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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Gottfried Helnwein

It's hard to believe this, Helnwein's palette, could facilitate the images below.
The Golden Age (Mother 4), 2003, Gottfried Helnwein.
Recognizing his content does not make it any easier
to understand his message. Even Hyper-realism
sometimes demands thought and understanding.
In my book Art Think (right column), and for years before and after writing it, I've maintained that there are two kinds of art--easy art and hard art. That is, art in which the artist does virtually all the brain work, creating images where the content and meaning are plainly visible, leaving the viewer to simply enjoy the result--that's easy art. Then there is that type of work through which the artist challenges (or even demands) that the viewer (gasp) think--hard art. Pretty much all non-representational art falls into this category, and as one moves from blatant realism toward expressionism, the cerebral power needed to understand and appreciate such work increases gradually to the point only a very small number of "art appreciators" will take the time and energy to do so. Very often such efforts lead to an "I don't much care" reaction and attitude.
Head of a Child 14 (Anna), 2012, Gottfried Helnwein.
The enormous size of the artist's work is startling at first (almost abstract), but
not unusual in the realm of hyper-realism, nor does it make his work easier to grasp.
Gottfried Helnwein. His work is hard to
take in large doses (as is always the case).
It's not at all surprising that the over-broad style of Realism falls into the "easy" category, so one would naturally expect that the more realism the easier. Thus, what we now call Hyper-realism would logically be the "easiest" art of all. Perhaps, but not when dealing with the Hyper-realism of the Austrian-Irish artist, Gottfried Helnwein. It's hard to look at Helnwein's The Golden Age (Mother 4) (above, right), and "not care" what the artist is saying. The image is obvious, the content is as compelling as it is heartbreaking--beauty, love, and tragedy rolled into two (not one syringe but two).

Boulevard of Broken Dreams, 1984, Gottfried Helnwein.
Helnwein was born in Vienna in 1948, schooled in the German Expressionism tradition of Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Egon Schiele. You may be familiar with one of his earliest works, Boulevard of Broken Dreams (above), from 1984, in which he cast James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley in the roles of Edward Hopper's famous Nighthawks (1941). It's been popular as a poster for decades now. It's not Hyper-realism and the image may require just a tiny bit of thought, but the setting is so familiar, the portraits so iconic, that, coupled with the title, this work falls easily into the category of "easy" art. It may be the last piece Helnwein ever painted that was in any way easy.

Ninth of November Night, 1988, Gottfried Helnwein
One bright spot in a drab childhood.
The artist grew up in post-war Austria, technically behind the iron curtain, a drab, boring life highlighted only when his father brought home a Disney comic book featuring Donald Duck. His friends, Mickey and Donald, have had recurring roles in his paintings ever since (right). However the most consistent images in Helnwein's paintings have long been children, wounded, mistreated, and abused. Though many of his "The Child" series are quite beautiful, some are not. Often painted in low-key colors or black and white, his depictions of juvenile bloodletting are anything but colorless. I've not included any here. They are, quite frankly, hard to take and highly offensive (even repulsive) to the vast majority of those seeing them. One of the difficulties in studying the work of Gottfried Helnwein is that his talents extend almost equally into any number of disciplines, including sculpture and photography. Moreover, those showing and discussing the artist work often don't mention the media, not differentiating between his large-scale paintings and similar photographs. When the message is all important, the media matters little.
Whether paintings or photos, often it's difficult to appreciate their scale of Helnwein's work until the portraits' young subjects (usually girls) are posed before them (below).

Big girl, little girl--about ten times life size.
During the period 1996-98, Helnwein's series of three Epiphany photos brought to Austrian minds an era they were doing their best to forget, the WW II Nazi occupation. In this series, he presents various elements of German society visiting his version of the Madonna and child--Epiphany I depicting German SS officers as the magi; Epiphany II, utilizes civilian images; while Epiphany III depicts grotesquely mangled images of German politicians surrounding the prone body of a young girl laid out on an alter visualizing Christ's Presentation at the Temple. Even when displayed in other countries, whether painted or digitally composed, this series is thought provoking, not because of it's style or the media and technical elements of its creation, but for the power of the artist's message.

Epiphany I (Adoration of the Magi), 1996, Gottfried, Helnwein.
Epiphany II (Adoration of the Shepherds), 1998, Gottfried Helnwein
Epiphany III (Presentation at the Temple), 1998, Gottfried Helnwein.


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