Denver Metro Art News

In Review: Gottfried Helnwein at the DAM

Gottfried Helnwein Without doubt I was under the spell of Gottfried Helnwein, the final speaker of the excellent DAM Contemporaries artist lecture series (December 13th, 2007). His incantation began before I had even heard him speak, after seeing his twisted photorealistic infant Hitler-Christ child and mother Mary interrogated by the Nazi SS (1996 "Epiphany, Adoration of the Magi," part of the Radar show earlier this year at the DAM.) The artist himself noted that "hardly any other painting created so much emotional response" as Epiphany I (he created 2 other works in the series).

I descended deeper once the slideshow of his early work began, a sick cavalcade of partially bandaged and deformed faces, often wrapped with sharp forks and other metallic instruments. The sense of dread never seemed to let up as he took the audience on a painful trip through his "dialog with society" that includes the recurring theme of children confronting pain and delusion: "I wanted to view the horrors of the world through the eyes of a child."

Part of Helnwein's obsession with the macabre stems from his childhood in post WWII Austria where the population was in complete denial and unable to articulate the horrors they had seen and committed. Further, the only art Helnwein was exposed to as a child was that of the church's "allegory of death and pain" through images of Jesus being tortured and killed. (His formal art training was conducted at the Academy for Fine Art in Vienna, the same school Hitler was twice rejected from.)

Other challenging images include Hitler done up in Minstrel show black face, a series of portraits featuring Marilyn Manson, paintings based on the remnants of deformed 19th century fetuses,  and "Epiphany III, Presentation at the Temple" which reworks an old portrait of disfigured French WWI veterans surrounding an unconscious young girl. Equally as disturbing was hearing Helnwein retell the stories of neo-Nazis confessing their ongoing loyalty to the Fatherland as they confronted his stylized portraits of young Adolph.

And that is the crux of my own problem condoning his work. Helnwein maintained throughout the lecture that his sycophantic Aryan supporters "surely could see I'm this hippie" and not a neo-Nazi, but there is a sick audience for Nazi glorification that will look beyond postmodern nonsense and relate to the works at face value. And it's not just the Nazi work: much of his work with children (his own progeny among others) exploits their innocence and will no doubt find an appreciative unintended audience. That said, see below for images from his slideshow, but please be warned the subject matter is not pleasant.

Helnwein is a gifted artists pushing the boundary of taste and convention: "my work was never meant to offer solutions. I am asking questions... that is the essence of art." I can't help but wonder if Helnwein is asking questions that we would rather not hear answered.


Photos by Ken Hamel/DenverArts.org

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