Selected Articles
November 1, 2004
Panorama
Los Angeles
Mikhail Lemkhin
A Tale Of Happy Childhood
Gottfried Helnwein’s exhibit titled The Child at San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Gottfried Helnwein’s exhibit titled The Child at San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor testifies that the past cannot be erased from the minds of those who had lived through it, not even from the consciousness of those yet to be born: Helnwein was born three years after the death of Hitler, and yet his watercolor painting depicting the "Fuhrer" with two little girls in white dresses communicates not only sarcasm but horror and revulsion. For Hitler is not the painting’s main subject but rather these girls that have already undergone a dehumanizing initiation, these children whose gaze makes their parents shrink. What you will see in the halls of the Legion of Honor will make you shudder. Undoubtedly, Helnwein anticipates that reaction, and, yes, he deliberately makes you go through this ordeal, but just as undoubtedly (and therein lies his strength) Gottfried Helnwein puts himself through the same ordeal.

When we met, the first thing Gottfried Helnwein asked me was about my childhood. Did I have a happy
childhood? Literally, in those words.
There is a linguistic realm that is home to theme members of my generation, which supplies an instant response when the question is posed: "Thanks to Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!"
I was born in 1949, and Helnwein in 1948, but the cultural mythology that has molded my identity contains the image of the man with the big bushy moustache much in the same way that Helnwein’s
consciousness contains an image of a different man with the little moustache above his lip. The phrase "we were brought up by Stalin" (we, the Soviet people, that is, in the words of the poet who was a three-time laureate of the Stalin Prize*)… that photo of Stalin with a little girl in his arms… those little kids sent running up with flowers to countless presidiums and platforms… the words "children of the enemies of the people", the slogan "a son is not responsible for his father", the line-up drill of the Pioneers League that we had to go through every middle school morning… Only four years of my life passed under Stalin and then thirty more years under his heirs.
Gottfried Helnwein’s exhibit titled The Child at San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor testifies that the past cannot be erased from the minds of those who had lived through it, not even from the consciousness of those yet to be born: Helnwein was born three years after the death of Hitler, and yet his watercolor painting depicting the "Fuhrer" with two little girls in white dresses communicates not only sarcasm but horror and revulsion. For Hitler is not the painting’s main subject but rather these girls that have already undergone a dehumanizing initiation, these children whose gaze makes their parents shrink.
What you will see in the halls of the Legion of Honor will make you shudder. Undoubtedly, Helnwein
anticipates that reaction, and, yes, he deliberately makes you go through this ordeal, but just as undoubtedly (and therein lies his strength) Gottfried Helnwein puts himself through the same ordeal.
It is not about sympathy for the victims, but, rather, about a world that has lost a system of values that seemed innate, which seemed to be granted to any living creature by definition. Dogs, cats, rats, wolves, or rabbits protect their young, without composing hymns or making paintings. While we human beings deprave our children by lies, ideology, lust, filth, and by our example of militant righteousness. Those are the kinds of thoughts that will likely come to your mind as you look at Gottfried Helnwein‘s work, along with reactions of outrage and revulsion.
At first you might think that the creator of these fantasies is a cold manipulative trickster. But the imperturbable surface conceals a mind that has been scalded by these fantasies, a soul that has been scorched by these visions.
As a boy, the artist had figured out: What was being talked about only in quiet undertones happened not too long ago, it had literally happened just yesterday, "Who are these people in elegant uniforms and how did they get into our family album?" the boy kept asking, but did not get an answer. The dispiriting conditions of daily existence amid the post-war desolation and the grim silence of the defeated determined the atmosphere in which Gottfried Helnwein grew up. "I never saw anybody laughing, and I never heard anybody singing." It was "a two dimensional world without colors, my real life began when I got my first Mickey Mouse comic book from Americans – when I opened a three-dimensional world full of colors and wonders". When he grew up, Helnwein realized that the horror had not stayed behind in the family album of the past, but rather that it has adapted quite well to the present and will not miss its chance in the future. I think that is how Midnight Mickey appeared – the menacingly grinning Mickey Mouse, the Mickey Mouse with a sinister gleam in his eyes. The past has not gone anywhere; it still goes on, in the absence of Stalin and Hitler.
It is pointless to say that Helnwein’s art is too socially engaged. That is exactly his task, his conscious goal as an artist. He is not just fulfilling his desire to speak or "express himself". For him to be heard is an absolute necessity. And not just to be heard without having the message sink in; the artist wants to get under people’s skin, to get stuck there and stay there, to bother and disturb.
Looking at these paintings that are almost completely copied from photographs, you say to yourself: "This is all staged." But your consciousness cannot free itself from a sense of complicity, that is, of guilt. You have a feeling of being a witness, turning from a passive viewer into an accomplice.
Helnwein skillfully uses his artist’s tools, exhibiting painted images of photographic likeness next to actual photographs which feature his photo-like paintings in real settings. He hangs his gigantic portraits inside a Gothic cathedral, in the triforia between the ribs, and then photographs the interior. Thus, he attains maximum estrangement and also our maximum emotional involvement: The re-duplicated photography at once compensates and reinforces that shift from document to symbol which characterizes the "pseudo photo portrait" genre. In other words, photographing the interior setting invests this new genuine photo with a symbolic meaning. To put it in even simpler terms: Helnwein chases our emotions into a trap and slams the door shut.
For all of his visual asceticism, Helnwein never misses a chance to expand his cultural context by
extending a connecting thread to the works of his predecessors. It can be Andy Warhol, Picasso, Henri Moore; or Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose 1933 photo of a child in Valencia standing by a scraped wall, eyes shut and arms outstretched, undoubtedly served as an impetus for one of Helnwein’s staged photos: Standing near a dirty wall with chipped paint, a blindfolded young girl with bandaged arms unravels the bandage like a hopscotch rope.
After seeing Helwein’s exhibit, it is easy to say: "That’s not right!" It is easy to say that the artist uses forbidden methods, and that it isn’t too difficult to reach our soft spot by exhibiting mental and physical torments of children.
Perhaps. Yet, each day we turn on the TV and see emaciated African children, or a funeral of an Israeli boy killed in a bus explosion, or a Palestinian girl shot by an Israeli soldier, or dead children in Iraq, Beslan, and Afghanistan. Or ten-year-old children in a slum brothel in Cambodia with American or French tourists who came to spend some vacation time in the company of these children. Do we see them? Yes, of course we do. We see these images and instantly repress them, banishing them to the outer limits of consciousness. We have adjusted, we have developed skills to manage, to put up an invisible and intangible protective screen.
Helnwein rips through that shield because behind the rationality of his images there is a throbbing of real pain, and we (those who have not become irreversibly hardened) respond to that pain, if only momentarily.
***
Gottfried Helnwein’s exhibit is right in the center of the museum. To get there, you will have to cross many rooms, but even without stopping or looking around you won’t be able miss The Madonna with Child and Two Angels by Pontormo nor The Madonna by Tintoretto or the one by Giovanni Batista Sima or those by Giovanni del Marco by Di Bartolo and by Rafael del Caponi… After two dozen Madonnas, your gaze suddenly stumbles upon a bloody scene: Judith. It is unlikely that you will pass up that painting; if you do stop, the caption will tell you that it does not depict Judith but rather a lady from the Saxon court portrayed as Judith, with sword in one hand and Olofernes’ severed head in the other. A beautiful lady, a rich costume, an elaborate headdress – it seems so theatrical. But you cannot take your eyes off that cut-off head, which Cranach painted in such a striking way, along the very edge of the canvas; its neck seems to be protruding beyond the margin, pressed against the frame. One more minute and you will start to feel panic. You cannot look at it any longer and turn away. Next to Judith you find Lucrecia, plunging a dagger into her breast, blood streaming from under the knife. This is a good transition. In the next room, you will find yourself in the pleasant company of Helnwein’s images.
***

Oh right, about the happy childhood. My first memory is dated March 5, 1953. I am entering the kitchen, either coming out of our room or coming back from the courtyard (in our apartment, the front door led straight into the kitchen) where I see our neighbor, Klava. She sits there, crying, and when she sees me, she says in a hoarse voice through her tears: "It is you, you all that killed him!" I was four years old, and I cannot say for certain whether I understood whom it was we had killed, but what is surprising, I knew what Klava meant when she said "you all". You, the Jews.
I don’t remember what I thought then, don’t remember whether I asked the adults any questions, but that scene is so clear in my mind as if it happened yesterday: a boiling kettle and pots on the stove, a basin hanging on the wall in the corner, and Klava sobbing on a stool.
It was a small communal apartment shared by just two families. My parents and I lived in one room, and the other room was occupied by Klava, her daughters Olya and Galya, and her husband. I forget his name, but I remember that they took him as a witness when a search was conducted in our room – that was already in 1955 or 1956, I think. While they ripped apart the pillows and tore wooden planks off the floor, I ran around with a toy wooden machine gun and made shooting noises, aiming at the visitors. I remember, too, one of the KGB guys complaining to my nanny. "Your boy spit on me," he said. Strange, I don’t remember how and why I spat on him, but that conversation that he had with my nanny somehow stuck in my mind.
That was, more or less, my reply to Gottfried’s question.
***
Helnwein was born in Vienna in 1948. He graduated from the School of the Graphic Arts, and then from the Art Department at the University of Vienna. His first museum exhibition took place in 1983 and was attended by more than a hundred thousand people. In the twenty years that followed, Helnwein has had dozens of solo exhibits; notable among them is a 1997 retrospective at the State Russian Museum in Saint-Petersburg. The Russian Museum has 53 of Helnwein’s works on display, possibly the largest public collection of the artist’s works.
The current exhibit in San Francisco is Gottfried Helnwein’s first solo museum exhibit in the United
States.
* A line from the Soviet National Anthem written by the poet Sergei Mikhalkov

Translated from Russian by Nathan Lemkhin and Gilda Bettencourt
This essay was published:
Kstati, #505, 2004, San Francisco
Panorama, #1231, 2004, Los Angeles
Seagull, #22, 2004, Baltimore




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