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1 maggio 2009
University of Minnesota
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Gottfried Helnwein
ARTS 1001 Spring 2009: Margaret's Group
Both Helnwein and Jeff Koons work in a wide variety of media—frequently on a large scale—and incorporate elements of pop culture and sexuality. But whereas Koons rejects hidden meaning and embraces the superficial “kitsch” element, Helnwein reappropriates these symbols as a means of enhancing his message. Symbols of innocence take on a decidedly sinister air—in Helnwein’s “Los Caprichos” painting installation, a maniacally grinning plastic Mickey Mouse looms over a series of canvases depicting maimed and vulnerable children. Yet Helnwein’s work comes across as more a statement about general victimization of the young and loss of innocence rather than purely a jab at pop culture. Both Koons and Helnwein have produced multiple self-portraits, but they are also drastically different in tone. Koons’ self-portraits glorify the artist in an excessively heroic manner that verges on the ironic, flawlessly groomed and surrounded by attractive women and/or the trappings of success. Helnwein’s self-portraits, on the other hand, depict the artist as a bandaged, disfigured, sub-human figure, often splattered with pigment and displaying all manner of expressions of pain and worry. Both artists indulge in a certain narcissism, but the effect is utterly different. This contrast highlights the basic difference between the two artists: Koons is content to revel in the decadent and superficial, while Helnwein is obsessed with physical and psychological anxieties.
Gottfried Helnwein, born October 8 in 1948, is an Austrian-Irish artist who works in hyper-realistic painting, photography, sculpture, performance, and installation art. While he works in a wide variety of mediums, Helnwein consistently revisits two major themes: the child and the cartoon world. However, Helnwein’s artwork exhibits none of the naïveté to be expected from his subject matter, instead focusing on matters of cruelty, violence, and sexualization. His output is generally considered provocative, and controversies have arisen from those depicting scenes of wounded children and Nazism. Despite the disputes over such content, Helnwein’s works reflect an ardent anti-war, anti-fascist message that he has consistently expressed through his work over the course of his life. Helnwein often combines photography with his painting, altering blown-up photographs with oil paints to create a menacing, turbulent atmosphere—in his recent “Disasters of War” series of mixed-media paintings, children lie bleeding, bandaged, or uniformed as though soldiers, frequently juxtaposed with kitschy toys and erotic figurines. His work, he says, has more to do with identification with those he sees so oppressed: "When I see how kids grow up, how they are neglected and mistreated, how they get polluted with drugs, junk food, insane television and bad schools, it's terrible—and dangerous, because they are our future. Children are sacred—we need to protect, support and encourage them."
The Disasters of War 13
mixed media (oil and acrylic on canvas), 2007, 180 x 125 cm / 70 x 49''
Helnwein draws his inspiration from the brutality and oppression he observes in the world around him, particularly when directed towards children. Growing up in post-war Vienna, Helnwein was profoundly affected by the depressing atmosphere in the aftermath of WWII. When asked about his early life, Helnwein has said that, “I remember my childhood being surrounded by depressed people. I never heard anybody sing. I never saw anybody laughing. It was really black and dark. There was no art or culture.” He found an escape from this dreariness upon discovering Disney comic books, and became fascinated with Donald Duck. On the subject of this particular fowl, Helnwein has expressed the sentiment that “from Donald Duck I have learned more about life than from all the schools I ever attended.” Helnwein came into art as a means of defying the society he was born into. One of his early “public artistic happenings” involved walking down the street dressed as Hitler with blood coming out of his mouth. Later work would have definite political effects—in 1979, when Dr. Heinrich Gross, Austria’s Head of State Psychiatry, admitted to having poisoned handicapped children during the war, Helnwein was disturbed by the lack of public outcry. He proceeded to create a picture entitled “Life not Worth Living” that depicted a child slumped over into a plate of food, sparking a debate that resulted in Gross’s resignation. Much like political artists such as Gregory Green and especially Daniel Martinez, Helnwein uses his art as an instrument of provocation in the hopes of bringing about change.
Other artists have made use of kitschy cartoon imagery, not the least of which being Jeff Koons. Both Helnwein and Koons work in a wide variety of media—frequently on a large scale—and incorporate elements of pop culture and sexuality. But whereas Koons rejects hidden meaning and embraces the superficial “kitsch” element, Helnwein reappropriates these symbols as a means of enhancing his message. Symbols of innocence take on a decidedly sinister air—in Helnwein’s “Los Caprichos” painting installation, a maniacally grinning plastic Mickey Mouse looms over a series of canvases depicting maimed and vulnerable children. Yet Helnwein’s work comes across as more a statement about general victimization of the young and loss of innocence rather than purely a jab at pop culture. Both Koons and Helnwein have produced multiple self-portraits, but they are also drastically different in tone. Koons’ self-portraits glorify the artist in an excessively heroic manner that verges on the ironic, flawlessly groomed and surrounded by attractive women and/or the trappings of success. Helnwein’s self-portraits, on the other hand, depict the artist as a bandaged, disfigured, sub-human figure, often splattered with pigment and displaying all manner of expressions of pain and worry. Both artists indulge in a certain narcissism, but the effect is utterly different. This contrast highlights the basic difference between the two artists: Koons is content to revel in the decadent and superficial, while Helnwein is obsessed with physical and psychological anxieties.
Helnwein is highly recommended even to those who do not have a predilection for morbid or grotesque art, for his intention is not merely to shock or titillate. Whereas many modern artists get lost in the artifice of excessive conceptualism, Gottfried Helnwein continues to produce challenging, thought-provoking work based on the weight of the subject matter, not the way in which it is presented. Having produced a wide range of imagery in a variety of mediums, Helnwein’s development is fascinating to trace from conceptual beginnings to his current synthesis of pop and fine art. Granted, many people find his work too objectionable due to the implied violence against children, and those individuals have every reason to disregard this recommendation. I would urge my friends to see an exhibit by this artist based on what I know about their tolerances for disturbing themes in art.
Mouse VI
2006, 200 x 265 cm / 78 x 104''
Posted by mors0120 on April 22, 2009 10:03 PM | Permalink




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