GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN, EPIPHANY (ADORATION OF THE MAGI)
by Gwen F. Chanzit
Curator and professor, Art and Art History, University of Denver
at the occasion of the exhibition
Radar, Selections from the Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan
at the Denver Art Museum
15. October 2006

Gottfried Helnwein's Epiphany (Adoration of the Magi) is a strange takeoff on a traditional New Testament theme in art. The work depicts a Madonnalike mother displaying her baby to attentive Nazi officers, Painted in hyperrealist grisaille with chiaroscuro effects, the work resembles an old documentary photograph made huge. The eerie, sinister overtones are unmistakable. Who is this mother? What do these officers want with her and her child? What kind of official paper might the officer on the left hold in his hand and what might be its result? Helnwein, characteristically, presents us with an ambiguous, haunting image and leaves us to wonder about its meaning. Helnwein's background perhaps helps explain why his often difficult subjects have been interpreted in various, often contradictory, ways by opposing sides of the political debate about World War II. With its huge size, hyperrealist style, and disturbing content, this unsettling work bestows a psychological anxiety accompanied by a strong magnetic pull. Confronting it, we tend to stare-entranced by both its beauty and its seductive, malevolent overtones.

The subtitle, Adoration of the Magi, refers to the scene in the life of Christ when the three wise men came from the East to offer gifts to the newborn king of the Jews (Matthew 2:112.[1] However, the figural arrangement of Helnwein's painting aligns more closely with traditional images of the Presentation in the Temple, when the infant Jesus was brought to Jerusalem and presented to God in accordance with Jewish custom
(Luke 2:2239).[2]

But this is no traditional painting. The time frame has jumped to the period of the Third Reich. The figures of the officers are taken from a Nazi propaganda photograph that Helnwein reworked on the computer, enlarged, transferred to canvas, and overpainted with acrylics and oils. While the mother looks much like an updated (Aryan) version of a sweetfaced Madonna from Renaissance paintings, the baby, with his full head of dark hair, looks strangely like an infant Hitler. Here, the Nazi officers are caught in a dramatic moment that clearly centers on the infant. Given the reference to the specific time and place, one wonders if this mother and child are being adulated or investigated. In fact, the intense scrutiny of the officer on the right makes one wonder if he is checking for circumcisionthe clear sign that this child is Jewish. Of course, Christ was Jewish, giving this juxtaposition of possible narratives yet one more twist.[3]

The merging of Christian and Nazi narratives may comment on the alleged moral complicity of the Catholic Church in the history of the Holocaust, based on Pope Pius XIl's silence during those dark days. An even stronger indictment of the Church might be that Hitler is seen in this Christianbased image as a modern Jesus, a Christian savior. A more moderate reading suggests that it is only the Nazi troops, with hats removed, who pay homage to the infant Hitler as their savior.

If this is a confused history painting, it may be due to Helnwein's own confused childhood. Born in Austria in 1948 in the wake of World War II, the sensitive young man grew up in a strict family with many rules and frequent punishment. Postwar Austria, struggling with the reality that it had joined forces with Nazi Germany, was to him a joyless place. He has said he remembers a childhood in a repressive environment where people didn't laugh or sing; he remembers seeing many buildings in ruins from bombing; he remembers discovering photographs of his father, uncles, and grandfathers all wearing Nazi uniforms. But no one would talk about it, answer his questions, or acknowledge their parts in the past. As he grew older, he was especially troubled by the fact that the postwar republic portrayed itself as a victim rather than as a perpetrator of Nazism, Parallel to his negative response to Austria's political past are Helnwein's negative feelings about the Catholic Church. They derive from his memories of unhappy schooling within a strict and insensitive parochial school system where punishment and guilt were in strong supply.

Helnwein's background perhaps helps explain why his often difficult subjects have been interpreted in various, often contradictory, ways by opposing sides of the political debate about World War II. With its huge size, hyperrealist style, and disturbing content, this unsettling work bestows a psychological anxiety accompanied by a strong magnetic pull. Confronting it, we tend to stare-entranced by both its beauty and its seductive, malevolent overtones.

 

footnotes:

[1]
The Adoration of the Magi is celebrated on January 6 by the feast of the Epiphany.

[2]
Helnwein made three paintings entitled "Epiphany". The one subtitled "Presentation at the Temple depicts a Group of Nazis gathered around a sleeping or dead girl and looks much like the format of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of anatomy lessons. Another is subtitled "Adoration of the Shepards"

[3]
It's been rumored that Hitler had some Jewish ancestry, making the paradoxes even more intriguing.

Catalogue Denver Art Museum
Radar, Selections from the Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan
Helnwein - pages 18, 100, 101, 192