8 settembre 2008
John Ennis
Head of School of Humanities at Waterford Institute of Technology
Waterford
Ireland
The Last Child
Installation in the City of Waterford by Gottfried Helnwein
“All a poet can do today is warn”, World War 1 soldier poet, Wilfred Owen, wrote in a draft Preface for a book of anti-war poems he would never see published. He was killed on the eve of Armistice Day 1918. World War One, The Great War, The War to End All Wars . . . within twenty summers, Europe was engulfed again in the even greater catastrophies of the fascist era. The work of Gottfried Helnwein has its genesis in these years. They obsess him as a creative artist. As a kind of guardian angel, he grapples with them on our behalf. That such a nightmare would never visit us again. Or our children. Or our children’s children. Or “. . .all those still to come”.
An Austrian, who has found a home in Waterford, Helnwein’s work, like Owen’s, warns, protests, rebels; his art (he has recorded) is a weapon to strike back to defend the human being in us against “the impertinences of society”. His subjects are often children, boys and girls, worldwide, and “[their] martyrdom every year before they can go to heaven”. Helnwein admits to a “downright religious relationship” with Occidental art. It is obvious his hand moves at home amid Jung’s archetypes.
He readily acknowledges a much closer relationship with writers (and musicians, apparently) rather than with fellow painters. He admires in certain writers their “spirit of rebellion, revolt, subversion against conformity, and creative recalcitrance”. No wonder, then, that we find among his kindred spirits the Russian poet, Vladimir Mayakovisky, Arthur Rimbaud in France and Resistance-fighter Samuel Beckett in a series called Fire. A close associate art figure is Goya of the Los Desastres de la Guerra series.
Helnwein’s own apprenticeship as an artist began in Austria amid an iconography of nineteenth-century saints. His remarkable faces of children are infused with the same iconographic aura; taken collectively they speak as a chorus against our times. They are swaddled in the fascist regalia of parents. His figures are ultra-real, yet archetypal, created in a still severely militarised Europe with its aspirations towards world superpowerdom. Young girls in a range of works featured in the Waterford exhibition wear Nazi uniform jackets from a world where theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to his death through torture while other pious notables happily worked in armaments, or as kids, like the present Bishop of Rome, sported in Nazi short pants.
Kids’ stuff. As a callow youngster, composer Górecki in Poland went to play with his mates kicking the bones of the dead (as if for football) in the local crematorium just liberated; through remorse and remembrance he went on to compose his great Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Helnwein’s blood-bespattered children (as shown in the Waterford Fringe exhibition ) could walk out of pictures of any atrocity in our times, whether in Omagh, Enniskillen, Dublin, Bagdad or in latter days in Ossetian Tskhinvali. The dead girl featured over Revolution lies amid blood and euro coins. In his famous poem “The Shield of Achilles”, W.H. Auden named the Greek God Hephaestos as the power ultimately responsible for the dead of wars ( today he appears in the guise of the well-monied arms manufacturers ) while working hand in glove with Thetis (Greek metamorphic Goddess of the Sea and mother of Achilles), a believer in the final victory of a perfect civilisation, a Nazi dream in recent history.
Helnwein’s Nazis are immaculately tailored, perfection personified, with utterances to match the current perfect language of rendition. Add to their company Corporate Greed and we are close to a Pauline World of deadly principalities and powers.
A favourite theme of the artist is the conjunction of the male power blocs of religion, the contemporary politic and the dubious nature of power in an encirclement of the feminine. This is the world of Helnwein’s Epiphany 1 Adoration of the Magi (artist’s collection, Waterford, and already exhibited in the city) – where the Magi are Nazi top brass – American Madonna (San Francisco) where God the Father is a robust cop dressed in black; in the Golden Age (Los Angeles ), the feminine transmogrifies into a Madonna in nightmare, her hands in Pietà disbelief, as the bodybags return home.
What consistently enthralls the onlooker is the consummate craftsmanship of the works which operates with the force of a life-giving spirit even in nihilistic contexts. One perceives an eternal vigilance at work as the eyes of the victim mirror their creator’s. His own eye remains as clear as “the bleb of the icicle” (Heaney). His work is lucid, unsentimental and moral. It is cold, clinical and detached almost to the point of self-mockery or self-deprecation. A constant theme is the oneness of perpetrator and victim. Someone who feels to the depths of his being, Helnwein confesses to being reduced to tears by the sheer spiritual quality of the Kandinsky originals and the Renaissance paintings in the Uffizi.
“A father’s no shield / for his child”, Robert Lowell wrote in “Fall 1961”: Lowell, a pacifist and conscientious objector jailed for his non-participation in the Second World War. Yet, parents do what they can for their children. The face of the child on Hall’s derelict mill might be asking us to do more. As an artist who has used his own children as models for his works, Gottfried Helnwein knows better than most parents up close the vulnerability of the young in their care. The slips of young ones sporting machine guns undermine the exploitative nature of advertising and the glamourising of the Forces evident in some jurisdictions. The face of the young girl on the Clock Tower is probably one of the saddest young faces I have ever seen.
Meanwhile, like Auden’s “crowd of ordinary decent folk”, we go to and fro about the city for business or pleasure in the presence of some of Helnwein’s Angels Sleeping and his Beautiful Children. We should be thankful to Liam Rellis, Emer Powell and Jim Gordon for making this possible. An Austrian who now lives in Waterford, Gottfried Helnwein comes from a nation with many Irish connections in bad times. It was Austria that fashioned that flamboyant army captain Art O Laoighre, the subject of our greatest Caoineadh and one of Europe’s too, as Peter Levi asserts.
Urbs Intacta Manet. In the first returns on the Lisbon Treaty vote, it was Waterford that cried Halt nationally to any further creeping militarization of and in Europe, to federalism as opposed to union, to majority as opposed to consensus. For once, in a thousand years, most of Europe now lives at peace. Helnwein in his art is fighting out front to maintain this for us by constantly posing us some central human questions. What are we doing to ourselves and the young? Where are we going as human beings in the world? What legacy will we leave our children?

John Ennis
Waterford
The last Child
2008
The last Child
2008




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