Interview with Gottfried Helnwein
by Petr Nedoma
Petr Nedoma: What are the key themes of your work? What Is the difference between the present and the past of your work?
Gottfried Helnwein: I began to paint as an autistic child. At that time I
had no contact with the "higher" arts.
My aesthetics were typical, with poor pictures of saints from the 19th century, Duckville, Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart and the
Originally, I didn't want to be a painter at all, but at a certain point of time I realized that art is probably the only possible way for you
to defend yourself against the impertinences of society and strike back. For me, art has always been primarily a weapon.
The topic of my art has always been identical to the topic of my life: my hopeless attempt to understand the most absurd phenomenon
of the universe - man.
Petr Nedoma: How did your work develop over time, from your point
of view? Please try to mention the most important development
moments, significant periods, cycles, and paintings. Why have children and child abuse become two of the main themes of your work?
Gottfried Helnwein: Maybe it's a defect, yet ever since my earliest childhood I've seen violence
all around me as well as the effect of
violence: fear. I have absorbed any item of information on the Holocaust, Vietnam, Chile, the Holy Inquisition and all the witch-hunts I
could get hold of.
The desire to inflict maximum pain on others, in particular on the defenseless, present throughout the history of mankind, has always been
a mystery to me. It was surprising to see the creativity in such atrocities developed by the people involved. How can anyone show anything
but love and admiration to children or animals?
I've seen pictures, taken by forensic doctors, of children who had been tortured to death by their parents; and that's something that will not
let you sleep well. In Germany, thousands of children undergo this martyrdom every year before they can go to heaven. And that was the
reason why I began to paint; aesthetics were not my primary motivation.
Petr Nedoma: What is the relationship between your performance in
the 1970s and your viewpoint of Austrian society at that time?
How does it relate to the activities of the Viennese Activists? What did you dislike the most about Viennese society at that time?
Gottfried Helnwein: I believe that every society has the art it deserves. No artist is fully autarkic;
in one-way or the other every artist reacts
to the society and phenomena of his/her time.
Originally, I had no idea that the Viennese Activists group existed. This group caught my attention for the first time in the late 1960s, when
they brought the tabloids to ecstasy with their " university obscenity". Yet nobody really knew what had actually happened during this
event because at that time, the press couldn't write about such obscenities explicitly and had to resort to helpless circumlocution.
I think this kind of aesthetic reaction just filled the air in Vienna in those years since the city was at that time a truly dark place. This isn't
surprising when you realize what had happened in the 30 years before that:
The collapse of the monarchy, in which the Viennese saw themselves as the centre of the world, with an emperor as a symbol of their
importance, pride and superiority. Then you had the breakdown in a beggarly, insignificant existence, Austrian fascism, civil war, Nazi
madness, the annihilation of the term "Austria" and cleansing Europe of Jews and other "inferior people", which have however always
been so important and indispensable for the unique art and culture of Austria. Air raids, war captivity, unconditional capitulation after yet
another lost world war, and finally the democracy imposed by the winning powers.
Vienna at that time was like a still, rotten body of water. There was no oxygen, nothing moved, nobody dared to protest and the former
Nazis mildewed and continued to ferment.
There was an absolute gap between our generation and that of our parents. Most of us didn't want to have anything to do with them, their
values, their ideas and their traditions. It was a little like when you suddenly find yourself in a vacuum - we lost our grounding, the
ground under our feet, and had to finds new ways to live. There was a phase in Western culture where aesthetic anarchy seemed to be the
only sensible expression. Maybe it was something like an attempt to liberate ourselves. Young artists began to present activist display
forms everywhere, which were referred to as "happenings" in the Anglo-Saxon world and as "events" in Vienna. They followed up on
the tradition of the Dadaists, who had begun to use this form of art in 1916, right in the middle of World War 1.
Without knowing that other artists had begun to use similar forms of self-portrayal, around 1966/67 1 began myself-mutilation and
bandage events. Just for myself and a narrow circle of friends at first, the same as the others did it. Soon after, I began to involve children
as well and situated my performances in the streets and other public places.
Petr Nedoma: Who was your leading teacher at the Academy?
Apart from the Academy, what influenced you the most?
Gottfried Helnwein: The academies of that time were firmly in the hands of advocates of abstract and tachist art, art forms that I found
Fortunately, then came Rudolf Hausner, a Neo-surrealist with a very realistic way of painting, who became a professor at the Vienna
Academy of Arts and accepted me in his master class. Yet even greater luck for me was that he was hardly ever present, and to a great
extent, he left the students to themselves.
Everybody could develop his/her own themes and methods of painting. For me, it was a short period of a nearly paradise life - I had a
studio available for free and nobody cared about me - that was all I needed. The academic world barely had any influence on my work,
my inspiration came, similarly as in the case of pop-art artists, from everyday, mass media or trivial art forms such as cartoons, rock 'n'
roll and advertising.
Petr Nedoma: Why did you "emigrate" from Austria? What happened before that? Where did you live and work then?
Gottfried Helnwein: As far as I can remember, I always wanted to leave Austria, yet when I say
Austria, I mean Vienna, since that's the
only place in Austria I knew.
I moved to Germany with my family, to a place close to Cologne where I inherited an old chateau, which I gradually restored in the
years that followed, in addition to my work. It was a completely new beginning in life for me - I radically altered my methods of work
and began to work on large-format, often multiple-part pictures, and experimented with various forms of photographic staging; it was
then when I used colour photography for the first time. As models, I primarily used myself and my children, not in an autobiographical
sense, yet rather in a kind of substitution function. I simply wanted to show a person. I myself was, of course, always available, and so
were my children, and thank God they were very cooperative and patient, for which I will forever be grateful to them. I assume they had
fun doing it, since, in the meantime, they have grown up and they have all become artists.
Petr Nedoma: What is your relationship to authors such as Thomas Bernhardt, Werner Schwab and the like?
Gottfried Helnwein: I don't know why, but I've always felt a closer relationship to litterateurs
than to other painters.
Even as a student, I admired H.C. Artmann, whose dialect poetry such as "Med ana Schwoazzn Dintn" hit Austria like a bomb. That
was the blues of the Viennese underclass, with which I was so familiar. Or Wolfgang Bauer with his Magic Afternoon theatre piece,
which was originally presented in Hannover in 1968, the year of the student revolts, and it regularly made then the cultural establish-
In 1980/811 met H.C. Artmann and later, Wolfgang Bauer as well, and we became friends. I spent a memorable day with Thomas
Bernhard at his farm quad in Upper Austria. With his literary blows all over, hatred orgies and cursing a blue streak against everything
that was holy for the citizens, he brought the Austrian public to a boil. He attacked the "dull masses" but also the "higher society",
dignitaries, artists, the Viennese Burgtheater and the government itself, which he often referred to as a Catholic-national-socialist
It's typical for Austria that the major dailies, in return, used inch-high headlines on their cover pages to express their indignation. Where
else is a poet considered to be so important that he earns inch-high headlines?
I like the work of Elfriede Jelinek quite a bit. In the 1980s, my gallery manager in Vienna brought my attention to her novel The Piano
| Player, which she considered to be the literary counterpart of my paintings. For the catalogue prepared on the occasion of the Carl Barks
Retrospective ("Donald Duck - the duck has become a man, the graphic and poetic work of Carl Barks"), which I organized in Austria
last year, she made a touching piece of prose available to me, which deals with the difficult relationship between Donald and Chipmunks
A and B.
I met Heiner Müller, a playwright from East Germany, when I lived in Germany, and together with choreographer Hans Kresnik, we
began to work on a theatrical play on Antonin Artaud. Unfortunately, the work progressed only for a short time and has never been
finished. In the United States, I then met William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski.
With writers and musicians I have found time and again the very spirit of rebellion, revolt, subversion against conformity, and creative
recalcitrance that I missed with most painters.
Petr Nedoma: Describe your method of work, including your search for and treatment of source images.
Gottfried Helnwein: With every new work, I enter completely virgin soil. The only thing I have
is an idea, a suspicion, and then I feel
my way slowly forward. From the very beginning, photography has been an important part of my work, whereby I make no distinction
between my own photographs, reproductions in mass media and historical images from various archives. In my narrative pictures, I
then bring together the portrayed persons from all kinds of places and times in order to assign a role to them, which they are supposed to
play in my 2-dimensional drama. But actually, it is just a captured moment in a story, the beginning and end of which the observer must
find for himself.
In the past I developed picture concepts by cutting out black and white photographs and creating collages from them, but today I use
Petr Nedoma: Since when have you extensively used a monochromatic,
photorealistic method of painting? What made you adopt
this method of work?
Gottfried Helnwein: I began working with monochrome paintings in the mid-1980s, as I completely
changed my way of painting in my
new studio in Germany. I wanted to make my paintings simpler, reduced, clearer and soberer and possibly create a greater distance
between the work and the observer, without having to do away with information, precision and details.
It was an experiment that's still ongoing.
Petr Nedoma: What role did drawing play in your work in the past?
Who has influenced you the most? Did drawing have specific
themes in your work?
Gottfried Helnwein: I've drawn pictures since childhood. I completed my first drawing in late
1969 in order to be accepted to the
Academy. However, my early paintings were actually still very graphic; I used all kinds of materials, painting, drawing and spraying
techniques, mostly on cardboard, and I mixed everything in a very unorthodox manner. Watercolours, inks, pencils and colour pencils,
which were unfortunately often of lower quality and rarely lightfast.
Later, I continued to draw in parallel to my painting and photographic work. I don't know why, but drawing for me was a separate field
of work, independent of the rest of my work. The drawings I created in this manner were different from those coming out of my painting
or photographic efforts - more intimate, hallucinatory, phantasmagorical, magical.
Petr Nedoma: What is your standpoint on mechanical copying of pictures
for the purpose of publishing them in the media? Do you
hold the aura of the authentic, original work of art important for Its effect on the observer?
Gottfried Helnwein: In the 1970s, I was fascinated by the possibilities of mass reproduction;
at that time, I considered the original as a kind
of precious waste. It was the desire for democratisation, a shift from esoteric art to art that was comprehensible to everyone, "by means of
drawing upon the aesthetics of everyday life, the trivial and the banal, with the help of a 'proletary-like' reproduction technique and a
naturalistic portrayal method, which scales down the artistic and aesthetic clauses to the minimum", as Viennese art historian Peter Gorsen
However, some years later I had a road-to-Damascus experience when I saw Kandinsky's originals in the National Gallery in Washington
and the Renaissance paintings of the Uffizi. I was so shocked and overwhelmed by the directness of an intensity I had never experienced
before and the spiritual quality of the works that I began to tremble and I had to leave the room repeatedly, because I didn't want to start
crying in front of all those people.
Now I know that there is magic, the aura of a work of art, and I have a downright religious relationship with Occidental art (from Gothic
to Renaissance to modern).
I'm still of the opinion that modern reproduction techniques have opened new areas and possibilities for art, yet they've changed nothing
in the importance of the original and the aura of the work of art.
Petr Nedoma: What takes priority for you in your work., the theme,
the effect of the work, the formal aspects, the presentation method
or something else?
Gottfried Helnwein: I believe that all works of an artist, in principle, centre around just one
central concern or theme. And every work is
something like a new, more or less successful attempt to approach this core theme, to make it visible, to capture or formulate it, although
in principle it's immaterial and thus elusive, it has no form.
The importance of methods, means, ways and tricks used by artists in doing so are usually overestimated by theoreticians and art historians.
Petr Nedoma: The exhibition in Prague has been prepared very meticulously,
down to the last detail. It presents probably the five most
important themes of your work: heads, fascism, children, America, and the portraits of Marilyn Manson. Tell us what each of the
themes means for you. Can you describe the themes and indicate what you consider the most important aspect thereof?
Gottfried Helnwein: My pictures are always centered around man - his vulnerability, his pain;
in this respect my work is actually deeply
rooted in the tradition of Occidental-Christian art, which has made the suffering of man its central theme. However, I'm also interested in
the changing relationship between victim and perpetrator and the ability of man to constantly transform. This I've tried to formulate in the
various metamorphoses and deformations of heads and faces, and I have mostly used my own head for portraying them. Only in the project
titled The Go/den Age, on which I cooperated with Marilyn Manson, did I use his head.
Nonetheless, the heroes of my stories are children, as metaphors for potential innocence and the sanctity and invincibility existing in the
innermost part of man.
Petr Nedoma: You've recently worked a lot on the theatre front. What
do you do there? Do you feet that the theatre gives you the
possibility to express something that you just can't express in paintings and photographs? If yes, what is it?
Gottfried Helnwein: Visual arts are a lonely trade. I spend most of my time alone in a studio
and in contrast to musicians or performing artists,
there's no audience and no interaction with any partners or fellow actors. When I was a child, it was the highest ideal of artistic existence for
me to become a member of the Rolling Stones. Looking back, I would say I wasn't far off the right track since rock musicians, in contrast to us
painters, seem to have one thing above all: more fun and more cash.
In 1988 my friend, the Austrian choreographer Hans Kresnik, talked me into designing the stage setting and costumes for his production of
Macbeth in Heidelberg. It was fascinating for me suddenly to have available, in addition to colour and form, three dimensions, motion and
sound as creative elements.
Currently I'm working on a new opera, which is to premiere in 2009/10 in the
Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv. It's called The Child Dreams after a
theatrical piece by Hanoch Lewin, the most famous Israeli playwright of the 20th century.
It was a shock and an epiphany for me to discover this text, since never before was the artistic work of someone else so close to my own
innermost feelings. It's as if he had dedicated this piece solely to all those children who have appeared in my work up to now - and to all those
who are still to come.