Selected Authors
November 9, 2003
Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Center
Los Angeles
Gottfried Helnwein
Helnwein - Ninth November Night, The Documentary
Catalogue, (page 1-39)
Ninth November Night, 1938, was the night the synagogues burned in Germany. Jewish people were killed in the streets without police interference, their businesses and homes were looted and the windows of their stores were shattered. Inspired by the splinters of glass that covered the streets of Germany the next morning, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels cynically called this night "Kristallnacht" - crystal night. 50 years later, Austrian-born artist Gottfried Helnwein erected a 100 meter long wall of pictures in the city center of Cologne, between the Ludwig Museum and the cathedral to commemorate this night. He confronted the passers-by with larger-than-life children's faces in a seemingly endless row – children lined up as though “to be sorted”. The central theme in Gottfried Helnwein’s work is the human being. As a victim but also as a perpetrator. No other German-speaking artist of the post-war generation has so hauntingly dealt with the National Socialistic legacy and such issues as fascism, violence and intolerance. He has developed his own provocative, disturbing and to some extent shocking visual language in which its passion above all is dedicated to the weakest of the victims: the children. His images are a constant silent appeal against collective denial and repression. (page 13)
Installation "Ninth November Night"
(page 5)
Ludwig Museum Cologne, 1988
Musée de l'Elysée Lausanne, 1990
Kulturbrauerei, Berlin 1996
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, 1997
(page 6)
The Documentary
Los Angeles
November 9, 2003
(page 15)
You can't show anyone anything he hasn't seen already, on some level - anymore than you can tell anyone anything he doesn't already know.
It is the function of the artist to evoke the experience of surprised recognition: to show the viewer what he knows but does not know that he knows.
Helnwein is a master of surprised recognition.
William Burroughs
(page 18+19)
For the "Ninth of November Night" installation Gottfried Helnwein has consciously foregone using documentary archive material. He is chiefly interested in the attitude behind the catastrophe, the roots of the Holocaust - the delusion that one is able to measure the worthiness or unworthiness of humans by the form of the nose and ears, by the hair and color of the eyes.
The perverse "healing precept of the chosen Nordic race," which vouched for the pure and the good, described a whole gamut of lives not worth living, and which were considered to be the source of all evils such as crime, immorality and even illness. The notion being that the world would achieve an idyllic state when cleansed of inferior genotypes.
(page 20)
Cologne Stadtanzeiger, October, 26 1988
Gottfried Helnwein’s photography project “Ninth November Night," a spectacular work of art that recalls the destruction of the synagogues during the so-called “Reichskristallnacht,” was itself the target of an attack.
On Monday night an unknown person destroyed all seventeen child portraits with knife slashes. The portraits had been set up between the Museum Ludwig and the Dome of Cologne.
Helnwein had financed the project himself.
"Ninth November Night - a lane of pictures "
Frankfurter Allgemeine, October 11, 1988
Roland Mischke
The lane of pictures between the Museum Ludwig and the Dome of Cologne is one hundred meters long. Each of the pictures is 4 meters high.
There are thousands of people daily that pass by the rear platform of the cathedral and by far the majority of them, who are only accustomed to the graphic language of advertising here, are baffled, indignant and shocked at the pale children’s faces.
The lane of pictures had barely been set up, when the first damage occurred:
At night the large-sized child portraits, which had been made to appear distorted
and old by the use of makeup, were slashed with knives; one picture was stolen.
The city council and museums of Cologne receive dozens of calls daily and find themselves forced into a position of explanation and justification.
(page 27)
Whoever still had illusions after "Reichskristallnacht" as to what designs the National Socialists had on the Jewish people, failed to recognise the evil driving force which had manifested itself at that time.
Everything objectionable and wicked, every evil characteristic, was projected upon the Jewish minority; it was then easy for the perpetrators to overcome the barrier which separated life and death for their victims.
Not even the children were spared; they, too, fell victim to the destruction. It was Gottfried Helnwein's most convincing idea to present the consequences to this "period without mercy" in such an unconventional manner. He made no use of photos of heaped corpses; children's portraits force the observer to stop and consider this idea. The fury with which the neo-Nazis reacted to these portraits is understandable inasmuch as it is the very same fury with which they have for years been fighting against The Diary of Anne Frank; the murder of children rouses abhorrence and conflict in every human, whether they are motivated by ideology or insanity. The urge to destroy has survived; the portraits bear witness to its rage - an attempt was made to cut them to shreds.
"People, please, stop,... look at these children's faces, multiply their number by a few hundred thousand. Only then will you realise or gain an inkling of the extent of this Holocaust, of the greatest tragedy in human history!"
(page 32)
09 November 1990
Charles-Henri Favrod
Director of the Musée de l'Elysée Lausanne
"In the struggle against the Jew, I defend the acts of God!" Those were Hitler's words in Mein Kampf.
As early as April 1933, the SA organises a boycott of all Jewish businesses and a decree forbids the employment of Jewish people as functionaries. September 15, 1935: The Nuremberg Laws withdraw the German nationality from Jewish people, forbid marriage and extra marital relationships between Jewish people and Aryans. In the course of the next few years, Jewish people are excluded from professional occupations. The assassination of the German diplomatic counsellor in Paris, von Rath, by a young, Polish Jew leads to "Reichskristallnacht", in the night of November 9th to 10th, 1938, during which the businesses and residences of Jewish people and the synagogues are plundered. Decrees enforce the complete exclusion of Jewish people from economic life in the days that follow. A fine to the amount of one billion Marks is imposed upon them, they are forced to wear yellow stars, they are forbidden to leave Germany, they are arrested and deported soon after. The nucleus of Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) lies in "Reichskristallnacht". Thereafter, the sorting according to the shape of the nose or the ears, the colour of the eyes or hair begins, all coupled with pseudo-scientific arguments which exemplify the perversity of it all.
It was Gottfried Helnwein's intention to remind us admonishingly of exceptional laws and the abhorrent Aryan theory of Eugenics. The series of children’s portraits stigmatises racial ideology and (x) exudes an extraordinary force. Moreover, it is this radial energy which provoked the knife attack by a nostalgic, as the monumental pictures were being exhibited between the cathedral and Museum Ludwig in Cologne.
I admire the work of Gottfried Helnwein a great deal. This photographic testimony encourages reflection and provokes the examination of conscience, which is necessary for every one of us where racism is concerned. The laceration of the portraits is proof of the fact that we cannot be indifferent to the warning of the "final solution". I consider myself lucky to be able to exhibit this gallery of memories in its present form in Lausanne. There are also a number of photographers from the East to be found there, in the name of the new emerging Europe, now that totalitarianism is being forced back. The childrens' faces are to remind us that innumerable victims were needed during the past sixty years to get out of "the Night and the Fog."
(page 33+34)
09. November 1988
Reinhold Mißelbeck
Curator for Photography and New Media,
Ludwig Museum Cologne
Helnwein, Ninth November Night
There is not a more destructive judgement on one's fellow human beings than to declare his existence superfluous and possibly even damaging.
Man has developed numerous variations of this attitude. The most harmless form is the snobby arrogance whereby one's fellow men are treated as pitiful worms, as quantité négligeable. A more dangerous one is that of the self-centred whereby one's fellow human beings are usually ignored or at best viewed as a nuisance. A fatal one is the ignorance which makes it possible to simply not acknowledge the misery of whole nations, be it due to convenience, be it due to negligence. Finally, there is the possibility to institutionalize attitudes of this nature and to legitimize them by law, which led to the establishment of societal hierarchies in the national or international structure of peoples.
In such cases a ratification of this type is mostly scientifically anchored and substantiated.
The National Socialists had combined all these elements in a particularly perfidious way and developed a system from a mixture of arrogance, racial theory, dictatorship and military might which allowed them to define "life not worth living," to discriminate against, and eventually to annihilate, millions of people.
Since the turn of the century science had described and evaluated racial characteristics with the help of a profusion of pseudoscientific literature. "Reichskristallnacht" was the signal, and on November 9, 1938, all that had been developed by scientists and made legitimate by politicians was put into effect. The hundred metre "picture wall," which was developed and constructed by Gottfried Helnwein on the occasion of the "photokina '88" and erected between Museum Ludwig and the Cologne Cathedral along platform 1 of the main station, serves to remind us of this occurrence - the mass murder of six million Jewish, Romany, Sinti and other peoples.
Children’s faces are to be seen on seventeen pictures, each one measuring 4x2 metres, finished using the scanachrome process. Next to these, in small format, a black and white table showing the differences between the Aryan and the inferior races by way of their posture when seated plus shape of sole of foot - obviously in the framework of scientific treatment.
What we see are average faces, identical to hundreds of others that we could meet on the street: children between the ages of six and seven, whose faces are slightly toned white with make-up. Indeed their facial expressions are passive in a way which is difficult to describe: sometimes the eyes are half closed, sometimes the head is photographed slightly from below or just off centre. The portraits are irritating, since the children are portrayed in a way in which children generally would not be photographed. There is no good cheer, no childlike innocence, no sparkle in the eyes. We imagine pictures of children to be different.
It is the subtle alterations in the facial expression and posture that cause us to be disturbed by these images. As soon as one rids oneself of the emotional impression and attempts sober appraisal, it becomes obvious that these are wholly normal, thoroughly average children’s faces.
It is exactly this effect which Gottfried Helnwein aimed to achieve in his work. He wanted to shock, but at the same time he also wanted to make it clear that there is really no reason for such shock, that all that we see is completely normal.
In this manner he achieves an impact which is principally comparable to the effect of National Socialist propaganda. Even the Jews were, when considered lucidly, and if one cast aside the image created by the National Socialist campaign, ordinary people like you and I, neighbours whom one had known for many years, the doctor who had treated the children or the shopkeeper living opposite.
Those people had not changed, only their public image.The study of this paragraph in our history brings clearly to light that it is enough merely to alter the way an image appears to the public in order to achieve the reevaluation of a system of values handed down through generations.
Something similar is induced by Gottfried Helnwein's portraits, which cause the sight of completely normal children to be shocking and make their faces appear ill and strange.
Gottfried Helnwein, famous in the art world as painter and politically committed performer, familiar to a wide audience due to provocative front page features in magazines, complimented his work in art with photography from the outset. What had then begun as a documentation of his actions was granted autonomy through the years as he became conscious of how many effective possibilities photography possessed, possibilities which remain outside the realm of painting and drawing.
Whilst it is essential to the painting - especially those which tend to hyper-realism - that it is a product of the imaginary force and fantasy of the artist, every photographic project, however much it has been manipulated, bears a reminder of the authentic force of its daily uses for documentation in both the private and public sectors.
If Gottfried Helnwein has to make use of a photographic accurateness in his painting(x) so as to make his fiction and fantasy as real as possible (and consequently believable), it would suffice to occasionally use inconspicuous changes and simple superimposition in order to smelt two realities into one to fuse that which is divided by space or by means of montage without the force of authenticity (which is a quality of photographic pictures as a medium), suffering any damage.
A photographic festival like the International Photoscene in Cologne is good since it is not only presented in the closed exhibition chambers but is also visible in the town environment. It was to our good fortune that Gottfried Helnwein also strove to break away from the museum and gallery sector in order to communicate with a larger public.
This appeared on a grand scale on the site between the Cathedral and Museum Ludwig, and at a time of "photokina"-fair, with its hundreds of thousands of visitors. The 100 metre picture wall did not fail to hit its mark: it induced bewilderment as well as aggressiveness. After a few days, numerous pictures had been slashed, one even stolen.
Gottfried Helnwein saw the exhibition as a process which would continue and be reflected in later presentations. The pictures were not renewed, but patched up, so that this reminder of the persecution of Jewish people would bear the traces of a lack of insight and understanding in the present day.
The appearance of the picture wall arouses feelings as though much more than a picture has been injured by these stabs and slashes. It will be interesting to see how public reactions in Switzerland and America differ from those in Cologne.
The exhibition site will, however, certainly play a role. A purely musing ambience is conducive to a willingness to tolerate, whereas in Cologne the immediate vicinity of the cathedral's eastern organ loft increases sensibility dramatically.
(page 38)
Tennessee Williams once said that all good art was an indiscretion. In Helnwein's case, it is a confrontation.
His subject matter is the human condition. The metaphor for his art is dominated by the image of the child, but not the carefree innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead created the profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative image of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within.
by Robert Flynn Johnson
Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

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