INTERVIEW WITH GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN
Brendan Maher
Start Magazine
Arts and Culture of the South East, Ireland
24. November 2004

 

start
With regards to growing up in Austria, you describe your childhood as being “a horror.” That’s an extraordinary word to use. Obviously this period has influenced your work. Why was it a horror?

Helnwein
I was born after the war. Vienna at the time was generally in a very depressed mood. There was a sense of despair. In the memory of my early childhood everything was so dark, and all the grown-ups I saw were ugly, grouchy and rude. Nobody talked much, everybody seemed to be in deep grief - everything was heavy and dead serious. I remember empty streets, dark and cold churches with pictures of tortured saints, ruins of bombed houses, rust, rubble, no colors, no sound.
I was born into a fucking twilight-zone, that's why it was horror.

 

start
Were they coming to terms with their complicity with Germany in the Second World War?

Helnwein
No. No one talked about anything. As a child I just found that it was an unfriendly place to be.
I never saw anybody laugh, I never heard anybody sing. I had no idea what was going on - I had the feeling I was landed on the wrong planet, and there was only one thing I knew for sure - I didn't want to be there.

 

start
It was a very common thing for people in Europe following the war to look to American Culture to escape that despair and darkness. I think specifically of the German film director Wim Wenders who also would have searched out this other world, away from this darkness. Was that the same with you?

Helnwein
It was the same for the whole generation. There was an enormous void because the Nazis had destroyed and suppressed all free expressions and arts. Museums were looted, books were burned, and anybody creative or visionary was either dead or in exile. 1000 years of Jewish culture was wiped off the face of earth. It was the final triumph of stupidity and mediocrity. Which consequentially led to total destruction: bombs had flattened whole cities - Dresden, Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin etc. - Gothic Churches, Baroque Palaces, museums, libraries, opera-houses - most of it in rubble and ashes. An era of the greatest art and architecture was turned into dust.
There was such a silence, such a void, when the war was over. Everyone was hastily trying to get rid of the past - to bury everything - their history, their identity and their memory. Our parents' generation was spiritually kind of dead. And into this vacuum of our childhood gushed America with Coca Cola, blue-jeans, cars that looked like spaceships, movies, comic-books and rock 'n' roll. America presented a mythical world of modern wonders and miracles. There were beautiful rebellious angels like Elvis, Jimmy Dean, Brando and girls of unearthly beauty - things that we had never seen before in our so-called real world. And for me and many of my friends it was also the encounter with a man that was probably our greatest inspiration: Donald Duck. The impact of this culture shock on us was enormous.

 

start
Something you touch upon in your art is the complicity of religion and totalitarianism. And there’s a suggestion that religion too was destroyed, especially for young people, after the war. And that was replaced by American culture. It’s interesting because the domination of American culture is something that people complain about nowadays.

Helnwein
Institutionalized Religions in Germany (especially the Lutheran Church) committed spiritual and moral suicide when they became accomplices of Adolf Hitler and signed the concordat - long before America came. American culture in the 50s was young and fresh, and it had a certain naivety and innocence that made it so powerful and irresistible. But things never stay the same. Today that innocence and creativity is pretty much eroded, and big business has taken over to reorganize our lives and bless us with a "new world order". If we want it or not.

 

start
Do you regard American cultural dominance as it exists now as being a problem, as distinct from that time?

Helnwein
The dominance these days is not so much cultural, it's more military-corporate-industrial. Rome started to go down when it abandoned the culture that had made it great and turned into this greedy, all-conquering, imperial machine run by insane dictators. But I am not suggesting that there is any parallel to present time.

 

start
Going back to your youth, in the early part of your career as an artist in the late ’70’s you publicly protested against a forensic scientist in Austria, a Doctor Gross. Can you tell us what that protest was about?

Helnwein
Dr. Gross was a forensic scientist who killed hundreds of children during the war. He was in charge of a mental hospital then, and did this due to Hitler’s policy to eradicate anyone who was regarded as “inferior”.
I read an interview with him where a reporter asked him if he did in fact kill so many children, and he said, "Yes – that was the way we operated, but things were different then". He had no regrets, and he couldn't be more relaxed about it. He pointed out that he actually killed the children in a very humane way: "We put poison (Luminal) in their food, so they were not aware that they were going to die."
My problem was not so much that somebody was insane enough to do something like this. My problem really was that nobody had a problem with it. Gross, who was still the leading forensic psychiatrist at that time in Vienna, openly admitted that he killed hundreds of children. People read it. No reaction. Not one letter of protest.
At the same time the public sent 3,500 letters of protest to national television because for the first in Austrian television history a presenter had appeared on air without a tie. That was unheard of at the time. So for many people, the world ended right there. People freaked out. I thought, "Maybe it's just because they can't read and they didn't understand what the guy said in the interview". So I called the leading news magazine, "Profil", and asked them to give me a page for an open letter, and then I just painted what the doctor had described: a dead little girl with her head in a plate of food. And this did cause a reaction. People were suddenly very upset. It triggered a discussion that finally, after years, led to the dismissal of that guy. So it seems that pictures sometimes reach much deeper than words.

 

start
The image of the hurt child is one that you have used regularly. I often think of the famous photo of the little Vietnamese girl running away from her napalmed village during the Vietnam War and connect it with your work. For you, what are you trying to say – are you using the child simply as a vehicle for innocence lost?

Helnwein
I never tried to say anything, and I don't use vehicles.
When I started to paint, I painted children because I just felt that I wanted to take their side. What always upset me was how children were getting abused simply because they were physically weaker and not capable of defending themselves – how they were raped, enslaved and killed. I never understood why some people seemed to have fun causing pain to someone smaller.
At that time, I researched a lot into child abuse in Austria and Germany. I saw hundreds of pictures of children from forensic files who had been beaten, raped, burned or tortured, often by relatives or their parents. But child abuse was not an issue in the media at that time. And I connected this with the past - the concentration camps – and withVietnam. I tried to speak from the viewpoint of a child.

 

start
You use an ongoing image, which appeared again in a recent Marilyn Manson video, and it’s of a child’s deformed mouth or perhaps of a botched operation. Is there a specific message here in that you repeat the image?

Helnwein
It should speak for itself. I don’t want to interpret or explain my pictures. I don't think they need explaining. What I wanted to express was visual. If I would have wanted to express it verbally, I would have done so.

 

start
The "Selektion" series that featured a row of large-scale children’s faces, which you did in Cologne, in 1989, on the anniversary of the Holocaust, was damaged or cut up by a vandal. Did you ever get any reason behind this?

Helnwein
"Ninth November Night" was an installation in remembrance of the infamous "Kristallnacht", exactly 50 years before - November 9th, 1938, the night when all Synagogs burned in Germany. I erected a 100 meter long wall of children's faces - right in the center of Cologne, between the Cathedral and the Ludwig Museum of Modern Art. After the second night someone came along and cut the throats of all the children on the panels. But that's what you have to be ready to experience if you put art into public spaces. It's part of the process. I decided to just tape the cuts on these pictures roughly together and to leave them like this. So these scars became part of the installation and actually made the artwork much stronger, because it added another dimension to it.

 

start
And a similar thing happened with your work in Kilkenny, with paint being thrown at the work.

Helnwein
I think in Germany the attack was politically motivated. Here (in Ireland) the reason was probably Guinness.

 

start
I was interested in the “Angel Sleeping” series that you began in the late 90’s. They’re extraordinary images.

Helnwein
I was inspired by the great collection of medical artifacts of the Pathological-Anatomical Museum in Vienna, founded in the 18th century, when people became interested in natural science. I visited this collection, most of which is not available to the public. It was an amazing experience - endless hallways and rooms with grotesque looking people of wax, disfigured by strange diseases, but very realistic with hair, glass-eyes and clothes. I also found hundreds of stillborn babies in glass jars, floating in green or amber-colored formaldehyde. Many of them strangely deformed. I was very moved when I looked at these little bodies suspended in time. I realized that maybe 150 or 200 years ago somebody lived here for a second and then died, leaving this odd looking little body behind, quasi as an imprint of his soul. Each body had distinct features and emotional expressions, and each one was absolutely unique and individual. Some looked peaceful and relieved, others confused, as if struggling or in pain, or caught in some bad dream. Some of them didn't even look very human, and it was impossible to read their expressions. But I found all of them incredibly beautiful. And I decided to photograph and paint them and include them in my children-series.

 

start
Robert Flynn Johnson in his essay on your work “The Child” describes you as being positioned at the “forefront” of the highly regarded confrontationalist movements of contemporary art. I’m aware of such an idea in performance art or the filmmaking of Gaspar Noé and your own compatriot Michael Hanneke, but can you expand on such a notion in your art?

Helnwein
I don’t try to put myself into any category, because I’m not an art historian or a theorist. I have a completely different approach to art. When I look at a work of Art I ask myself: does it challenge me, does it touch, move or inspire me? Do I learn something from it, does it startle or amaze me - do I get excited, upset?
That is the test any artwork has to pass: can it create an emotional impact on a human being even when he has no education or any information about art? I’ve always had a problem with art that you can only understand if you have a degree in art history, and I have a problem with theories in general. Most of them are bullshit anyway. Most critics and theorists have little respect for artists, and I think the importance of theory in art is totally overrated. Real art is self-evident. Real art is intense, challenging, enchanting, exciting and unsettling; it has a quality and magic that you cannot explain. Like the Blues, a poem of Rimbaud or Rembrandt's late self-portraits.
Art is not logic, and if you really want to experience it, your mind and rational thinking will be of little help. Art is something spiritual that you can only experience with your senses, your heart, your soul. Think of Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Mozart, Howling Wolf, Goya, Bukowski or Robert Crumb - do you need to know the theories that some busybodies might attach to their art in order to experience it?
Marcel Duchamp said: "The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from the bipolar action gives birth to something - like electricity." These two poles is all you need.

 

start
I’d imagine a historical context is needed more than a theory

Helnwein
Great art always reflects the life and times and the society an artist lives in. It will tell you about the people, their culture, their philosophy, their struggle, their hopes and their dreams. But it's true, putting the work in historical context can be very helpful.

 

start
Despite the intensity of the imagery in your work, the work is often beautiful. Where would you place the notion of “beauty” in Art?

Helnwein
That’s a problem: beauty and ugliness are very subjective. At different times and at different places, people have very different agreements on what these are. These terms change. I couldn't care less about what a mediocre, middle-class society believes is beautiful or ugly. As an artist you have to make your own decisions. There is an independent system of values that is deeply seated within you as an artist - and when you betray that you loose everything. You know when that happens.
That's the fundamental difference between aesthetics and beauty. Aesthetics remain constant. The idea of beauty changes and is subject to fashion.
Like the difference between morals and ethics. Morals change from society to society, from time to time, but there is a basic concept of ethics that's universal for all human beings, and that doesn't change.

 

start
Politically, where would you place yourself? Or ideologically?

Helnwein
Sometimes I think I am on a ship filled with fools and idiots, because it seems that the majority always wants war. Whenever there’s a short period of relative peace and no mass killing, they get nervous. Take Bill Clinton for example. We had eight relatively quiet years where the country was in good shape economically, but people didn't like that. Clinton recently said something like "under my presidency, there was no major crisis or war that would have allowed me to go down in history as a great president". He has a point there - in order to be considered a great leader, you need a war.
I studied this in relation to the First World War, which is something people should look at. Why it started is a mystery. What was the reason? Nobody knows. It was just that suddenly everybody wanted that war. Everybody got excited and wanted to fight, and if possible die in the fields of honor - but nobody really knew what for. There was this vague idea of a great war that would end all wars - that would purify the world and cleanse it of all evil, decadence and selfishness.
It's a popular belief that war is a catharsis that brings out the best in all people - any little jerk and looser can become a hero. And maybe it just feels good to have God on your side and to be totally righteous and to be able to project all bad and evil onto others. Every war eventually turns into a kind of a “holy war”, where all the means are justified for an imagined higher cause. And it’s always the same stupid message: "God is on our side. We are good and they are bad". Them and us. Them: the Jews, the Bolsheviks, the Arabs, the Muslims, the Terrorists, etc.

 

start
Looking at the 60’s, did the dream of 1968 ultimately collapse in the 70’s when people went off and joined groups like the Baader Meinhof Gang, The Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades?

Helnwein
I think it was a stupid dream. In fact, there were two revolutions: one was an aesthetic cultural one - Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Janis Joplin, the Stones, Captain Beefheart, Burroughs, the Beat Generation, Sartre, etc. - this revolution changed the world, and these changes will last. But the other one - the political revolution - didn’t work. Thank God it didn't.
I remember the hysteria amongst the students - everybody wanted to be like Che. There were the Maoists and the Leninists, the Trozkists, the Spartakists and other groups with similar idiotic names - all of them fighting against each other of course. It was so phony - all these discussions from morning ‘till night of how to free the working class. None of these spoiled kids had ever worked themselves, but it was probably exhilarating and romantic, and it gave them a feeling of incredible importance.

 

start
You now live in Ireland part of the year and you started to paint landscapes–

Helnwein
I hadn't painted landscapes since I was 18, when I was fascinated by the "Romantic" movement of the early 19th century - especially by the painters Caspar David Friedrich and Waldmüller and by poets like Eichendorf, Heine, Novalis and others.
When I came to Ireland and settled here a few years ago, I started to realize how beautiful the land was that surrounded me, and memories came up of the time when I wandered with my friends out into the countryside of Austria and painted our first landscapes and read poems to each other. Suddenly I had this desire to paint landscapes again, and so I painted my first Irish landscape a few years ago. In a way it was a test for me. I wanted to see if I could do that again. It opened a new door for me, and the landscapes became an important part of my work.
Unfortunately, I cannot only paint landscapes – I think I am doomed to always go back to the big city and dive into the decadence and insanity. I am obviously obsessed with the idea that it's my duty as an artist to be the chronicler of our times and that, with my work I have to witness the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

start
But what’s interesting about these landscapes is that they have a peacefulness and perhaps a passivity.

Helnwein
The landscapes here also touched something in me that I had last felt as a child on my grandparent’s farm. I found the same freedom, peace and serenity. So given the work that I did in the last 30 years, in a way it was a revolutionary act for me to paint these landscape. It’s not something that I would obviously do, but I think it's a statement that makes sense in context with my other work.

 

start
Do you have a different feeling when you paint these landscapes as distinct from your other work?

Helnwein
Painting landscapes is like a meditation for me. Working on my other themes is very different, it's often a struggle, but it depends in which phase of the painting process I am in.

 

start
Regarding the processes involved in your paintings; in the late 90’s you started using a computer to construct your images.


Helnwein
All my life I have used and experimented with various media and techniques in order to achieve the exact effect I wanted. When I started in the Academy of Fine Art, in Vienna, I used all materials that came to hand. Watercolors, colored pencils, inks, and airbrush. From the beginning on I developed my own methods of painting and didn't care much for the traditional rules. I also worked with black and white photography and did performances in public areas, often with children.
1985 when I moved to Germany, I changed everything. I switched to oil and acrylic on large canvases and started to combine different media in triptychs, Installations and performances.
I started relatively late with computers and digital technology, around 2000. I always tried to avoid it, due to my aversion to everything that has to do with electronics, but I have to admit digital technology is an amazing tool, and in the 21st century it's hard to create anything relevant without it.
But I was never really interested in techniques as such. For me they were always merely a necessary means to create a certain effect. I am only interested in the result. What is it that you see?
An Artwork is very much like the work of a magician. The audience wants to be surprised, amazed and inspired. Our job as artists is to create these wonders and miracles, on stage, on screen, or on canvas. If the magician came and explained the mechanics and the machinery behind the illusion, you'd lose the magic.
Pablo Picasso said: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

 

start
Why did you decide to locate in Ireland? Was there a specific reason or attraction?

Helnwein
I never developed the feeling of "home", and with my wife and four children, I have kept moving from place to place like a little gypsy tribe. We lived in Germany for over ten years, and since the 80s I had been exhibiting more and more in the United States and I spent quite some time there. But I guess deep inside I am so much European that I always knew I need a base in Europe, and for a while we were undecided as to where that should be. For some strange reason, I kept thinking about Ireland, which I didn’t know anything about. But there was this inexplicable mythical, dreamlike desire. It was Christmas 1996 when we finally went to Ireland and toured around the country. It was cold, stormy and raining the whole time. We often wound up in odd, little hotels and remote pubs with the smell of peat fire. And that was it – we fell completely in love with this country. A few months later we packed, and moved to Ireland. First to Dublin, where we lived for a while until we found our final home in Tipperary. It was a long way indeed!

 

start
How did you come upon the house in Tipperary?

Helnwein
I always liked living in big houses. I need studio space with high ceilings, and I have a large family. I want to be able to have my friends around me, and I can’t live without a garden – I need to be connected to nature somehow. That really leaves you with only few possibilities: you have to look for a country house or a castle, which we finally found in this area. We moved in, and we've been restoring and constructing ever since.

 

start
I’m aware that you are at a remove from the “art world” living in rural Tipperary, so what benefits accrue from living in such an area?

Helnwein
For the first time in my life I have something that feels like home, and for my wife and my children it’s the same. I love this country and the people, and I think it’s a great privilege to be able to work and live here. Ireland, despite all the recent changes, is still a very spiritual and magical place. I feel deeply connected to the people, their culture and to the nature here, and maybe I’m getting old and weird because I find myself talking to trees and animals when I walk through my garden. I can feel the presence of spirits and fairies. Whenever I come back home from America, and I see the shores of this tiny green island through the windows of the plane I feel touched and moved in a way that I have never experienced before.

 

start
What are the difficulties involved? Do you feel at any disadvantage regarding your career?

Helnwein
I have to travel a lot, and I am not very good at the time-changes. Sometimes, I wish I could spend more time at home and just totally focus on my work and develop my ideas further, without distraction and interruption. I would like to work like Vermeer or other painters of the 17th Century – they had so much time – endless time. Today everything is fast and frantic, and it’s sometimes not easy for an artist to keep up with that noise and rush.

 

start
It’s suggested that Ireland is strong in relation to the written word and music. Visually – in the Visual Arts and Architecture – the country seems to be at a disadvantage. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Helnwein
The great thing about the Irish people is that hundreds of years of terror and oppression could not break them. Their invaders took their land and their language, but they couldn’t take their soul. It’s the unbroken traditions of poetry and music that carried the Irish through the times and actually made them stronger.