Today I want to talk about an artist whom most of you know for sure: Gottfried Helnwein. This artist is known around the world for his hyper-real images which, even when taking a closer look at them, don’t look much different from photographs and in which he mainly deals with issues like pain and violence. Especially because he associates the above-mentioned topics with children he addresses taboos that shock and upset a lot of people. Many don’t even want to deal with them. The artist also works on an issue that, in particular in Austria, his country of origin, counts among topics you don’t normally speak about a lot: National Socialism. Born in 1948, Helnwein grew up in post-war Vienna. National Socialism and the reinvestigation of the terror regime were then much more present than they are today. When the former Viennese forensic doctor Heinrich Goss was asked in an interview if he killed children with injections in the times of National Socialism and when he answered that he didn’t know anything about injections but that the children received poisoned food, Helnwein reacted to this statement with a water-painting titled “Life Unworthy of Life” (“Lebensunwertes Leben”). In it you can see a child collapsing while eating. At this point Helnwein contributed with his action to start a big public discourse about the past of Heinrich Gross.
“To me art is a weapon with which I can strike back.” (Gottfried Helnwein)
His photo-realist images often cause heavy protests. They are provocative and because of them some of his former exhibitions even had to be closed. His most recent work is controversially debated in his city of origin Vienna. The work titled “I saw this”, according to the artist, is a call against violence, terror and fear. We know that these are part of every-day life in some parts of the world and, as we also know, in many other parts of the world they are considered to be something alien and a problem of others. The painting which measures 4,000 square meters and covers the Viennese Ringturm shows a girl triggering at the opposite Danube Canal with a machine gun. The backside of the tower shows a city devastated by flames. Helnwein believes that art, in particular, is the perfect tool to make people pay attention to misery and evil. In an interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard he says:
“Negative news about terror attacks and wars we are confronted with on a daily basis in the media only cause one thing: helplessness, cluelessness and the feeling of being defenseless. When art deals with something terrible, the effect is quite the opposite though.”
Today Helnwein counts among the most successful artists in the world. He has worked with superstars like Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Marylin Manson and David Bowie and his name has become familiar in many generations. Speaking for myself, I was lucky to see his works many times and I’m always overwhelmed. Some of his images made me cry. At others I couldn’t even look because what they caused in me has touched and upset me at the same time. I can only recommend everyone taking a closer look at Gottfried Helnwein and his art. And if you’ve got the chance to see his pictures in one of his exhibitions, just go for it.