Walking along Cork street in central London, trying to locate the Robert Sandelson Gallery, I do a double take on seeing Mick Jagger standing at number 5a, gazing through a paneless window. He has a 70s hairstyle, carved cheeks, and angular nose, arms folded and face expressionless as he observes the workmen labouring to reinsert the glass. The whole tableau recalls some contrived album cover. Except it isn't Jagger, but one of his biggest fans, Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein.
It could have been worse. At least he doesn't look like his self-portraits, in which bandages swathe his head, bent forks pull his mouth into a mocking smile and blood drenches his torso. Helnwein, 52, is a master of the scandalous and the art of shocking. The artist Robert Crumb once said of him: "Helnwein is a very fine artist and one sick motherfucker."
He earned his first gallery show in the 70s by driving around his native Vienna dressed in Nazi uniform, his head bandaged, fake blood trickling from his mouth. It caught the eye of an art dealer who signed him up and has remained faithful to Austria's enfant terrible ever since.
The decision to become an artist came to Helnwein "in a split second" at the age of 18, he says. "I saw it as the only way to find answers to the questions that no one in Austria would give me, such as why the post-war republic portrayed itself as the first victim of the Nazis rather than as one of the main perpetrators."
He enrolled at the Experimental Institute for Higher Graphic Instruction in Vienna, but soon got bored. One day he took a razor blade and cut his palms, using the blood to paint a portrait of Adolf Hitler. The academies stormed in, confiscated the painting and Helnwein was expelled. "This was the moment when I sensed for the first time that you can change something with aesthetics," he says. "You can get things moving in a very subtle way, you can get even the strong and powerful to slide and totter - anything, actually, if you know the weak points and tap at them ever so gently by aesthetic means."
He painted more Hitler portraits throughout the 70s. They attracted attentions from everyone, from concentration camp victims to SS officers, most of whom opened up to him. Somehow neo-Nazis got to hear of his pictures, knocking on his studio door to say, "We've heard you have a painting of the Führer. Can we come in?" According to Helnwein they confided in him their dreams of German supremacy and told him how they were infiltrating the far-right Freedom Party. Now, Helnwein has clear opinions on Jörg Haider and his party's blitzschnell rise to government; but he seems typically wary of being labelled as having an anti-Haider agenda. "I cannot understand why everyone makes so much fuss now," he says. "The situation was far worse in the past, when the former Freedom Party leader [Friedrich Peter] was an SS soldier who had been involved in the exterminations. Everyone knew about it and it was well documented, but he always said, 'I don't remember,' and everyone accepted that."
But as with his repressive Roman Catholic upbringing, it seems that Helnwein, born in 1948, will never escape the Nazi theme (in fact, he sees the two traditions as inextricably linked). Spurred into action by an interview in an Austrian tabloid in which the country's top court psychiatrist, Dr Heinrich Gross, admitted killing children at Vienna's Am Spiegelgrund Paediatric Unit during the war by poisoning their food, Helnwein painted Life not Worth Living - a watercolour of a little girl "asleep" on the table, her head in her plate. The painting sparked a nation-wide debate that finally led to Gross appearing before a Vienna court in March. The judge ruled Gross was mentally unfit to be tried. Outside the courtroom I met relatives of the alleged child victims, bearing photographs of them: their bellies distended from drug experimentation, their skulls clamped in head-measuring instruments. The brains of more than 400 of them ended up pickled in jars in the basement of the hospital where Gross experimented on them.