood seemed a portent of the media cities of the future, dominated by advertising and mass circulation newspapers and swept by unpredictable violence. But how could I raise this Titanic of memories? Brought up from the sea bed, the golden memory hoard could turn out to be dross. Besides, there are things that the novel can’t easily handle. I could manage my changing relations with my parents, my 13-year-old’s infatuation with the war, and the sudden irruption into our lives of American air power. But how do you convey the casual surrealism of war, the deep silence of abandoned villages and paddy fields, the strange normality of a dead Japanese soldier lying by the road like an unwanted piece of luggage?

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I waited 40 years before giving it a go, one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. Twenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember. There was always the possibility that my memories of the war concealed a deeper stratum of unease that I preferred not to face. But at least my three children had grown up, and as I wrote the book I would never have to think of them sharing the war with my younger self.

In fact, I found it difficult to begin the novel, until it occurred to me to drop my parents from the story. We had lived together in a small room for nearly three years, eating our boiled rice and sweet potatoes from the same card table, sleeping within an arm’s reach of each other, an exhilarating experience for me after the formality of our prewar home, where my parents were busy with their expat social life and I was brought up by Chinese servants who never looked at me and never spoke to me.

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But I needed to move my parents out of the story, just as they had moved out of my life in Lunghua even though we were sharing the same room. They had no control over their teenage son, were unable to feed or clothe him or pull those little levers of promise and affection with which parents negotiate domestic life with their children. My real existence took place in the camp, wheedling dog-eared copies of Popular Mechanics and Reader’s Digest from the American merchant seamen in the men’s dormitory, hunting down every rumour in the air, waiting for the food cart and the next B-29 bombing raid. My mind was expanding to fill the possibilities of the war, something I needed to do on my own. Once I separated Jim from his parents the novel unrolled itself at my feet like a bullet-ridden carpet.

Even then, I had to leave out many things that belong in a memoir rather than a novel. Lunghua camp, with its 2,000 internees, was a grimy bidonville, a slum township where, as in all slums, the teenage boys ran wild. There were unwatched screwdrivers or penknives to be snaffled, heroic arguments with a bored clergyman about the existence of God, buckets of night soil to be hoisted from the G-block septic tank and poured into the tomato and cucumber beds that were supposed to keep us alive when the Japanese could no longer feed us. In a bombed-out building I found a broken Chinese bayonet, sharpened the stump of blade and used it to prise away the bricks of the kitchen coal store, filling a sack with precious coke that would briefly break the chill of our unheated concrete building. My father said nothing, feeding the coke into a miniature brazier as he rehearsed his lecture on science and the idea of God. I ran off, and nagged the off-duty Japanese guards in their bungalows until they let me wear their kendo armour, laughing as they thumped me around the head with their wooden swords.

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In 1984 the novel was published, a caravel of memories raised from the deep. Enough of it was based on fact to convince me that what had seemed a dream-like pageant was a negotiated truth. Curiously, my original memories of Shanghai still seemed intact, and even survived a return trip to Shanghai, where I found our house in Amherst Avenue and our room in Lunghua camp – now a boarding school – virtually unchanged.

Then, in 1987, like a jumbo jet crash-landing in a suburban park, a Hollywood film company came down from the sky. It disgorged an army of actors, makeup artists, set designers, costume specialists, cinematographers and a director, Steven Spielberg, all of whom had strong ideas of their own about wartime Shanghai. After 40 years my memories had shaped themselves into a novel, but only three years later they were mutating again.

Hazy figures now had names and personalities, smiles and glances that I had seen in a dozen other films: John Malkovich, Nigel Havers, Miranda Richardson. With them was a brilliant child actor, Christian Bale, who uncannily resembled my younger self. He came up to me on the set and said: “Hello, Mr Ballard. I’m you.” He was followed by an attractive young couple, Emily Richard and Rupert Frazer, who added: “And we’re your mum and dad.”

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Coincidences were building strange bridges. Thanks to the film studios in Shepperton, many of my neighbours worked as extras, and now called out: “Mr Ballard, we’re going to Lunghua together.” Had some deep-cover assignment led me to Shepperton in 1960, knowing that one day I would write a novel about Shanghai, and that part of it would be filmed in Shepperton?

Spielberg, an intelligent and thoughtful man, generously gave me a small role as a guest at the opening fancy-dress party. Warners had rented three houses in Sunningdale to stand in for our Shanghai home. When I arrived at the location I found an armada of buses, vans and coaches that filled entire fields and resembled the evacuation of London. Bizarrely, it also reminded me of the day we were bussed into Lunghua from our assembly point at the American club near the Great Western Road. I can still see the huge crowd of Brits, many of the women in fur coats, sitting with their suitcases around the swimming pool, as if waiting for the water to part and lead them to safety.

The Sunningdale house where the fancy-dress party was filmed closely resembled our Amherst Avenue home, but this at least was no coincidence. The expat British architects in the 1930s who specialised in stockbroker’s Tudor took the Surrey golf course mansions as their model. Past and present were coming full circle. The Warners props department filled the house with period fittings – deco screens and lamps, copies of Time and Life, white telephones and radios the size of sideboards. In the drive outside the front door, uniformed Chinese chauffeurs stood beside authentic Buicks and Packards. A 12-year-old boy ran through the costumed guests, a model aircraft in one hand, racing across the lawn into a dream.

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Surprisingly, it was the film premiere in Hollywood, the fount of most of our planet’s fantasies, that brought everything down to earth. A wonderful night for any novelist, and a reminder of the limits of the printed word. Sitting with the sober British contingent, surrounded by everyone from Dolly Parton to Sean Connery, I thought Spielberg’s film would be drowned by the shimmer of mink and the diamond glitter. But once the curtains parted the audience was gripped. Chevy Chase, sitting next to me, seemed to think he was watching a newsreel, crying: “Oh, oh . . . !” and leaping out of his seat as if ready to rush the screen in defence of young Bale.

I was deeply moved by the film but, like every novelist, couldn’t help feeling that my memories had been hijacked by someone else’s. As the battle of Britain fighter ace Douglas Bader said when introduced to the cast of Reach for the Sky: “But they’re actors.”

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Actors of another kind play out our memories, performing on a stage inside our heads whenever we think of childhood, our first day at school, courtship and marriage. The longer we live – and it’s now 60 years since I reluctantly walked out of Lunghua camp – the more our repertory company emerges from the shadows and moves to the front of the stage. Spielberg’s film seems more truthful as the years pass. Christian Bale and John Malkovich join hands by the footlights with my real parents and my younger self, with the Japanese soldiers and American pilots, as a boy runs forever across a peaceful lawn towards the coming war. But perhaps, in the end, it’s all only a movie.

JG Ballard – The Guardian, 3 Mar 2006.