ANGELS SLEEPING
Catalogue
Rudolfinum Gallery, Prague
Petr Nedoma, 2008

The name of the Austrian painter Gottfried Helnwein (born 1948 in Vienna) is well known among the wider European public. There is a relatively wide
awareness of at least a number of his enterprises of an essential nature, which have a no less than iconic aura and remain deeply imbedded in the mind, even if
seemingly without a more specific context. This primarily refers to his self portrait with bandaged head, mouth open wide in a scream and eyes lacerated by
contorted forks. At the very least in this work, which he further developed in many different variations and versions using all manner of techniques, Helnwein
succeeded in expressing almost the essence of his frequently obsessional message - an outcry reflecting the anguish of man injured by an unresolved past,
which is constantly projected into the present. This work is truly the key to his work as a whole, which has been continuously developed in various cycles,
thematic circuits and techniques from the mid 1970s to the present. One of the most fundamental moments, expressed in the aforementioned self portrait, is
Helnwein's gesture of will to a personal engagement right up to the limit of his own suffering, as well as his capacity for empathy together with a willingness
to express himself with regard to the situations experienced by others and to occupy a frequently very clear and stark position far beyond the boundaries of
the familiarity of banal proclamations on the short-winded goings-on of the late afternoon.

With regard to form, Helnwein's work is very wide ranging. He uses painting, photography, sketching, and recently also stage decor as an authentic medium,
a mediator of content, ideas, message, appeal, opinion. If we take his painting as an example, then at the very least since the mid 1980s he follows a path of
monochrome, photographically precise imitations of reality. He uses the frequently bordering on magical effect of hyperrealistic painting, in which the viewer
gains a feeling and intuition of fundamental meaning not on the surface, but behind the image. A curious and evidently unintentional effect is created in what
is today a very frequent transmission of information - reproduction of his images - by the internet. It is often only with difficulty that it is possible to distinguish
on the computer screen that these are not photographs. The urgency of the message, multiplied by its seeming authenticity given by the precision of the
representation referring to documentary photography taken as an imprint of reality, is extraordinarily appealing. Using an auratic imitation of reality and
despite all the detailed precision of the representation, the author in his images constructs a new reality. He accumulates a sum of precise and authentic
elements, frequently a genuine study of period photographs which often form a partial model, and on the canvas configures his own version of reality as a
personal testimony. The urgency and depth thereof is created by the intensively experienced disruption the viewer feels between the imitated reality, the
manner of representation and the discomforting content on the surface, which is confronted in addition with the inferred meanings "behind the image".

Let us take one of Helnwein's key images, "Epiphany 1 (Adoration of the Magi)", 1996 (mixed media on canvas, 210 x 333 cm). The figures of the officers in
Nazi uniforms observing their leader are genuinely taken from an old photograph. Adolf Hitler is replaced by a seated figure of a young, distinctly Aryan
blonde woman in a white dress, holding up with both hands upon her knee a standing, naked, strangely dark haired male infant, who in his face bears certain
similarities to his predecessor in the original photograph. The figure of the Madonna, displaying her son to be honoured by the kneeling shepherds, is almost a
literal paraphrasing of the painting entitled La Madonna del Rosario, finished by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1607. Helnwein evidently knows this
painting well, since this can be seen in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The kneeling, religiously prostrated shepherds before the Madonna are
transformed into self-assured, assertively imperious SS and Wehrmacht officers decorated with iron crosses and oak leaves. In contrast with the original, the
Madonna lowers her gaze away from the direct and superior gaze of the SS officer standing in the foreground on the left side, as well as from the starkly
searching gaze of the Wehrmacht officer on the right, who impudently examines the naked baby Jesus. The connotation with the examination of racial purity
is relatively obvious and requires no reminder. In the image Helnwein works syncretically with historical and cultural memory. He interweaves motifs of the
masterful work of Italian baroque painting with authentic documents of ultimate barbarism, taken from, amongst other sources but by no means exclusively,
the environment of Germanic culture and education. However, he blends various media - photography, which he transfers with hyperrealistic precision
through painting onto canvas, painting, which he paraphrases with a precision excelling the original and referring rather to photography. He mixes pictorial
types, such as the group photographic moment, with the very formalised baroque type of the Epiphany 11 - Adoration of the Shepherds, which is moreover
interchanged with the Adoration of the Magi (Wise Men). He also mixes Christian culture with the cult of the fuehrer from the era of Nazism. The strategy of
movement within a fissure, the created shifts of meaning of the individual elements of the pictorial composition using an almost magically precise
representation, provides Helnwein with the possibility of creating new connections, bridges which provide a short cut to understanding the actual meanings of
the content of real historical events, which in addition are frequently unfinished or have thus far not found a solution and outcome.

The degree of authenticity, or rather the ability to evoke a feeling of authenticity of an event, communicated in addition with a considerable urgency given by
the precision of the representation, thus a high degree of imitation of reality, is one of the main means of expression used by Helnwein in all his media. The
second means used for the construction of a new reality, which is almost always directed towards a strengthening of the effect of the displayed image, is the
selection and care dedicated to each historically authentic detail, which intensifies the result of the work. In Helnwein this is an expression of a constructive
and constitutive will to engage in serious social problems, a clear endeavour to create and depict urgent, even appealing, extremely strong pictorial messages,
frequently directed beyond the framework of the world of visual art. His work has always been addressed to the ordinary man in the street, in which the
intention is to disturb him out of his familiar and stereotypical thinking, to sensitise him and guide him in an alternative direction. In connection herewith it is
necessary to note that since his very beginnings in the second half of the 1970s, Helnwein has also devoted himself to designing covers for various magazines,
journals and publications. His title pages of magazines have reached a public numbering millions. He was always concerned primarily with reaching the
public, in his own words to constantly bring to everyday life, which is so normalised, disturbing elements, and to observe how people react. The author did not
hesitate to sacrifice the aura of exclusivity of artistic work, presented elsewhere only within the context of a specific gallery and museum environment, in
favour of wider publicity. Transgressing the narrowly delineated and staunchly defended world of art, which is predominantly extremely subjective to the
point of autism, is a project which assumes the importance almost of life and death for Helnwein, primarily for the reason of the necessity to communicate on a
wider social basis. Resolving partial problems which ensue from artistic constructions of suppositional significance of the formal development of artistic
expression and art in general is a vicious circle for Helnwein, within which it is not possible to communicate anything meaningful. Inanity echoing with
emptiness holds no interest for him. The author is exceptional in that he intentionally stands outside of the core of the world of contemporary visual art.
Helnwein feels the need to formulate sharply urgent questions of a social character on a general human level, to attempt to stimulate mental movement in the
mind of the viewers through his images, rather than merely participating in the trends of the art markets. It is not my image which people fear, but rather their
own conceptions inside their heads. My work speaks openly about the fact that they already exist in the awareness of those who observe them
. Gottfried
Helnwein

He took his first step in the 1970s through his street happenings, which only superficially, in a certain formal similarity, linked back to the activities of the
"Viennese Actionists" of the 1.960s. Of course, he was also concerned with provocation, although this was rather a provocation of a mere simple sympathy
within the grey, enclosed indifference of post-war Austria. He attempted to bring about a reawakening of natural reactions from the public for example in his
magazine publications of his own sketches and watercolours, as in the case of the shocking cynicism of the response of Dr. Gross, then a respected Viennese
doctor. In an interview with the Austrian magazine Kurier in 1979, when Dr. Gross was asked whether it was true that he had killed hundreds of children with
lethal injections during the Nazi era, he responded: "That's not true. There can be no talk of injections. I believe we did it very humanely. We mixed the
poison into their food and the children died entirely peacefully". What was ultimately shocking was not so much the doctor's response concerning the murder
of children itself, but above all the fact that this met with no reaction from the Austrian public.

A genuinely key and central theme of Helnwein's work is das maltritierte Kind, the child exposed to suffering. In the 1980s Helnwein began a constantly
expanding and, in terms of both expression and content, extraordinarily intensive and substantial collection of sketches, as well as photographs, watercolours,
paintings and photographic records of street happenings, which form a connecting network, which is in fact the very backbone of Helnwein's entire work. For
example, the author created (and within the sacral environment of the Dominican church in Krems exhibited) monumental portraits of "sleeping angels",
stillborn children, which remained with their eyes closed, forever condemned to a fate of never knowing this world. The photographs accompanying the
Prague exhibition of a pubescent girl (Modem Steep), with an uncertain expression on her stunned face, clothed in a strange black coat bearing insignia
reminiscent of an SS uniform, demonstrate relatively uncompromisingly the irreconcilable conflict between two worlds, of which one was the very essence of
decay, suffering and death. Helnwein's children however are not always mere passive victims on whom injustices are committed. A very significant collection
of sketches from the 1970s frequently refers with evident affinity to Helnwein's great mentors Alfred Kubin and above all Wilhelm Busch. The lolling tongue
of the girl, with a mocking grimace on her face, standing on the street in front of a shop doorway (Sunday's Child, 1972) presents a sharp discrepancy with a
curiously inferred, recent, evidently violent event, the traces of which can be clearly seen on her body in the form of blood on her legs. The macabre,
grotesque sketch, full of black humour, was a significant point of departure for the artist, as well as a method for occupying frequently very stark positions
regarding specific events thrown up by life in Austria during that period. From here it was only a step to his subsequent series of works, culminating in the last
cycle Disasters of War, which forms the most recent part of the Prague exhibition.

Helnwein's images are primarily narrative scenes, whose urgency is supported by a pure visualisation on the basis of dazzlingly audacious, hyperrealistically
precise painting. Baroque and later the 19th century succeeded by various means in making use of the possibility of images to narrate stories up to the very
boundaries of the incredible. It was not photography but film which diverted attention from these stories, since it broke them down into time and details, for the
viewer's convenience completing the narration of the story to the end. However, only still images and of course sketches or also arranged photographs
encapsulate the possibility of construction or a better production of a compressed event stopped in time, which enables the viewer to engage the necessary
mental and thus intellectual and emotional participation, stimulating imagination and a feeling of complicity, active personal involvement in the stories of our
world, providing a space to conjecture intimated narratives and bring them to a meaningful conclusion. In this respect Helnwein's somewhat antiquated faith in
the power of images to transform the world is unusually strong and remarkable. And he proves that it still works.

 

Petr Nedoma