Gottfried Helnwein

Austrian-Irish visual artist

Gottfried Helnwein (born October 8, 1948, in Vienna) is an Austrian-Irish fine artist, photographer and installation and performance artist.

Gottfried Helnwein in 2009

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  • In retrospect I would say from Donald Duck I have learned more about life than from all the schools I ever attended.
  • Opening my first Donald Duck comic book felt like seeing the daylight again for someone who had been trapped underground by a mine-disaster for many days. I squinted cautiously because my eyes hadn't gotten used to the dazzlingly bright sun of Duckburg yet, and I greedily sucked the fresh breeze into my dusty lungs that came drifting over from Uncle Scrooge's money bin. I was back home again, in a decent world where one could get flattened by steam-rollers and perforated by bullets without serious harm. A world in which people still looked proper, with yellow beaks or black knobs instead of noses. And it was here that I met the man who would forever change my life - Donald Duck.
  • " When I started to paint, I painted children because I just felt that I wanted to take their side. What always upset me was how children are getting abused simply because they are physically weaker and not capable of defending themselves – how they get raped, enslaved and killed. I never understood why some people seemed to have fun causing pain to someone smaller."
  • My question always was: why do people always cause so much pain to other people? Why does everybody look so hurt? When I started to paint I didn’t feel I had any message. My art was not an answer – it was a question.
    • Interview by Yuichi Konno, Yaso magazine, Japan, 2003
  • Imaginations and illusions are always so much more powerful and bigger than this mediocre and boring thing called reality.
    • Interview by Yuichi Konno, Yaso magazine, Japan, 2003
  • Art is a weapon for me, with which I can strike back.
    • Interview by Marc Kayser, art-magazine Quest, Berlin, March 2004
  • When I look at a work of Art I ask myself: does it inspire me, does it touch and move me, do I learn something from it, does it startle or amaze me - do I get excited, upset? That is the test any artwork has to pass: can it create an emotional impact on a human being even when he has no education or any information about art? I’ve always had a problem with art that you can only understand if you have a degree in art history, and I have a problem with theories. Most of them are bullshit anyway. Most critics and theorists have little respect for artists, and I think the importance of theory in art is totally overrated. Real art is self-evident. Real art is intense, enchanting, exciting and unsettling; it has a quality and magic that you cannot explain. Art is not logic, and if you want to experience it, your mind and rational thinking will be of little help. Art is something spiritual that you can only experience with your senses, your heart, your soul.
  • The first time I saw a picture of Elvis - I was in a state of shock, because I couldn't believe that a human being could be so beautiful.
    • Interview by Helmut Sorge, Los Angeles, 2006
  • "High" and "low" are completely arbitrary and artificial distinctions that some bloated assholes invented to make life more complicated. Comics are considered "low", but when Roy Lichtensein comes and picks out one panel of a comic, projects and paints it on a canvas then it's suddenly "high" art? Give me a break. The only thing that I care about in art is quality, intensity. Is a work of art capable of touching and moving me? Does it cause an emotional impact on me? Does it startle, surprise, upset, excite me? Does it make me think? Does it inspire me? Does it stimulate my imagination? Does it change the way I view the world to some degree?
  • Most societies are ruled by mediocre people that have no vision and no imagination. Most rulers are scared of creation and creative people. Artists are funny people. All they want is to touch and move, challenge and surprise others. But dictators hate surprises more than anything else. All they want is to turn their territory into a neat little toy prison camp and play with their little toy people. Push them around, rip a leg or a head off now and then or throw them into the garbage when they are tired of their stupid, little doll faces.

About Gottfried Helnwein edit

  • Warhol is the pre-Helnwein.
    • Dieter Ronte, director of the Museum of Modern Art Vienna, essay for the Austrian newsmagzine Profil, 1984
  • The grimaces on these mocking distorted faces signalize disobedience, opposition and turmoil, as well as a kind of childlike autonomy in the depraved world of adults. The grin found on the faces of ill-treated children, a grotesque picture puzzle which includes both the martyrdom and subversion of mankind is entirely Helnwein’s invention. It is manifested in the metamorphic images of injured bodies. It is an obsessive pattern which is repeated in Helnwein’s pictoral representation of the world and in his staged artistic actions, serving as a metaphor for the invulnerability and invincibility deeply seated in man.
    • Peter Gorsen, about the depiction of wounded children in Helnwein's work, Albertina Museum catalogue, Gottfried Helnwein solo-exhibition, 1985,
  • How does a friendly person like Helnwein stand making his — excellent — painting into a mirror of the terrors of this century? Or is it that he can't stand not doing it? Does his mirror just reflect the attitude of the century? Terror without end is better than ending in Terror.
    • Heiner Müller, essay "Black Mirror", Gottfried Helnwein, Self-portraits, Musée d’Art Moderne, Strasbourg, Edition Braus, Heidelberg, 1988,
  • Helnwein is one of the few exciting painters we have today.
  • It is the function of the artist to evoke the experience of surprised recognition: to show the viewer what he knows but does not know that he knows. Helnwein is a master of surprised recognition.
  • Helnwein is a very fine artist and one sick motherfucker.
    • Robert Crumb, letter to his San Francisco art-dealer Martin Muller, 1992
  • Gottfried Helnwein's paintings evoke complex layers of history and psychology. Working with extraordinary technical sophistication, Helnwein seamlessly fuses traditional craftsmanship and contemporary conceptual investigations.
    • Gary Garrels, Curator, SFMOMA San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998
  • Well, the world is a haunted house, and Helnwein at times is our tour guide through it. In his work he is willing to take on the sadness, the irony, the ugliness and the beauty. But not all of Gottfried's work is on a canvas. A lot of it is the way he's approached life. And it doesn't take someone knowing him to know that. You take one look at the paintings and you say "this guy has been around." You can't sit in a closet — and create this. This level of work is earned. As an artist my strongest reaction to Helnwein's work is that it challenges me to be better at what I do. There are very few people that achieve utter excellence in what they do. And I think that Gottfried Helnwein is certainly one of those people.
  • Gottfried Helnwein is my mentor — on any artistic thing I've done. His fight for expression and stance against oppression are reasons why I chose him as an artistic partner. An artist that doesn't provoke will be invisible. Art that doesn't cause strong emotions has no meaning. Helnwein has that internalized.
  • The most powerful images that deal with Nazism and Holocaust themes are by Anselm Kiefer and Helnwein, although, Kiefer's work differs considerably from Helnwein's in his concern with the effect of German aggression on the national psyche and the complexities of German cultural heritage. But Kiefer and Helnwein's work are both informed by the personal experience of growing up in post-war German speaking countries... William Burroughs said that the American revolution begins in books and music, and political operatives implement the changes after the fact. To this maybe we can add art. And Helnwein's art might have the capacity to instigate change by piercing the veil of political correctness to recapture the primitive gesture inherent in art.
    • Mitchell Waxman, Jewish Journal, Los Angeles, August 2004
  • Helnwein's subject matter is the human condition. The metaphor for his art is dominated by the image of the child, but not the carefree innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead creates the profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative image of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within.
  • Of all his paintings, the most disturbing is Epiphany (1996), for which he dips into our collective memory of Christianity's most famous birth. This Austrian Catholic Nativity scene has no magi bearing gifts. Madonna and child are encircled by five respectful Waffen SS officers palpably in awe of the idealised, kitsch-blonde Virgin. The Christ toddler, who stands on Mary's lap, stares defiantly out of the canvas. Helnwein's baby Jesus is Adolf Hitler.
    • Julia Pascal, "Nazi Dreaming", New Statesman, UK, April 2006
  • Helnwein has always said that he paints children because they symbolize humanity better than adults. This may be so, but perhaps Helnwein's images are so profoundly disturbing because of the disparity between the portrayal of children- in all their idealized purity- and the portrayal of suffering. His work is a mesmerizing commentary not only on the exploitation of children in our culture, but also on emotional vacancy and moral torpor, which too often implicate us in the pain of others.
  • If anyone from Austrian fine art of the last fifty years could be called a star, then there is only one person who meets all the criteria: Gottfried Helnwein.

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