ART newsroom.com, 06. December 2000
Any artist who sites Donald Duck and Jesus Christ as the most important influences
in their art must be worth taking a look at.
In the row of pristine gallery fronts in London's Cork street, you cannot miss Gottfried Helnwein's show; it's the one with the gigantic Mickey Mouse staring out at you.
The Robert Sandelson Gallery has given us a stunning show of the infamous,
Austrian born artist's recent work. Helnwein is on a mission to find the answers
to questions that no-one in Austria would give him; such as why the post-war
republic portrayed itself as a victim rather than as one of the first main
perpetrators of Nazism.
It's rare to see such explicit confrontation with major social issues. References
in art to such horrors as the two world wars and the Holocaust are usually
made indirectly through symbolism or abstraction. Despite attention given to
the users of shock tactics, the majority of contemporary artists shy away from
figurative images which directly illustrate horrific social realities, preferring
instead to use personal concerns or the heavy use of irony. This is where Helnwein
differs. His photo realist paintings are strongly illustrative of the results
(rather than the acts) of Nazi oppression in the Second World War.
Where do Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse come into all this? Helnwein uses the
strategy, known to many film makers, of juxtaposition; take a serious "adult"
phenomenon such as death or sex and place it together with a picture of childlike
innocence and the mental disturbance to the viewer is increased ten fold. The
use of children and cartoon characters have several functions. They are not
just a filmic special effect, although the paintings are particularly uncomfortable
to look at for this reason; they have particular relevance to the artist both
in terms of his own experiences and his concerns with some of the muffled truths
of the Second World War. Helnwein was born in Austria; a country that had willingly
embraced Nazi Germany. For decades after it's defeat the Austrian population
had great difficulty in coming to terms with the evil association. Helnwein
felt that for this reason he had been brought up in a dysfunctional society.
The artist wrote of this time: "My childhood was a horror. Born right
after the war, I lived in a world of deep depression and unlimited boredom
. . . I never saw anyone laughing and I never heard anybody sing. I always
felt I have (sic.) landed in limbo. A two-dimensional world without colours.
My real life began when I got my first Mickey Mouse comic book from the Americans
- when I opened a world full of three dimensions and wonders . . ."
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