Gottfried Helnwein, Interview
Gottfried Helnwein was born in 1948 Vienna.
He is an artist well known by his critique of the political situation, the crimes perpetrated during the WWII, Nazism and Holocaust.
The experience from the childhood spent in the post-Nazi Vienna, where nobody ever spoke about these issues irritated Helnwein, and so throughout his artistic career he expressed his critique and revolt against war atrocities and the politics of National Socialism.
“My art is not the answer, it is rather a question”
His installation “Ninth November Night” in 1988, in Cologne, irritated German audience and provoked protests and aggressiveness. The large-scale photomurals were vandalized. After a few days, numerous pictures had been slashed – one even stolen. Gottfried Helnwein however saw the exhibition as a process, which would continue and be reflected in later presentations. The pictures were not renewed, but patched up, so that this reminder of the persecution of Jewish people would bear the traces of a lack of insight and understanding in the present day.
The motif of the child, which prevails his work, is presented in an unsettling way, but also in unrivalled beauty and is his main metaphor of the innocent and helpless people upon whom the cruelty and the violence are being practiced by those in power.
As it has been accurately pointed out the child in Helnwein’s work is the symbol of innocence but also of innocence betrayed by today’s world malevolent forces of war, poverty, and sexual exploitation and the misguiding influence of modern media.
Beside the child images occupying the central place in his painting and the critical-historical subjects, the artist also did series of photos―self-portraits in which, showing himself in the act of self-torture, referring to the vulnerable and oppressed existence of contemporary individual.
The selection of subjects and the modes of representation make his works disquieting inviting and are perfectly synchronized with his deep inner intention not to console through his art but to provoke.
Gottfried Helnwein talked to Eleni Zymaraki Tzortzi.
Art in numerous instances has been used by both societies and individuals as the means of atonement and perhaps of justification for the unethical, the injustice, the atrocious, the corrupted, the perverted etc.
What is your opinion about art, especially contemporary art, as a means of atonement and absolution for societies and individuals?
The idea, that killing and bloodshed can atone for preceding killing and bloodshed, is the fundamental error of mankind. Another misapprehension is the idea that somebody else can release you of your guilt by sacrificing himself or somebody else. These misconceptions are responsible for the never-ending cycle of violence, pain and death.
Art has nothing to do with that. On the contrary – Art is the antipodal force, it can enable us to approach, confront, permeate and transcend the horrendous, the unbearable, the unexplainable, the pain and the agony and our own dark side. It is the force that eventually defeats death.
Aesthetics is the universal solvent.
Jean Gene said: “Beauty has no other origin than the wound (unique, different in each person, hidden or visible) that we carry within us…”
And only beauty or art can heal that wound.
I think art and aesthetics are the fundamental necessities for human existence, and I agree with Nietzsche’s assertion that “Authenticity of the creative artist can supply meaning to the despair and absurdity of existence.”
The effect your work has on people’s consciences could be compared with the one that the Greek female mythological deities, Erinyes, had on criminals. They forever followed the person who did a crime and they even could make the person go mad. Similarly your work confronts us with the ugliest sides of our self, the ones we mask, we tend to forget, to cover…
Do you fight through your work against oblivion?
No blood is coming out of my eyes, but I do like to follow people stubbornly with my images, and I try to force them to look. It is a fight against collective amnesia.
You have often talked about the environment you were born, Vienna a few years after the second World War, as a dreary place; How different and in what ways is the situation for an artist starting his career in Vienna today?
When I was born right after the big war, Vienna was a black hole. After two World Wars and the Holocaust you could still feel the breath of death. I saw only old people, miserable, grouchy, broken.
My generation was in a constant state of rebellion, we didn’t want to have anything to do with the past, the tradition and values of our parents, and the mess they left us.
Since the early nineties with the end of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the Iron Curtain, everything changed instantly. It was as like getting out of an Iron Lung and being able to breath freely again.
Now Vienna is a totally different place, modern, open, vibrant and internationally connected,
but I also realized that the city is loosing more and more its unique character and cultural tradition. Great architecture in the characteristic Viennese Baroque or Ringstrasse-style gets torn down and is replaced by faceless post-modern boxes, that could as well be found in Bucharest, East Germany or Shanghai.
And like everywhere, young artists follow now the trends of the international art scene and markets and their work is often not distinguishable anymore from that of American or Chinese artists.
How can children and also the child within us be protected and unburdened from their/our ‘fathers’ sins’?
I think there is nothing easier than raising children. I always gave my kids total freedom, I told them to decide for themselves if they wanted to go to school or not.
The only things our children need from us are: freedom and respect.
Everything else they bring with them: spontaneity, creativity, intuition, imagination and vision.
Children still have a connection to the magic of their own spiritual world, that grown-ups have lost long ago. We should not disturbed their dreams and poison their minds with our imbecile television, genetically modified junk food, drugs, psychologists, corrupt politics, internet- violence and pornography and oppressive schools.
Maybe we should just leave them alone and let them make their own decisions because they are anyway closer to the truth then we are. I think we can learn more from children, than the can learn from us.
I agree with Captain Beafheart who said; ‘I needed to purge myself of all the attention my parents had given me – I wasn’t neglected enough as a child. ‘
As an artist, where do you find beauty? What is beauty for you?
Beauty and ugliness are very subjective concepts. At different times and at different places, people have very different agreements on what these are. These terms change. I couldn’t care less about what a mediocre, middle-class society considers to be beautiful or ugly. As an artist you have to make your own decisions. There is an independent system of values that is deeply seated within you – and when you betray that you loose everything. You know when that happens. That’s the fundamental difference between aesthetics and beauty. Aesthetics remain constant. The idea of beauty changes and is subject to fashion. Like the difference between morals and ethics; morals change from society to society, from time to time, but there is a basic concept of ethics that has universal validity for all human beings, and that doesn’t change.