THE ART OF HUMANITY
by Jonathon Keats
Three decades before Kristallnacht inaugurated the singular horror of the Holocaust, eighteen-year-old Adolf Hitler flunked the entrance exam at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. According to Mein Kampf, it was the most mortifying experience of his life. "I owe it to that period that I grew hard and am still capable of being hard," he wrote, while in private complaining often, even as he murdered Jews by the million, of "the injustice of destiny."
On that matter, he and Gottfried Helnwein agree. For the Academy not to admit Hitler was "probably one of the biggest mistakes ever," Helnwein has said, intimating a happier course that history might have taken. Yet Helnwein has never been one to linger over what could have been. From the beginning, his art has courageously confronted the injustices of his own age, that future generations might not have to say, "If only...". That the Vienna Academy rejected an artistic mediocrity like Hitler stands to reason. That the same tradition-bound institution admitted Helnwein himself as a student six decades later, in 1969, is considerably less expected -- and has gone a long way to restore the balance of fate.
Even at the age of twenty-one, Helnwein was not the sort blindly to follow instruction: Already he'd been expelled from the Experimental Institute for Higher Graphic Education. As an act of political protest, he'd shunned the classical nude, to paint Hitler with his own blood. Such artistic expression was not received kindly in a country that systematically claimed to have been a victim, rather than an instigator, of Nazi aggression. In fact, most adults preferred not even to mention the Anschluss and the war. Bleeding an image of the Führer through an open wound, Helnwein found that he could break through the skin of silence surrounding him. "This was the moment when I sensed for the first time," he has said, "that you can change something with aesthetics."
The Vienna Academy proved more amenable to Helnwein than the Experimental Institute had, if only because professors there saw fit to leave him alone. What could they say? The extraordinary realism of his paintings was an anomaly in a school that had almost entirely gone over to abstraction. Irony of ironies, he may have been the only student at the time whose work would have received, at a technical level, Hitler's approval.
That made it, politically speaking, only more powerful. At the Vienna Künstlerhaus in 1971, Helnwein exhibited Führer, We Thank You!, a show, unique in his oeuvre, that inspired the whole gamut of emotions, bringing him not only the esteem of Holocaust survivors but also (as would never happen again) the misguided admiration of a few Austrian Nazis. The allure appears to have been an enormous portrait of Hitler that Helnwein painted in oil on canvas, realistic in the cosmetic sense of an official propaganda picture. "I did it to break the wall of silence," he recalls, "but ironically I could have sold it many times." People gave him their names and phone numbers. One man even fell to his knees, exclaiming "The Führer, the Führer, it's an orgasm!"
Considerably less popular with these fascists were the watercolors on the walls surrounding the portrait. Depicting crippled and wounded children, they were swiftly defaced with stickers reading "Degenerate Art" -- Entartete Kunst in German -- the derogatory name given to the work of painters from Wassily Kandinsky to Marc Chagall to Max Beckmann, that for various reasons did not meet with Party approval. Naturally, those responsible for the vandalism were not caught, and never confessed.
The stark difference in people's response to the two sides of the show -- that they could worship Hitler while simultaneously blotting out his deeds -- served as a telling coda to Helnwein's own damning act of juxtaposition. Helnwein remembers, in particular, one man saying to him, "It's about time people started painting real things like that." The man was referring to the idealized portrait of Hitler -- not to those sharply-delineated watercolors of disfigured children.
* * *
Eight years later, in 1979, a doctor named Heinrich Gross was appointed Austrian Head of State Psychiatry. A newspaper reporter asked him whether it was true that, applying Nazi euthanasia policies, he'd killed hundreds of children in mental hospitals during the '40s. He acknowledged that he had, but that, "at the time, it was a different reality. Today I wouldn't do it," he said. Had he killed them by injection? "No, we just mixed poison in the food, so they weren't aware of what was going on," he explained. "So they died humanely."
A different reality? You wouldn't have guessed it from the public response to his comments. At about the same time, a news anchor had neglected to wear a necktie on Austrian State Television, a catastrophe that caused 3,500 citizens to write letters of protest. Whereas the revelation that the new Head of State Psychiatry had murdered mentally disabled children -- and considered himself to have done so "humanely" -- inspired none.
It was about time people started painting real things like that. Helnwein did so startlingly with a watercolor of a little girl slumped over a bowl. Titled Life Not Worth Living, it was published in a Viennese journal alongside the following note:
Dear Dr. Gross!
When I was watching 'Holocaust' (the TV program), I thought again about your attitude as reported in the Kurier. And since this is the Year of the Child, I want to take this opportunity to thank you on behalf of the children who were taken to heaven under your care. I want to thank you that they were not 'injected to death' as you have called it, but simply died by having poison mixed into their meals. With German Greetings, Yours,
People reacted to that. There was a nationwide debate. Gross resigned in disgrace.
With Life Not Worth Living, Helnwein had found a way to use his painting "like a weapon, like a scalpel," as he has aptly expressed it. He had mastered the art of irony, the strong language necessary to address a specific travesty quickly and directly. As contemporary art, Life Not Worth Living was risky, lacking, as it did, the then cardinal virtue of abstraction. But Helnwein has never embraced art for art's sake. He has said of his early Aktions (e.g., marching down the street, dressed as Hitler, sputtering theatrical blood), that he didn't think of them as art, that he "just did them," never mind how they fit into the textbooks of Gombrich or Jansen. While requiring of Helnwein extraordinary accomplishment as a draftsman and a colorist, Life Not Worth Living was executed in the same free spirit.
Helnwein belongs to no movement. He is enslaved by no genre or aesthetic. His primary obligation is to be human. He's able to change people more as an artist than he could as a baker or a plumber. But one gets the sense that, were plumbing what the world required, and were that within the reach of his talent, he would, without a moment's hesitation, trade in his paint brush for a pipe wrench.
As it is, he uses an unusually broad range of tools, producing work of the first rank in painting, sculpture, performance, photography. The last of these he used as the basis for one of his most ambitious works to date: Ninth November Night, originally installed in Cologne in 1988 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Life Not Worth Living had been made for a highly specialized purpose. The work could be, indeed needed to be, as sharply pointed as an injection needle. A memorial to the Holocaust, even one dedicated to the memory of a single horrific evening, couldn't be so specifically defined in meaning. Against Dr. Gross -- in opposition to his political appointment -- the most effective weapon was irony. But Kristallnacht wasn't of the present. The threat of such a pogrom, while never negligible, wasn't exactly imminent. Make a statement against the violence done to Jewish lives and property on November 9, 1938, and those who see it will say, "it was a different reality. Today I wouldn't do it," they'll claim, as if that had any bearing on tomorrow. To matter, a Holocaust memorial must work, rather, in opposition to indifference. As he had before, Helnwein recognized his enemy. And the weapon he chose to fight it, brilliantly, was ambiguity.
"I didn't want to use these historic photographs which are used too often," he has said, "those mountains of corpses that mean nothing anymore." He recognized that, as a society, we'd grown numb to them: Paradoxically, the more often we saw the Holocaust's human remains, the more indifferent we became. From Kristallnacht, there are many lessons to be learned, but one of them, perhaps the first, is that violence and apathy operate in a vicious circle, and that it takes precious little to start that cycle. Using the attempted assassination of a German diplomat by a Polish Jew as an excuse, Nazi Party officials sought to condemn the entire Hebrew race by giving German citizens a night of amnesty during which they might personally take revenge on any Jew in their midst. Homes were destroyed, Synagogues burned to the ground. Collectively culpable, the German people learned to overlook the excesses of one another and the criminal acts of their government. Violence begot apathy begot violence. For the attempted assassination of one German, the price was between five and six million Jewish lives.
That, of course, is an oversimplification. Yet it does not exaggerate the degree to which Nazi acts, following Hitler's behavior, were arbitrary. Rather than piling up bodies, Helnwein took that uncertainty, and used it to attack indifference in the present day.
Specifically, he photographed seventeen local children, all between the ages of six and seven, Jewish and Gentile, German and foreign. Some looked impassively at the camera. Others let their eyes fall shut. All had their faces smeared with a white powder, as if dusted with a deathly pallor. Their photos were printed on banners, each four meters high, set side-by-side on a hundred-meter-long train platform between the Cologne Cathedral and the Ludwig Museum. At the end was a white banner on which was printed in black the German word "SELEKTION". Next to it were a couple anatomical drawings taken from a certain Text Book of the Sub-Human, showing the difference in the shapes of the feet and buttocks of the "lower" and the "higher" race.
The implication was inescapable. Here, along a railway line that had once run trains to the concentration camps, was a selection of seventeen children, chosen for who-knows-what-reason, condemned to die. According to Helnwein, selektion "is the key word that describes the Nazi ethos: the idea that a small group of people can select or decide who is subhuman and who is superior." His memorial to Kristallnacht dramatizes that.
The genius is to be found in how it does so, with unsurpassable clarity, by means of ambiguity. The piece presents an awful decision (the selection of children) and offers dubious reasons (the anatomical drawings), but shrewdly prevents us from reconciling the two: Because we see only photographs of faces, we cannot determine whether these children's buttocks or feet, or both, or neither, led to their inhuman classification. We are mystified, momentarily given a sense of what it's like to live in a totalitarian society, perhaps as its victim. In suspense, we emerge from indifference.
As had happened to Führer, We Thank You! seventeen years previously, Ninth November Night was attacked by vandals, who again behaved tellingly: They slashed dozens of the portraits at the throat, butchering the children in effigy. Helnwein patched the banners with a few strips of tape so as not to hide the damage. Here was proof that politically motivated violence, brutally arbitrary, hadn't died with the Nazis. Five decades after Kristallnacht, faceless saboteurs had tried to destroy damning evidence of the consequences of Nazism. Instead they'd demonstrated the endurance of blood-hatred, inadvertently making a powerful case for our continued vigilance.
* * *
"My art is not giving answers," Helnwein has said. "It is asking questions." In fact, his work is insistently open-ended. Like Goya's Disasters of War, his art queries time and again, "How can this have happened?" Sometimes viewers reply, assaulting pictures of innocent children, worshipping those of a murderous dictator. Yet such reactions can only bring us to inquire again, louder and with greater urgency, "How can this have happened?" At last we recognize that Helnwein asks questions not in order to solicit answers -- hate has no reason -- but rather in order that we might begin to pose our own.
In that respect, Helnwein's Epiphany paintings, three large canvasses completed in the late '90s, are his most perfect work to date. The pictures each seem deeply familiar, traditional in their iconography, yet they remain persistently resistant to fixed interpretation. For example, Epiphany III (Presentation at the Temple) takes as its structure the anatomy lesson paintings -- spectators gathered around a cadaver -- popular in Holland during the 17th Century. Only these spectators aren't doctors. They appear, for at least some viewers, to be the leaders of the Nazi party (Göring and Goebbels and Hitler), faces mangled and bandaged over. And where there would ordinarily be a dismembered cadaver is a pretty little girl, lying peacefully on a table, the very picture of Aryan perfection, dead or maybe asleep. There are no saws or scalpels, nor is there anywhere an all-knowing Galen. The figures are gathered for no overt purpose, absent of any reason. If we take the men to be Nazis, we can speculate that, perhaps, as happened to Lady Macbeth, their self-mutilated ethics have been brought to the surface, that they're the true subjects of this dissection. Has there, then, been a reversal of roles? Has their underlying evil been exposed by this blameless girl, a stillborn ideal for whom humanity was sacrificed? Maybe. But the picture could as well be perceived as a memorial to the struggle the Nazis endured to foster a new nation, the little girl signifying the purity of their purpose even in the face of their failure.
These paintings are moral Rorschachs: What we see in them shows us who we are. When an enlarged photographic reproduction of Epiphany I (Adoration of the Magi) was scheduled to be suspended from the outside of Kilkenny Castle as part of a local arts festival, the town council expressed fear that people might misinterpret the imagery, especially in a place like religiously-divided Ireland.
Like Epiphany III, the painting adapts a Nazi propaganda photograph, situating it in a familiar art historical tradition. Unlike Epiphany III, the iconography it appropriates is that of Catholicism. A madonna figure, the epitome of teutonic beauty, holds in her hands a chubby little boy, only, rather than the baby Jesus, he appears to be the infant Adolf. Uniformed Nazi storm troopers are in attendance, hats off, paying silent tribute. By one reading we see the Germans accepting Hitler as their savior: Their error was to mistake him for the divine Christ. By another reading, however, we see Adolf as a reincarnation of Jesus -- his modern-day counterpart -- and the Catholic Church therefore as equivalent in its evil to the Nazi Party.
The silence of Pope Pius XII in the presence of Nazi atrocity is now well-known, but the latter interpretation of Epiphany I carries a far broader implication, reaching back centuries: the idea that the Church may be fundamentally xenophobic, and that, in some of its practices, it might have been genocidal. Helnwein's painting asks such questions.
The epiphany, though, is our own. Helnwein's art masterfully brings us to recognize within ourselves associations, and inclinations, that we'd rather not see.