Who is Gottfried Helnwein?

Gottfried HelnweinUntil last Thursday, I had no idea who Gottfried Helnwein was.  Not that I truly know him now, but at least I know of him.  Gottfried Helnwein is an artist who was born in Vienna after the second world war ended.  Why do I mention these two facts? Because they play into who he is, or at least who he portrays, or maybe they don’t have anything to do with his persona at all.  He, like most artists, is a bit of an enigma.  So, why I am talking about this man?

Last Thursday night I had a volunteer shift at the Crocker Art Museum.  I was there to help with one of their “Thursdays ’til 9” events.  Because it was the first Thursday of the month, it was Film Frame.  The film for the evening was a documentary titled “Helnwein – The Silence of Innocence” and it was shown in support of a current exhibition at the museum – Gottfried Helnwein’s Inferno of the Innocents.  I had the fortune to watch most of the film during my shift.  As I watch I was at times appalled, inspired, and awed.  Gottfried presents a sort of rock-star persona with lots of jewelry and sunglasses.  His art is incredible, if a little disturbing.  (Just search for Helnwein images and you’ll see what I mean immediately).

Gottfried Helnwein, The Murmur of the Innocents 3, 2009.
Gottfried Helnwein, The Murmur of the Innocents 3, 2009.

I was fascinated watching this documentary that had very little commentary.  It also tended to focus on his work on nearly completed paintings when it showed him working.  But, the photorealistic quality of those paintings is amazing.  THe film showed his castle in Ireland (I want one of those) and his studio in LA.  You saw how he works with his models (young girls) and the role his family plays in his life.  For me, I felt like watching the film and seeing him as the person portrayed in that film, some of the shock from his paintings is alleviated.  Not all, but some.  The focus on bandaged and/or abused children is hard to take.

After the film, there was a discussion with with Jesse Drew, Associate Professor of Technocultural Studies at UC Davis, artist Ianna Frisby, and Elaine O’Brien, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History and Criticism at CSU Sacramento.  Listening to the comments and feelings of the panel and members of the audience was fascinating because it was another example of the power of art.  It was clear that everyone seemed to form their own strong opinions of the film, of him, and of his work.  Sometimes those views were inline and sometimes they conflicted.  At times, when conflicting viewpoints arose, the temperature of the discussion rose.  In all, it made me so proud to be a part of a community, an to have a museum willing to bring this artist and to hold a discussion to get people talking.  The conversations about Gottfried and his works become so much more because of what is depicted and what peoples personal experiences, feelings, and thoughts are.

Personally, his work frightens me and makes my heart ache.  It is frightening despite of or perhaps because of the realism and the beauty portrayed there.  Obviously, there are different reactions and different feelings to his different subject matters.  But those pieces portraying children, particularly those that are bandaged, abused, and/or gun-toting are extremely hard to view.  For someone like me, who is so empathetic and feels so much, seeing the first images of some of his work at the beginning of the film hurt.  My heart ached.  Even watching the portion of the film with the little girl who was excited to be playing with stage blood was still hard for me.  I have not seen the full exhibit at the Crocker yet, but before it ends on April 29th, I will. And I encourage others to visit the Crocker Art Museum and to explore Helnwein’s webpage and join in the conversation. How do his works make you feel? What are your thoughts about his work?

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