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Art Review: Gottfried Helnwein

Gottfried Helnwein:
“I Was a Child”

Wandering through the Friedman Benda [1] gallery in Chelsea, the viewer encounters large format, hyper-realistic paintings of children with expressions ranging from inquisitive to apprehensive and sad.  Not unknown in the United States, the creator of these works, Austrian expatriate Gottfried Helnwein [2], currently enjoys an opportunity to introduce his subjects to a broader audience with his first full-scale exhibition in New York.

The Murmur of the Innocents 3 (2009, oil and acrylic, 87″ x 130″)

The painting that greets visitors, The Murmur of the Innocents 3 (2009, oil and acrylic, 87″ x 130″), in its relative innocent portrayal of a young blond girl in a camisole, barely hints at the distressing depictions that follow.

The Murmur of the Innocents 16 (2010, oil and acrylic, 86″ x 130″)

Several of the other works in The Murmur of the Innocents series contain images of a girl in a military-like, navy blue jacket with epaulets and gold braiding on the cuffs, (numbers 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20).  Three of these are closeups of the girl’s face, one has her left hand covering half her face, perhaps wiping a tear from her eye, and the first shows her from the shoulders up, lying near a pool of red with bloody nose and blood-soaked hair.

The Murmur of the Innocents 20 (2010, oil and acrylic, 71″ x 47″)

Lest there be any doubt that these images speak about the impact of violence on children, in number 5, the young blond girl from the first painting, now dressed in a long white undershirt, holds a machine gun pointing to the right of the viewer and looks sideways at a cool green, toy manifestation of a cartoon character, reminiscent of Roo from Winnie the Pooh, who stands with hands on hips and stares back.

Untitled (Disasters of War 24) (2010, oil and acrylic, 195″ x 243″)

In another piece, Untitled (Disasters of War 24) (2010, oil and acrylic, 195″ x 243″), a child with a gauze bandage wrapped around forehead and eyes, wears a white lab coat with epaulets and decorative cuffs, and points a large pistol at an icy blue girl doll, passing along the legacy of violence.

How does an artist come to such subject matter?  Helnwein, born in 1948 in Austria amid the devastation that was Vienna at the time, grew up in a world that offered abundant evidence of humans’ capacity for cruelty.  In an interview with Peter Frank [7], posted on the gallery’s website, he had this to say:

Maybe it’s a defect, yet ever since my earliest childhood I have seen violence all around me, as well as the effect of violence: fear.  I absorbed any piece of information I could get hold of on persecution and torture like the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, tyrannical regimes such as that of Pinochet’s Chile, the Inquisition…and finally, the general mistreatment of children.

The obsession with inflicting maximum pain on others, in particular on the defenseless, that runs throughout human history has always been a mystery to me.  The creativity that people develop in committing such atrocities is startling.

How can someone show anything but love and admiration to children?  I have seen pictures taken by forensic doctors of children who had been tortured to death, often by their own parents, images that will not let you sleep well for awhile.

That was the reason I began to paint: aesthetics were not my primary motivation.

By the age of 18 I finally realized that art was probably the only possible way of defending myself against the impertinences of society.  For me art was a weapon with which I could finally strike back.

Less a defect than a search for meaning, Helnwein’s acute awareness of ambient violence stems from his own childhood immersion in the visual evidence of its ubiquitous nature.  His artwork forces viewers to confront the same mysteries of human nature’s dark side that have long troubled him.

“I Was a Child”
Gottfried Helnwein

Friedman Benda [1]
515 West 26th Street
New York, NY 10001