ART, 06. December 2000

Joanna Hayman-Bolt

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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