Welcome to the XXL – Art Magazine

Gottfried Helnwein

The new Nazis will look different


Are you a revolutionary?

I’ve always perceived the society in which I lived to be repressive and manipulative. I’ve always understood I was being fed lies from my parents and at school. The Holocaust, for example, was never mentioned. The only thing we got to hear was that Austria had been Adolf Hitler’s first victim. I daydreamed about setting fire to my school, kicking off a revolution, and spearheading the collapse of the adult world. At one point I noticed that art is actually the only way to oppose and to change the system, or at least influence it.

Who inspired you?

Donald Duck. I experienced colours the first time I set foot in Duckburg at the age of 4. I’d just stepped out of a bad black and white film into a world where the rules of nature held no sway and possibilities knew no bounds. I had arrived in a place where only creativity ruled. In that precise moment, life meant something to me.

Isn’t that a make-believe world?

The world in which we live right now is make-believe. Duckburg is reality.

How so?

Most people don’t experience the world independently and prefer to rely on the badly-cobbled, everyday sham pieced together by the media. George Orwell believed that, ‘journalism is a catalogue of swindles and perversions. Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.’ Few people make the effort to think on their own; they’d much rather have someone tell them what to believe and feel, what’s wrong and right. Take the tall story of America and ist purported goodness, whose aim is none other than that of bringing Democracy to the world, while Putin was relegated to the ‘naughty corner’ and has to be punished and boycotted. Yet Saudi Arabia is good because it’s America’s closest ally in war and democracy. Saudi Arabia may very well be one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world and the exact opposite of democracy; and women have no rights to their name, can’t drive a car, and need a male guardian if they want to leave the house; and homosexuals get their heads chopped off, as do people who decide to follow Christianity – with the added blessing of being crucified, too. And yet, Saudi Arabia is the ‘good guy’ because it’s America’s friend, ensuring all western heads of state treat it with due deference – and also accounts for Chancellor Merkel sending war weapons worth millions of Euros to the regime. Those very same weapons are used to destroy Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, with merciless bombings. Yet Saudi Arabia is good. And, as the Saudis know that most western politicians are whores you can buy off with a bit of money, they succeeded in purchasing a seat at the UN Human Rights Council. That’s the same as saying a Don of a Sicilian mafia clan could be easily appointed as Secretary of Justice to fight the mafia. That’s why Duckburg is a flaming torch of pure reason.

You spearheaded a personal revolution back at the Academy of Visual Arts. Why?

I believe that many artists belonging to the post-war generation believed that a devastating blow of any kind and anarchy were the only possible ways of reacting to the unreasonable demands of the middle-class. This narrow-minded attitude had seeped into academia and the art scene, and I couldn’t bear it.

Human suffering and pain are the main protagonists in your art. Is this your way of expressing how you see things, or how can one interpret your art?

As a child, I saw that pain and fear were living in the people surrounding me. They are part of human existence. It was this vulnerability which made me so interested in my work.

You turned your back on Austria and live with your family in Ireland and, at times, also in America. Why?

I can’t turn my back on Austria because my art is deeply rooted and inseparable from the Austrian culture. I am considered an Austrian artist all over the word. We could say that Austria is wherever I am. My concept of home, however, is spread across different parts of the world, including Ireland and L.A. The latter is the most fascinating city in the world because it’s here, more than in any other place in the world, that you can better observe the chaos, decadence, and the fall of the western universe. Mine is a front row seat to everything that will happen to us in Europe a couple of years down the line. Nowadays, all important decisions are taken by big companies and banks. Politicians have basically no say in anything anymore. President Eisenhower warned us about what was to come in his last speech as president: the hegemony of a military-industrial complex. For example, after the TTIP kicks off, the Monsanto market will grow by a couple of hundred clients because countries such as Austria won’t have the right to stop the production of genetically modified plants.

What makes the art of Gottfried Helnwein so special, so much so that the exhibition in Albertina broke its visitor record, and people are so moved they cry upon seeing your work?

I don’t think too much about the reasons, to be honest. What’s decisive is that the work of an artist stems from an internal necessity, as Kandinsky said. As long as I behave like an autistic child and do exactly what I believe to be important in that precise moment, regardless if it conforms to the rules or society agrees with it, then I know I’m on the right track. And it gets me exactly where I want to: people. When I see that Viewers are touched, shaken, moved, shocked, disturbed, amused by my work, and it leaves a lasting impression in their mind, that’s when I believe I’ve got where I wanted to go to all along. And that’s the meaning of my work.

Some of your favourite topics in art are children, and their suffering. You have children and grandchildren. How does that work?

There’s nothing easier than raising children. I gave my children absolute freedom, I let them decide if they wanted to go to school or not. The only thing children need is freedom and respect. They learn everything else on their own: spontaneity, intuition, creativity, imagination, and vision. They have this last link to a magical world which is forbidden to us adults. Picasso once said, ‘every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an Artist once he grows up.’ We shouldn’t wake children from their dreams and annoy them with our know-all attitude, and we should let them make their own choices, as they’re closer to the universal truth than we are. I believe we can learn a lot more from children than they from us. I empathise with Captain Beafheart when he says, ‘I wasn’t neglected enough as a child.’”

Finally, do you have a message for society?

I don’t see myself as a moral authority whose goal is to spread messages. But I do think it’s a good principle to use reason to analyse something with your own eyes and to make your own decisions. And you should mistrust every form of authority. History has a tendency to repeat itself, but never in the same way. New Nazis don’t appear in brown uniforms and boots: they have well-cut, tailored suits, they smile, and work for Goldman Sachs and Monsanto.

About the artist

Gottfried Helnwein

Gottfried Helnwein (born 8 October 1948) is an Austrian-Irish visual artist. He has worked as a painter, draftsman, photographer, muralist, sculptor, installation and performance artist, using a wide variety of techniques and media. His work is concerned primarily with psychological and sociological anxiety, historical issues and political topics. His subject matter is the human condition. The metaphor for his art is dominated by the image of the child, particularly the wounded child, scarred physically and emotionally from within.


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