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1 gennaio 2008
Rudolfinum Gallery, Prague
Petr Nedoma
Gottfried Helnwein - one man show
Let us take one of Helnwein's key images, "Epiphany 1 (Adoration of the Magi)", 1996 (mixed media on canvas, 210 x 333 cm). The figures of the officers in Nazi uniforms observing their leader are genuinely taken from an old photograph. Adolf Hitler is replaced by a seated figure of a young, distinctly Aryan blonde woman in a white dress, holding up with both hands upon her knee a standing, naked, strangely dark haired male infant, who in his face bears certain similarities to his predecessor in the original photograph. The figure of the Madonna, displaying her son to be honoured by the kneeling shepherds, is almost a literal paraphrasing of the painting entitled La Madonna del Rosario, finished by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1607.
Helnwein evidently knows this painting well, since this can be seen in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The kneeling, religiously prostrated shepherds before the Madonna are transformed into self-assured, assertively imperious SS and Wehrmacht officers decorated with iron crosses and oak leaves. In contrast with the original, the Madonna lowers her gaze away from the direct and superior gaze of the SS officer standing in the foreground on the left side, as well as from the starkly searching gaze of the Wehrmacht officer on the right, who impudently examines the naked baby Jesus. The connotation with the examination of racial purity is relatively obvious and requires no reminder. In the image Helnwein works syncretically with historical and cultural memory. He interweaves motifs of the masterful work of Italian baroque painting with authentic documents of ultimate barbarism, taken from, amongst other sources but by no means exclusively, the environment of Germanic culture and education. However, he blends various media - photography, which he transfers with hyperrealistic precision through painting onto canvas, painting, which he paraphrases with a precision excelling the original and referring rather to photography. He mixes pictorial types, such as the group photographic moment, with the very formalised baroque type of the Epiphany 11 - Adoration of the Shepherds, which is moreover interchanged with the Adoration of the Magi (Wise Men). He also mixes Christian culture with the cult of the fuehrer from the era of Nazism. The strategy of movement within a fissure, the created shifts of meaning of the individual elements of the pictorial composition using an almost magically precise representation, provides Helnwein with the possibility of creating new connections, bridges which provide a short cut to understanding the actual meanings of the content of real historical events, which in addition are frequently unfinished or have thus far not found a solution and outcome.

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