News Update
June 2, 2006
Lentos Museum of Modern Art Linz
Stella Rollig
Presence and Time: Gottfried Helnwein's Pictures
"In memory of the children of Europe who have to die of cold and hunger this Xmas", was written on the draft of a poster in the winter of 1945 by the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka who emigrated to London. He had 5000 copies printed at his own cost and posted in underground stations. In late autumn 1988 the Austrian painter Gottfried Helnwein, who emigrated to the Rhineland, mounted a series of five meter high photo prints with children's faces along a one hundred meter long wall between the cathedral of Cologne and the Museum Ludwig. He called the work Selection (Ninth November Night). It is a work of monstrous expression and painful effect. His title recalls the anniversary of the so-called Reichskristallnacht, through which Helnwein gives the children's portraits their almost overwhelmingly harrowing effect. As we were preparing his exhibition for the Lentos Art Museum together with Gottfried Helnwein, I was researching at the same time for a different project about Kokoschka. The story of the London posters was new to me. Unintentionally and unexpectedly the two artist lives blended into one another for a brief poignant moment. With a tremendous creative effort, ability to communicate, organizational experience, implementation energy and financial resources, both artists devoted themselves on a specific occasion to an appeal: Remember!
Selektion - Neunter November Nacht (Ninth November Night)
Installation, Kulturbrauerei, Berlin, 1996
If anyone from Austrian fine art of the last fifty years could be called a star, then there is only one person who meets all the criteria: Gottfried Helnwein.
In the notoriously begrudging and distrustful Austrian outlook, stardom and fine art do not go well together. Art has no glamor in Austria.
For some, art, especially contemporary art, is highly suspicious; for others it is their enclosed terrain that is cultivated with all the earnestness and knowledgeable devotion of specialization without glancing beyond the border of their own field. At some point both groups gave up on one another, and since then no serious arguments have been exchanged.
Gottfried Helnwein never wanted to accept this resignation. It may be that Helnwein became a star in order to instrumentalize the glamor that surrounds his name for his own purposes. Creating glamor means seeking to entice, striving for attention. This is not frivolous, but actually takes the others seriously. Seeks to give something. Helnwein has become a star to put his pictures in the sight of as many people as possible: Face it.
Helnwein's popularity. Although the artist left Austria in 1985 and has lived since then in Germany, Ireland and Los Angeles, although his collectors, his galleries, his exhibitions play a far greater role in other countries than in his country of origin, despite his long absence or perhaps specifically because of it - the announcement of his museum exhibition has generated a lot of attention. Media people are standing in line. The audience is curious. Inquiries, advance notices are piling up. It is fascinating to see how firmly Helnwein is rooted in Austria's collective memory, how strong the pull of his name is.
It is a worn-out phrase: the artist polarizes opinions. Yet there is no other name (with the possible exception of Hermann Nitsch) where it is so hard to avoid. Just the announcement of the exhibition elicited no indifferent reactions. Some react as though the museum is about to be desecrated, others as though the gates to the Olympus of art were to be opened, as though a victorious athlete is to be "brought home". The suspicion inevitably arises that the so successfully implemented branding strategy "Helnwein" could block the view of the art.
Yet that is exactly the point: looking.
With the exhibition "Gottfried Helnwein: Face It", the Lentos Art Museum seeks to provide a substantial overview of the leitmotifs in the development of Helnwein's art, especially in the most recent productions, which have not yet been seen in Austria. The human face is chosen as the conjoining motif.
From the beginning, the face-to-face, the direct vis-a-vis has been his preferred image choice. The lasting forms of representation were developed in the early self-portraits and portraits of children from the 1970s. Their visual language makes use of two methods in parallel.
On the one hand this is the image as a moment of narration, realized with the means of illustration and hyperrealism, moments that transport a before and after. A small girl lies stretched out on the floor in front of a varnished wall panel and a door frame, like those that are characteristic of old buildings in Vienna. Her head is thickly bandaged all the way over her eyes and nose, a puzzling metal pipe stuck in the bandages, which is attached to the head with a wire (Beautiful Victim 1, 1974). Right before this moment someone must have put the child into this helpless situation. For what reason? Who was it? What will happen next?
A more recent series of works, the American Paintings (since 2000), confronts the viewer with the mystery of before and after in a different way. Pictures such as L.A. Confidential (Cops) or Boys show snapshots that have the effect of film frames in their frozen dynamics and halted tension - in fact, some of the figures or constellations are based on newspaper photos. Here too, the story cannot be explained. Whereas parts of the persons are not hard to identify, for instance as American police officers or soldiers, the meeting of the various figures poses mysteries. Why are the police bent over an apparently dead Donald Duck? Can Donald Duck even be killed?
Or from the series Epiphany: The Resurrection of the Child (1997). Who "resurrects" the child (from the dead?) between the uniformed men from his bandaged rigor?
Mysteriousness by itself does not result in fascination. Mysteries that cannot be solved become boring or irritating. Yet Helnwein imbues his pictures with a charge: the configurations are coded as tension between power, authority and vulnerability. Policemen - in other pictures National-Socialist military - as symbolic figures of the executives of state-legitimized violence, again and again the child as powerless, vulnerable.
The other method is isolation: here there is no connection with a milieu, with an ambience and a plot. Close-ups are compelling, faces are seen in front of monochrome backgrounds.
Helnwein's self-portraits have long since become icons, his stained bandaged head, the grimacing, screaming face, abused with clips or forks. These pictures are unmistakable, original, and yet they are still at home in the framework of (Austrian) art. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, the Viennese Actionists, Arnulf Rainer have related intentions when they show the human body and the face as the scene of massive social conflicts, whose victim is always the resistive individual. he images of wounded, maimed, deformed children are harder to bear. The sight of them can incite strong aversion. The revulsion of those struck by the images, the defensiveness: Is that necessary? Yes, says Helnwein, it is necessary.
Something has changed in Helnwein's pictures in recent years. What has remained is the enjoyment of masks and role plays, masterly evident in the grotesque portraits of the musician and performer Marilyn Manson (The Golden Age, 2003). The drastic signs and traces of violence have vanished. The disquietude they evoke remains. One series is called Sleep (2004). It is very peaceful in these pictures. They are the most beautiful, the most delicate children's faces that Helnwein has painted or photographed so far.
What is essential to creating empathy is presence and time, according to the communication theorist Marshall B. Rosenberg. Empathy, compassionate humanity - this is the motive behind Kokoschka's poster action from 1945 and behind Helnwein's art. Presence and time, that is all it takes to comprehend his pictures. This sounds simple, yet there is nothing that human beings grant more rarely. This is the investment that Helnwein demands, a recompense for his risk of being misunderstood, rejected. The profit for the viewer is finding out what one feels, what one needs and what one wants. Because that is something most people do not know.
Gottfried Helnwein : Face it
One man show
Lentos Museum of Modern Art, Linz
10. March 2006 - 5. June 2006
Essay by Thomas Edlinger
Lentos Museum of Contemporary Art Linz
"Face It" Gottfried Helnwein - one man show, 2006
Of course, the current studies on the face already rely less on effect-seeking, expressive drasticness. Rather, Gottfried Helnwein masks a possible mental turmoil or traumatization of his picture models, which might be suggested, for example, by the black, seemingly fascistoid and fetishized uniform parts, behind the posed expression of his children's faces. Like Laocoon, these "beautiful" children that seem as though carved from wax, no longer cry out. They bear something that is not named and yet is visible. In their intimacy, they communicate an unfathomable inscrutability. The viewer's irritation arises from not being able to find a clue to this mystery. The wound is to be kept open and no one should be allowed to heal it.
Summary of reviews and texts
Face it - Works by Gottfried Helnwein
Lentos Museum of Modern Art, Linz
Face it

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