Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein

Mark Van Proyen
…the radical dethroning of Cartesian perspectivalism may have gone a bit too far. In our haste to denaturalize it and debunk its claims to represent vision per se, we may be tempted to forget that the other scopic regimes…are themselves no more natural or closer to a “true vision.” Glancing is not somehow innately superior to gazing; vision hostage to desire is not necessarily always better than casting a cold eye.
                                    Martin Jay, Scopic Regimes of Modernity (1988)
The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

                                    Wexler, in Tom Tykwer’s film The International (2009)


Most of Gottfried Helnwein’s paintings from the past two decades take the solitary faces of young females as their subjects, often portraying them in a beatific state, even though they might also bear the signs of serious physical trauma. Other paintings include groupings of multiple figures using Baroque and Mannerist pictorial conventions to suggest or outrightly posit a dramatic confrontation between innocence and evil. Never is it made clear which will survive.

Such ambiguities are what make Helnwein’s work disturbing, fascinating, and compelling, as the viewer is given little choice but to complete the outcome of that confrontation in his or her own imagination. By conflating scenes of religious conversion with the historical trappings of state-sponsored violence, Helnwein masterfully balances the evocation of hope and fear to create cautionary allegories illuminating the dark sides of history and the human psyche. His works also reveal some of the disturbing stories that have been ignored by modernist art criticism, touching upon the deeper anxieties that aesthetically sophisticated arrangements of flat color aim to banish from their “transcendental” pursuit of visual purity.

A good example of such a confrontation is Untitled (2005), a large canvas.
Here, two figures are positioned in a shadowy interior. The first is a presumably comatose youth, lying face-up upon a bed, seeming as if she might have been chemically sedated. Her flimsy gown leaves her legs provocatively bare, and she is painted in a close tonal range to emphasize a delicate light/dark modeling, which suggests the illumination of silvery moonlight. The other figure is much larger and comes into the scene as if entering onto a stage. He is a large man, clad in a heavy, full-length coat, wearing a grotesquely oversized top hat. He bends over the girl in a manner that confuses any clear reading of good or bad intent; however, his long phallic nose, pointed directly toward the youth’s pelvic area, gives away the game. It is worth noting that this larger figure emanates a bright orange-yellow glow and seems to catch the light in a very different way than does the supine girl. It is as if he walked into the scene from a dream, announcing himself to be a distant cousin to the menagerie of demons haunting the sleeping figure portrayed in Henry Fuseli’s Freudian psychodrama, The Nightmare (1781). Yet, despite the presence of the unconscious female and the menacing nose, Helnwein’s Untitled painting is no mere exercise in Freudian symbolism run awry. It is best understood as an allegory of innocence and its loss, one akin to the cautionary moralism central to Goya’s cycle of etchings, The Disasters of War. As is the case with many of Goya’s earlier images, the sleep of vigilance in Helwein’s Untitled has produced an anonymous monster of opportunism, dressed here in the most appropriate of costumes, part toy soldier and part faceless agent of institutional violence. From this all-too-revealing costume, we infer that rank can imagine itself to hold some very disturbing privileges.

Rank is status conferred by a higher power, so its misdeeds tend to evidence a deeper and more systemic corruption. Always, it starts with some form of institution, but ultimately, it reaches back to the underlying ideology upheld and perpetuated by that institution, at least up until institutional self-perpetuation becomes its reason for being. This historical truism is made particularly clear when we observe the political behavior of organized religions in contrast to the values they claim to uphold. Inevitably, a schism forms between motive and deed, and many of Helnwein’s figure groupings picture that schism in high dramatic relief. This is certainly the case with the many-figured compositions that Helnwein executed throughout the 1990s. Many of these works show men wearing the uniforms of Nazi soldiers as in Epiphany I/ Adoration of the Magi (1996), or more ambiguously, business attire, as is the case with Epiphany III/ Presentation at the Temple (1998). Even when clothed in the ordinary, as in Oath (2000), such figures stand in rigid formation, united by their common Heil Hitler salute as they face a girl child whose head is heavily bandaged. Although most of these works are based on digitally manipulated Nazi propaganda photographs, Helnwein restages them and uses a bleak, raking light that emphasizes dark, chiaroscuro modeling. Most of these works shy away from vivid color; this makes their subjects seem all-the-more ghostly, hinting at the fact that we are still haunted by the undead spirits of bygone trauma and moral confusion.

Helnwein’s figure groupings hark back to the pictorial conventions of the second half of the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries. It is worth noting that a ten-decade period of contest took place during this period when the Church of Rome was beset by a crisis of faith bred by Protestant challenge to the control of newly “discovered” colonial wealth. In the years following the Council of Trent (concluded in 1563), visual art was deemed an official vehicle of instruction intended to return strayed Christians to the Catholic fold. It was also used to inspire and rationalize military and colonial adventurism, even though its subjects were often taken from Biblical stories about the virtues of martyred saints, thus used to suggest that the moral price of colonialism had been underwritten by the cosmic suffering of the martyrs.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is home to a particularly stunning example of this kind of image. Titled Madonna of the Rosary, it was completed by Caravaggio in 1607, a time when the papacy was in a state of chaos. All of the controversies of the Reformation and Counter Reformation are embedded in this grandly scaled painting, which can be read as a subversion of the church’s then-current aesthetic program of pictorial drama and architectural opulence. Positioned at the center of the painting’s grand composition are the Madonna and Child, representing and idealizing the unconditional love at the heart of the mother-child dyad, the purest love known on earth. But, for the exception of a Dominican priest located on the right side of the picture, the six figures kneeling at left seem unmoved by their witness to this miracle. Instead, they focus their devotional gaze on a clutch of rosary beards dangling from the hand of another priest standing above them. Caravaggio’s message is as clear as it is pointed: those who would put their proscribed faith in symbolic trinkets make the choice to turn away from the divinity that truly matters. In this painting, Caravaggio offers a parable that mirrors the important lessons of the gospel stories, which fell by the wayside when the Catholic organization became corrupt and self-serving. It is a message that the church fathers would have done well to embrace; but instead, three decades of bloody religious war ensued, the only victor of which was the advent of secular democracy arising from the ashes of conflict.

Helnwein lived in Vienna for almost three decades, studying at the city’s University of Visual Art from 1969 to 1973 (the very same institution that rejected a prospective student named Adolf Hitler in 1907). It seems almost certain he would have been familiar with Caravaggio’s masterpiece. Certainly, many of Helnwein’s figural groupings register that influence in varying degrees, departing from it in a number of unique directions to editorialize on politics in a distinctly twenty-first-century way. His work is certainly more overt and provocative than could have been conceived four centuries ago and much more aware of the dire historical outcomes invited by misplaced faith in ideology. This particular lesson went part-and-parcel with a childhood spent in Vienna during the post-World War II and Cold War period, a time in which Austrians came to terms with their hidden history of being perpetrators during the former and their subsequent potential victimization in any warming of the latter. Even today, Helnwein’s art frequently flirts with the possibility of official damnation, as it is always adamant in asking questions and revealing truths beyond comfort zones. On a few occasions, his public installations have attracted vandals, and, in the early years, two of his exhibitions were closed by the Viennese municipal authorities. Clearly, on these occasions, someone didn’t like what the work had to say.

The potentially traumatic confrontation between innocence and corruption has always been the great subject of Helnwein’s art, and it is to his credit that it has been more concerned about raising questions than providing comforting answers. To accomplish this mission, he employs a highly refined and naturalistic style of pictorial description, simultaneously more and less artificial than the subjects he portrays. This serves to remind the viewer about the ways that “reality” reveals itself to be a social construct that only “seems” natural, even if its apparent naturalism masks ghastly or nonsensical motives. Through his work, we can re-imagine how the depicted social circumstances might be changed, but we are also compelled to consider how real historical forces keep them from changing. Helnwein’s work recognizes that each generation reinvents the drama of moral confrontation using its own distinct idiom, and he has always felt obligated to register the contradictions of his moment in a way that locates it as part of a larger, timeless struggle. For example, in works from the 1990s, corruption is usually personified by homuncular figures belonging to some form of toxic mass psychology, be they Nazi zealots or disfigured Communist apparatchiks. In the following decade, corruption was represented by well-known cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, often rendered as figures of malice, who hide ill intentions behind mechanical smiles belonging to a regimented and manipulative vision of family-friendliness. That Helnwein’s paintings seemingly equate Counter Reformation doctrine with the motives of the contemporary global entertainment industry seems unavoidable, leading us to draw some very disturbing historical analogies to our present moment.

Gottfried Helnwein, "The Resurrection of the Child" (1987)
The Resurrection of the Child (1987)

On the other hand, innocence is almost always personified in Helnwein’s paintings by pre-adolescent females who usually seem to possess a quiet wisdom beyond their years. Sometimes, they appear stiff and oblivious, as is the case with the frozen and bandaged central figure in the early watercolor titled Beautiful Victim (1972), or by the very similar figure surrounded by police tumult in The Resurrection of the Child (1987).The latter painting presents us with a canny reworking of a traditional deposition scene, the girl positioned as a Christ figure within a scheme that paradoxically hints of abduction and protection. In most cases, however, these portraits are serene depictions of faces bespeaking a state of grace we might associate with a kind of transcendental vulnerability. This is a brilliant conflation of the plaintive suffering of Christ with the boundless reassurance of the Madonna’s empathetic smile and some measure of Buddhist non-attachment also intimated. Helnwein states:
…the image of the child was always the center of my work. And for some reason I find the specific aesthetic, emotional or mystic qualities that I am looking for mainly in girls in the age between 6 –10. In my search for the ideal child I ended up with a very small group of children that I used as models over and over again. Though I don’t consider them to be objects but rather artistic partners in a collaborative process, their identities are not important for the art-work.

This runs to the heart of how Helnwein negotiates what has been called “the portrait problem,” which points to the difficulties inherent in the form. Both continuity and discontinuity run between what is captured of the psychology of a specific person and the social typology that might be represented by that individual. This problem deeply preoccupied the likes of Velázquez and Rembrandt during the early and middle decades of the seventeenth century. Since that time, the problem has become increasingly complicated by the advent of photography, mass media, digital animation, and other recent phenomena, such as social networking sites that host virtual communities of “faces” numbering in the millions. Indeed, the portrait problem is no longer the happy vexation of trained artists, but is now actively shared, pursued, and exponentially reinvented by a vast multitude of amateur image-makers. As a consequence, the portrait is quickly turning into a common visual currency evermore rich with innovation.

The problem then is that innovation keeps moving with an ever-increasing velocity. This rate of change expands and radically dilutes the idea of an essential self synonymous with an introverted spirituality embedded in a deep existential reflection. Consequently, Helnwein’s approach to the portrait makes a particular kind of sense for our current moment. His portraits actively campaign for us to slow down and condense the meaning of the portrait face. Doing so turns such images into powerful objects that invite and demand protracted contemplation, which may lead to a unique kind of self-reflection. Whereas the portraits of Velázquez and Rembrandt often reveal the faces of people marked by layers of experience, Helnwein’s portraits of the young and female evoke an idealized state of grace before the inevitable onset of those layers. On other occasions, he shows innocence in the immediate aftermath of its violation, pointedly depicting the young and vulnerable after they have received a serious injury or are burdened under militaristic garb and automatic weapons representing the weight of corruption.

Whether they be images of pre-adolescents pictured in a state of unconscious sleep (or death), as in the series titled Los Caprichos (2006), in nocturnes such as the Sleep series (2004–2008), or in works where the gaze of the sitter confronts the viewer, as in The Murmur of the Innocents (2009), we may see the beguiling faces of the young and female jeopardized by a perversely sexualized mass media. They are held up as icons of an innocence that seems to disappear before the hungry camera’s gaze. With such subjects, the imminent onset of experience itself is suggested to be inevitable and senseless—a compromise of their grace-state about to take place for no good reason. In this regard, Helnwein’s images of innocence may be seen as cousins to the stunning portraits that Velázquez painted of the Infanta Margarita and Prince Baltasar Carlos (several of which are in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum), two children destined to die young shouldering the burden of a family history not of their making.

Interestingly, Helnwein’s portrait paintings, although derived from photographic sources, offer a painterly reworking that returns some measure of authentic and even transcendent innocence to his subjects. This is by virtue of the fact that painting can bridge the chasm between specificity of description and metaphysical meaning in a way that cannot be achieved with photography. Helnwein’s portraits work from the information provided by their photographic sources rather than toward it. This allows the artist to emphasize the guileless self-assuredness of youth and innocence while also inflating it through his use of large canvases. It is worth noting that Helnwein has exhibited some of these portraits in church chapels. Such display emphasizes the human potential for sacred and transcendental significance. This represents an aspect of Helnwein’s work that has not invited much comment. Whereas his figural groupings intend controversy, inviting commentators to weigh in on the blunt politics they provoke, many of Helnwein’s single portraits are straightforward appeals to the viewer’s capacity for a special kind of empathy, asking us to experience the fusion of vulnerability, grace, and dignity that comes so easily to children, even in modern times.

In other portraits of presumably male subjects, such as Blue Boy (1999) or those captured in the series titled Righteous Man (1999), the antagonists are monstrously disfigured. Their portrayal obverts the innocence revealed in the portraits of girls. Here, form is given to the will to violate and destroy. One might surmise from these works that, for Helnwein, the image of transcendent vulnerability must by definition carry with it the inevitable risk of violation, simply because reality itself is senselessly brutish and can be nothing but. No story ever told could or can change this fact or offer understanding of why it is so. Ideological fiction may have to make a kind of rationalizing sense, but reality is what it is, and sans ideology, is all that is.

The mystical significance of the ideal child guides the majority of Helnwein’s paintings to completion. This image may also play an important role in his practice of photography, although here the spirit of provocation returns. In the photographs, mixed signals abound, and although it can be said that in his paintings Helnwein works from his photographic sources, his recent color photographs seem to reach for a kind of painterly quality that belies the mechanical character of the medium. At first glance, the results seem informed by fashion photography rather than by conventional fine art notions. Such intimations, however, are a set-up. His photographs use the mannerisms of fashion photography to ruthlessly mock its underlying social manipulations. For example, in the series of digital prints titled Modern Sleep (2004), the vulnerable young female appears again in military uniform. In this series, the figure gazes toward the camera as if pleading for the approval of some unseen, and monstrous, father figure. In the psychologically complex photograph titled Last Supper (Evidence for the Existence of God), a holy family composed of three figures represents Helnwein’s modern rewrite of the holy trinity. Here, the mother flashes a knowing smile while a perplexed daughter stands in for the infant Jesus. The scene is completed with a father figure who is covered in bandages and bright blue make-up, representing the most unholy spirit of a morbid patriarchy. Or is it a more general turning-of-the-tables on the historical suppression of women? In Helnwein’s image, the answer could well be yes.

Helnwein’s reference to patriarchal morbidity draws upon the very beginnings of the artist’s career, when the artist engaged in a peculiar self-portrait practice related to performance actions he conducted during his early years in Vienna. In photographs of the artist wearing bandages and torturous medical apparati, Helnwein vividly cast himself as both artist and protagonist. His role: the recovering convalescent once victimized by various social environments. Helnwein emphatically states that “my own identity was never of any importance for my ‘self-portraits,’ they were never meant to be auto-biographic.” From this, it may be inferred that the persona presented in these works was intended to be a somewhat satiric representation of a kind of Viennese everyman, an absurd protagonist embodying the contradictory historical experience inherent in being an Austrian during the 1950s and ‘60s. It is worth remembering that Austria sustained a ghostly interstitial identity during the Cold War. The experience of “walking on eggs” in between two heavily armed superpowers manifested itself in the Austrian psyche as a grand denial. This was amplified by silent prohibitions against publically remembering the recent past of World War II, doing much to shape a postwar Austrian identity that finally necessitated the explosive and cathartic performance work of artists such as Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Hermann Nitsch, both associated with the Vienna Aktion group.

It is certainly tempting to think that Helnwein would have been influenced by the work of those artists, but as he explains,
“…contrary to popular belief in today’s art-world—until the early ‘70s, the performances of the Viennese Aktionists took place in isolated places amidst very small groups of fellow artists and friends and were not publicly known. The so-called “Uni-Ferkelei” (“Uni-mess”) took place in 1968 at the Vienna University and was the first scandal that made headlines in Austrian papers. But journalists didn’t go into details, because, at that time it was considered not possible to describe these incidents in mainstream media. They were vague and circumscribed, and reporters squirmed and talked about ‘scandalous’ things that had happened and called the participants ‘pigs.’ Nobody really knew what the hell happened there… Until the end of the ‘70s, I never had any contact to any of the Vienna Aktionists (They were 10 years older), but I started my first performances [in] 1966 while I was in the Viennese College for Graphic Design (“Higher Federal Institution for Graphic Education and Experimentation” – Hermann Nitsch studied there a decade earlier). I cut my face and hands with razor blades, etching- and wood-engraving tools and covered my face in blood and bandaged myself. From 1970 on, while I studied at the Akademy of Visual Art in Vienna, I began to work on performances with children often in various public locations. Some of the photographs of these performances served later as inspirations for watercolor-paintings and drawings… [it was] 1975 when I saw the work of Schwarzkogler for the first time in a catalogue. I was shocked, because his work had so many similarities to mine. He died [in] 1969 and I had never heard of him before.”

Given the dramatic nature of Helnwein’s early actions, as well as related photographs and watercolor paintings, it is not at all surprising to learn that since 2002 the artist spends half of every year in Los Angeles, a place that, in terms of geography and cultural experience, is far away from the Ireland in which he spends the other half, and about as far away from the Vienna of the 1960s and ‘70s as can be imagined. Given that Helnwein is an accomplished stage designer and installation artist, as well as one of the most remarkable painters of our time, it is a move that makes perfect, albeit paradoxical sense.

“LA is my beloved polluted ugly/beautiful home, but Ireland is also my home. Ireland is everything that LA is not: the air is fresh and crisp, the land is green and people are sane. I guess I need both sides. Usually I spend the summer in Ireland and the winter in LA. I have no studio in Austria, but more and more I love to go back to the place where I was born. My art is deeply rooted in this old culture. That will never change and wherever I go there will always also be a little bit of Austria.”

In other words, no matter where you go, there you are, holding onto a complex cultural baggage cart that grows ever more remarkable with each passing year. There is no doubt that the art and insight produced from this experience will sustain our interest for a very long time, simply because the objects will say important things we need to hear, even if we are reluctant to hear them.