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Gottfried Helnwein

Gottfried Helnwein

Visual Surrealism: All Spotlights on Gottfried Helnwein

Written by Tracy T.


The power of art is a force not to be reckoned with – visuals alone are manifestations of mankind’s soul and the driving force for story-telling. They trigger a great deal of emotional reception; whether strikingly uncomfortable, shocking, euphoric or perhaps all of the above. One artist whom has easily succeeded in leaving all three of these lasting impressions on me for years is the Austrian-born, multi-talented, mixed media artist Gottfried Helnwein. Although Helnwein was born in Vienna and lived most of his childhood and adolescent years there, he currently resides in Los Angeles and frequently travels between his present home and Ireland. The latter is the place where most of his adulthood years were spent during the time(s) when his work started to kick off and gain a fluctuating scale of notoriety in the underground art world.

Throughout his years of work, Helnwein has created timeless, groundbreaking paintings and photographs which have displayed an array of surrealism, underlying sorrow, child-like innocence and militant themes. More times than not, several of these themes are combined – creating an image which portrays the outward expressions of that which we choose to see – such as the face of an ongoing passerby; on the outside when observing briefly, we see a bland outlining of expressionless obedience. Although inwardly, behind hollowed eyes and vacant, silenced lips, there lies a world of fear, pain and repression which have ripened long past their primal stages, yet seep their way to the surface only so far. Thus, Helnwein leaves it up to us, the audience — whom are also the  interpreters on the same streets — to see what is hindering our perceptions from diving beneath the surface.

Helnwein was raised in the post-war economy of Vienna which later inspired some of his conceptual paintings. These paintings include portraits of children in post-war era clothing, although with juvenile appearances on the outside, their expressions remain barren and completely deprived of youth. A similar portrayal of this theme is found in his paintings which include famous Disney characters such as Donald Duck whom are placed on an intersection of an empty street corner or an empty room. The background, regardless, remains distant and devoid of life. Even with this iconic childhood character grimacing with his painted, inanimate smile, it remains as the foreground subject of every image. As the lines from Joy Division‘s “Twenty Four Hours” lyrics go, “So this is innocence, love’s shattered pride. What once was innocence, turned on its side.”

Mixed Media on Canvas II

Mixed Media on Canvas II

Helnwein claims that he is most inspired by the Renaissance era in terms of both art and lifestyle. This comes as no surprise as it depicts his ability to create through many mediums and themes, both of which excel beyond that of the modern artist whom, time and time again, simply makes a mess out of paint on a canvas and falsely labels it a masterpiece. Helnwein has always portrayed a special quality within each of his pieces, even in the styles of which I normally would not find to be appealing – it shows that this man has spent a great deal of time and patience on his work, yet the end results appear so decadent and effortlessly beautiful. With outside influences from cinematographers such as Walt Disney and David Lynch, as well as musical artists Marilyn Manson and Rammstein (both of which he has previously created portraiture work for), his personal likings are varied in style. They eventually become reflected and, more importantly, are included in all of his work; work which ties in together with no limitations, period. One quote in particular, as taken from an interview with the T.L.Chicken website, upholds such relevancy and truth:

“No artist starts from scratch. You never really create out of a void. You always continue something that somebody else has started earlier. If you’re aware of it or not, you’re always carrying on with a tradition. You’re always acting in a long line of creation that goes back to the beginning of history. For musicians or filmmakers, collaboration is a natural thing, because you always work with other people. But with fine art, it’s rare. I like to leave the studio and (cross over) into other media — photography, performance, etc. What I want to do now is more large-scale installations in public spaces, video and films.“

These images are intended to provoke, such as any art which leaves a permanent impression in our subconscious does. To see young children, covered in blood and wrapped in bandages on a canvas for onlookers to gaze upon in wonder, fascination and fear, yet to do so elegantly, which only further enhances the beauty of it all. Helnwein is a man with grand taste and talent which quite literally runs in his blood, as all four of his own children are artists themselves and create their own works ranging from photography and painting to writing and composing music. Artistry and talent certainly run their course in this family, and perhaps even that further stimulates the driving force to continue creating; it is the lifeblood which captures our interest, reawakens our emotional stimuli, conveys wonder and, for a moment, eliminates oppression.

Gottfried Helnwein has been featured, as well as released numerous publications and held exhibitions around the world. If you are seeking for imagery which breaks the barriers of comfort and complacency, you have found one of the driving forces behind it all.

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