Gottfried Helnwein: The Rockstar Artist Too Troubling for Mainstream

The Rockstar Artist Too Troubling for Mainstream

April 11, 2016

Gottfried Helnwein (born 1948 in Vienna) is one of Austria's best-known artists. His work is renowned both in European museums and to Hollywood collectors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marilyn Manson. Since the 1980s, Helnwein has been a household name and millions of people know his paintings from iconic album covers by heavy metal bands like Rammstein or The Scorpions. Helnwein is the classic iconic artist-as-rockstar – dressed all in black, photographed at his museum openings in trademark sunglasses and doo-rag, looking like an older, slightly grizzled Axl Rose or Vince Neil, surrounded by celebrity fans. Tabloid rumors of his involvement in Scientology only added to this 'Hollywood insider' status.

But curiously, you won't often find Helnwein's catalogs in bookshops. Some of his subject matter removes him from mainstream contemporary discourse. It's considered too troubling.

Helnwein works in painting and photography, and more recently he has also designed theater sets and directed rock videos. He's best known for his large-format canvases high in photograph-like detail, making it often hard to distinguish them from real photos when looking at it on a screen. So in case you wondered, all images you'll see in this exhibition are paintings.

But unlike other founding figures of the 1970s Pop Superrealism movement like like Richard Estes or Malcolm Morley, who focussed on everyday objects like cars, window reflections or Americana, Helnwein turned his spotlight on the dark and brutal, painting bleeding bandaged children or SS doctors abusing tiny kids. It is a nightmarish surrealism, rendered in high, almost voyeuristic detail.

Helnwein wants us to look at subjects in society most of us don't wish to be reminded of. His themes center around Freud and Fascism.

In 'The Golden Age' a young girl watches as her mother casually injects her own thigh with a huge double-headed needle. In 'The Dreaming Child', another well-known Helnwein painting, a small innocent-looking girl menacingly waves a huge handgun at the viewer. The expression in her eyes is both malevolent and reproachful - as if to say, 'Look what you made me do.'

In both paintings, Helnwein works with archetypes in a way that seems to interrogate a world without remorse or morality.

But forty years on, are these subjects still as shocking now to viewers as they were in the 1970s? When he first started to exhibit in Austria, his work had been banned or even physically attacked because its topics were considered too transgressive. These paintings exhibited in an academic art setting brought back into discussion recent awkward subjects considered outside of public discourse. Like Austria's Nazi past and a lesser-known detail, its horrifying brutality against children, the most vulnerable of its victims.

But now in 2015, we are daily inured to tabloid images of torture and endless stories of child abuse, or news stories where kids aged three accidently pick up a gun and shoot their parents. So it's hard to assess the original impact of Helnwein's paintings or fully grasp his stubborn bravery to go against the grain for forty years and make us look at images that are complex, disturbing and often horrifying within a 'high art' context.

Helnwein's incredible painting skills make his work similar to a Trojan horse, because his graphic facility as a painter is at odds with his gruelling subject matter. But whatever his detractors may say about his sensationalism, arguably Helnwein single-handedly invented a new genre that inspired a whole generation of visual and musical language. He aestheticized abjection.

His transgressive legacy has influenced the tenor of our times and what was once propagandist and outlaw, has now been re-enfolded into a visual economy where 'gross-out' has become just another tone on the broad range palette of our mesmerizing daily visual consumption.