January 1, 1971
First performances ("Aktions") with children. At first in his studio and later in the streets of Vienna
In his essay "The Divided Self", art-historian Peter Gorsen states: "As shown by his many actions with children in public, the group portrait with children has become a permanent subject for Helnwein. His commitment to the rights of children has nothing to do with "infantomania", as manifested in a socially isolated "children's culture", in a commercialized "children's media", in the child as a pedagogical subject, and in the ideological transfiguration of one's own childhood. Helnwein must also be set apart from Viennese Actionism as he does not reduce the child's body to mere aesthetic material (as in the "material actions" of Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, and Otto Muehl), but instead endows it with a symbolic function in representing defenceless, sacrificed man. The sexualistic concept of the child in (Freud-influenced) "Viennese Actionism" is countered by the moralist and utopian Helnwein with the child as a sexless salvation figure. The tendency to a patriarchal transfiguration and idealization of an innocent, sacrificing child-man embracing children and artists as the sole creative interest group is the main feature distinguishing Helnwein's world of pictures from the pan-sexualism and libido anarchy of the Vienna action group of old."
Aktion Sorgenkind
1972
Excerpt from THE DIVIDED SELF - Gottfried Helnwein in his Self-Portraits
by Peter Gorsen
First publication: "Helnwein - Der Untermensch"
One Man Show at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Strasbourg
Edition Braus, Heidelberg, 1988
...At the same time that he painted pictures of injured and abused children, from 1969, around 1971/72 the bandaged child became the most important figure next to the artist himself and the martyr allied with him in his actions.
The child is the embodiment of the innocent, defenceless, sacrificed individual at the mercy of brute force. As an innocent "child of light", whose head and hand injuries emit light rays like self-radiating stigmata, he is heroized into a sufferer and saviour figure, just as the artist is. In a photography sequence of 1972, this light mysticism is expressly transferred to the self-portrait of the artist as a martyr. The scars and bandages of the face of the grimacing artist in the photographs are transformed by a grattage technique into radiant white trajectories.
As shown also by his many actions with children in public, the group portrait with children has become a permanent subject for Helnwein. His commitment to the rights of children has nothing to do with "infantomania", as manifested in a socially isolated "children's culture", in a commercialized "children's media", in the child as a pedagogical subject, and in the ideological transfiguration of one's own childhood.
Helnwein must also be set apart from Viennese Actionism as he does not reduce the child's body to mere aesthetic material (as in the "material actions" of Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, and Otto Muehl), but instead endows it with a symbolic function in representing defenceless, sacrificed man. The sexualistic concept of the child in (Freud-influenced) "Viennese Actionism" is countered by the moralist and utopian Helnwein with the child as a sexless salvation figure.
The tendency to a patriarchal transfiguration and idealization of an innocent, sacrificing child-man embracing children and artists as the sole creative interest group and excluding the female, which is assigned to the sphere of the other aesthetic objects, is the main feature distinguishing Helnwein's world of pictures from the pan-sexualism and libido anarchy of the Vienna action group of old.
The idyllic group portrait of the artist as Man of Sorrows with maltreated children also has a biographical, an autobiographical aspect, since his own children Cyril, Mercedes, and Ali have advanced to the role of models for his live and photo actions.
In the seventies, happenings and actions were commonplace intermedia events. For the Rudolf Hausner pupil Helnwein they were an additional means of expression apart from painting and photography and not the only avant-garde form possible, as "Viennese Actionsim" had claimed. Helnwein didn't know anything about this socially and culturally isolated group until 1975, when the gallery owner Ursula Krinzinger told him about it; she also pointed out similarities in his self-portrayals with the "bandage actions" of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, who had committed suicide in 1969. Helnwein knows that like the "Viennese Actionists" he stands in the tradition of the body-language expression of Gerstl, Schiele, and Kokoschka.
But whereas the aesthetic crossing of boundaries of the already historic Viennese action artists were meant as a dadaistic-destructive overthrow of panel painting and, in the footsteps of informal and action painting, as esoteric art centred on its creative process, Helnwein, in adhering to a mass-media-influenced, generally understandable, realistic depiction method, is after an approximation of art and everyday life, a socialization and democratization of the art experience in the technologically advanced reproduction media. This entertaining post-aura art is aimed at the everyday person. He is to be rattled in his living and thinking habits, sensitized and encouraged to change from consumerism to activity affecting the social process. Like painting, happenings and actions are too limited, to the point of being anachronistic, to help post-aura art attain simultaneous collective reception.
The actionistic form of depiction thus remains limited to a stimulating and accompanying role in Helnwein's idea of non-verbal communication. All the same, it is the most important source of picture material. The photographic actions and self-portrayals, the psychodramatic role-playing and photo actions of a reality copied in the studio and staged with models also contribute as raw material and preliminary form of each picture composition to its scenic temporalization. This leads in the new multisectional "Retabel" pictures and cyclical photograph sequences such as WAR AND PEACE, FLOWER-AND-LIGHT CHILD, ROSE OF SHAME AND THE SONG OF DEPUTIES, to the limitless run of pictures with a broad thematic scope reminiscent of historical and genre painting.
Aktion Ewige Jugend (Aktion Eternal Youth)
1972
Aktion Eternal Youth
1972
Child of Light (Lichtkind)
silverprint, grattage, 1972
Aktion White Children
1974
Aktion Sorgenkind
silver print, 1972




back to the top