ESQUIRE: What events in your life made you chose this career?
GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN: I decided to become an artist when I was 18 years old. Before that I had an image of painters as people with beards standing at easels and painting boring abstract paintings. I was always good at painting and drawing, but I wanted to do something more meaningful, like being the leader of a revolution.
I was always interested in politics and history, I was curious and constantly kept asking questions. When I was still a kid I found out about the Holocaust, the great crime of my parents generation. It was a shock for me and I started to research more and eventually learned about the massive abuses, torture and death of children in Germany and Austria at the time. But nobody spoke about it and the media didn't mention it, there was an absolute silence, and that was the moment when I decided to become a painter and paint these images that haunted me. I just couldn't understand how somebody could inflict so much pain to a defenseless, fragile little thing.
And I decided to use aesthetics to respond and art as a weapon to strike back.
ESQ: Your ability and painting technique are amazing, which it helps that your message can be received in effective ways.
GH: Since my first exhibit I saw a very emotional reactions from people around. That kind of cathartic answers helped me realize that I was going into the right direction, because for me art has always been a dialogue, I’ve always believed that the artist should be in communication with the audience and that art is the way to communicate at the highest aesthetic level.
ESQ: Besides using children as your main subject, you also have the intention to denounce, would you say that it works as a metaphor for the humanity?
GH: Every human being goes through childhood, but not everybody gets old. Childhood is a very precious phase in somebody’s life due to the potential innocence that we all have in us and that unfortunately gets lost in a corrupted society, due to a destructive mutilating educational system. In each human being there is somewhere deep down what we call innocence and purity, and in children you can sometimes see it, it’s still there.
Another thing that fascinates me in children is their enormous creative potential. They have these ability of infinite imagination, children still have the magic that adults, in general, lose.
And that’s the biggest gift a human has: the ability to imagine, to dream and to create your own spiritual universe.
ESQ: I like the way you represent children: even though they are presented physically vulnerable or as victims, they always appeared dignified. Like some kind of heroes.
GH: That’s true and it’s a weird contradiction. On one side, in our society today children are very vulnerable and defenseless and rely on the protection from grown ups, which is something they frequently lack of. But at the same time children are very resistant and their spiritual and aesthetic potential is huge. Children must be protected and considered something precious, important.
It bothers me to see how neglected, abused, mistreated, and oppressed children are today. The challenge is enormous because they are being poisoned by various elements: chemicals, environmental pollution, street drugs, medical drugs, a pornographic society, mass media, television, Internet… So, from a very young age, they are under constant attack.
ESQ: Can you talk about the time you painted a Hitler’s portrait and you were expelled from school.
GH: I never liked school that much. I always had problems with authorities and oppressive people. In Vienna, during postwar, I felt the dark shadow of the Third Reich and the death of the 60 million people, that my parent's generation was responsible for.
And it didn't help that they feigned ignorance and amnesia. and that the refused to talk about it. This was something that didn't go away;
Even as a little child I sensed the presence of that darkness , it was always there and that’s why I one day i painted Hitler at the college for graphic art where I studied at that time. It caused quite a stir and upset the Teachers and they screamed a lot and my painting was confiscated.
For me, it was a very important moment because I suddenly realized how powerful an image can be, how a piece of drawing or watercolor can shake the world of grown ups, that images can sometimes reach much deeper than words.
ESQ: In fact I think that the way you create your work context –a space between reality and fiction, kind of a subtle distortion of reality- is a very effective way to touch people’s sensibility. If it was just a documentary image maybe it would only add up to the images we see in newspapers, television, etc.
GH: People are constantly bombarded with millions of images of the daily horror from around the world, through mass media, television, internet, which makes us feel helpless, because it tells us there is nothing we can do about it.
Art is completely different; with art you can approach any subject, no matter how horrible, because aesthetics can transcend and transform any uglyness, into something beautiful, it can elevate, inspire and might be able to open doors to understanding.
My images always dealt with what's happening around me, I wasn’t making up things.
From beginning on when I looked at people around me I perceived them as suffering in some way, without being conscious about it. I thought that most people seemed to be somewhat damaged , and that’s what I started to show.
ESQ: Your work can be aggressive to some people, and
even been argue, “Violence
generates more violence. But I think your goal is to promote love and respect
for the children and pronounce yourself against violence in general. Why you
think your strategy is effective and that your work is not going to cause the
opposite effects, such as anger, sadness or even more child abuse?
GH: During 40 years I have never seen anybody depressed from looking at an artwork from Goya or Hieronymus Bosch, or other painters that show the dark side of human existence, the pain and the suffering. Strangely enough people always seemed to be touched, elevated and joyful when they look at such paintings.
Aesthetic images have the exact opposite effect than pictures from mass media.
Art can generate a catharsis, a purification, something that let you deal with a difficult subject and somehow dissolve it.
ESQ: You are a contra cultural artist and activist in various aspects, but what does your work takes from the pop culture and what is your posture about this?
GH: “Pop Culture” is a broad term. When I was a boy and a teenager I got distanced from my parent’s generation and rejected their traditional culture, the “high” culture taught at school. The comics, movies and music’s trivial art were much closer to me. Especially in the 60s, when there was a lot of powerful music like Jimmy Hendrix, Rolling Stones and Jim Morrison. We were living a Cultural Revolution, something very powerful and there where high expectations that it will become a profound revolution that will transform society. It was a period of great emotion and hope, and for me, it was interesting to see the implications art could have.
60s music –in fact music since the blues and later Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley- was so powerful. It had an enormous impact on the society. At the beginning, the system wanted to repress it and it was interesting to see how the big shots with all their money and armies, secret services and police force were really scared of the songs of these kids.
So trivial art or pop art, in its purest form, is something with a lot of strength. The pop art concept that we have today is corrupted, it's commercialized and is generally trash. The term is being misused. Pop Art really means popular art, art that is created for the people, not only for an elite of intellectuals. Art should always be like that. Art that can only be understood by intellectuals is worthless and not important. But it should not be commercial junk for idiots either.
I believe true art is pure and self-explanatory and it has the capability to touch and move any human being that is confronted with it.
ESQ: What did you meant when you said that you learned more from Donald Duck than from school?
GH: I hated school because everything that they tough me seemed so senseless, boring and stupid and I always though “What I’m doing here?” This is like concentration camp.”
As a child I had the opportunity to have the best comics from that time, the Donald Duck comics drawn by the best Disney artist, Carl Barks. They were brilliant. I still read them and they inspire me a lot. These early stories of Donald Duck published in Germany just after war, where the first comics that children saw there. A lot of artists of my generation admit that they were a great source of inspiration for them too.
ESQ: You have done a lot of collaborations with musicians and it’s very clear that music is fed by your work. But in what way your work is fed by music?
GH: I have a very close relation to music and literature. When I paint - I listen to music and audiobooks, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet great performers and collaborate with them, especially with writers and musicians like the Rolling Stones and Marilyn Manson. When I met Manson there was an instant connection between us, a mutual understanding because we share the same visual aesthetic. I enjoy working with other artists; it’s exciting, unfortunately is not that common.
ESQ: In “The Disasters of War” by Goya, which you have recognized as an influence, the artist shows the consequences of war and, somehow, “the end of the story.” But in your narrative it seems that the worst is going to happen, and tension is very high.
GH: This is an interesting point you bring up. The world in Goya’s time was very different than today. Nevertheless, he did something similar to what I’m trying to do,
He tried to make people look at things they would rather like to ignore, run away from: that senseless violence, all that pain and death.
but if people are not willing to confront these things and learn from it - then history is condemned to repeat itself.
Goya tried to freeze that tragedy so the world would not forget and these incidents become part of the memory of humanity.
This is an important aspect of the responsibility of the artist.
In the XXI Century the world is much different. Everything is distorted by electronic images and commercial and political propaganda, so today is not that simple as in Goya’s time because everything is more complex, more twisted. Media overwhelm us by making up tacky stories.
In Goya’s time, the battlefield was full with corpses, and people could see that. Today, we see copies of copies of images, manipulated images, and its difficult to differentiate between death in a videogame or movie, from a real death in Afghanistan. Today we have wars where people die, but at the same time, people go to the movies and they want to see death, war, torture, and murders as entertainment. That’s why there aren’t any protests against war like they used to be in the 60s and it seems that people are in a state of apathy and resignation.
ESQ: Your work, at some degree, focuses on creating conscious and memory.
In that way, it has a social and political dimension. For this process of human
awareness, in order to work, we should begin from the premise that people behave
negatively, basically, because of ignorance, but in a deeper level, they have
good intentions. Is this your idea of why there are people that cause great
suffering to others?
GH: My art tries to shake people, wake them up, make them think, and to give hope. I think Art is there to give life a meaning.
The ongoing propaganda of the mass media tells you that the world is a dangerous place, that everything is going down, and that there is nothing we can do about it.
But that's a lie. Art will tell you that there is a meaning to life, and that there is a future, and that the possibilities are infinite.
I think art is something very personal and intimate, and it can touch something deep inside you, your long forgotten desires and dreams , your repressed fears or your sadness, and it has the power to release you.
ESQ: The fact of not showing an absolute end of the story
leaves an open window to do, in some way, “something.”
GH: Art is essentially a collaboration between the artist and the spectator. And in the narrative of my images the onlooker has to complete the story. Each person can create his or her own ending and make a difference. You are giving the power to the spectator and that is something I believe in very much.
ESQ: Goya is a clear reference in your work. Which other masters have influenced your work?
GH: When I started painting I didn’t know much about art, I just painted whatever came to my mind. My direct influence came from comics, for example. Later, when I started to do art research, I found souls that I felt very close to. Goya was one of them, but also Caspar David Friedrich, the Romantic German painter. In fact, the Romantic period of the XIX Century, whether in literature, music and particularly in painting, was the first artistic manifestation that caught my eye and touched me. Specially Friedrich, because his paintings have certain melancholy and deep sorrow, but at the same time they are beautiful and show something infinite that attracts me a lot.
My paintings are different from these great artists, but spiritually I feel very connected with them. In literature Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Poe, Burroughs, and Thomas Mann have inspired me.
ESQ: In Europe your work has been effective, among other things, because it has created a conscious about the Holocaust. In Mexico we recognized it as one of the greatest historic tragedies, but its obvious that we didn’t suffer it in a direct way. Nevertheless, in our country there are terrible things happening to a lot of children. I understand that you have prepared for four years the public intervention you are showing in Mexico. How would you approach with your work shown in public spaces the local issues?
GH: I haven’t lived in Mexico and for that reason I have an external point of view. Nevertheless, what I recognize is the human suffering, I can see that the same tragedy repeats itself, and this tragedy is provoked by greed and the lack of respect towards human dignity, and it's always most obvious in the lack of respect towards children, that is the real problem. When I see Mexico from an external perspective it is very sad because it is traditionally a country with warm and happy people. When you think about the potential that exists in a society like this, and at the same time the enormous amount of suffering and evilness that arrived to Mexico –drugs, drug dealers, corruption, never-ending killings and, specially, people’s helplessness- we get the impression that nobody believes that there is something that can be done. That’s scary.
But first of all I think of the children, and that we must start to protect and defend them.
For the Monumento a la Revolución installation, I’ve photographed and worked with Mexican children. Their innocence and happiness was very touching, it seemed they were not aware of the evilness and threats of this society, because their parents protected them. If a child is protected long enough to gain confidence and strength to fight back, then there’s hope.
ESQ: Where you very involved in the work selection and the project definition for Mexico City?
GH: It was a project that was developing over time. I worked with the people from the San Carlos Museum and with curator Susan Crowly and Phillippe from the city council for the public space installation and it has been a great collaboration.
I of course I worked with Hilario Galguera especially for the exhibit in his gallery. It has been a very interesting and complex project and I’m really excited. It has been a great experience indeed.
ESQ: What do you think about the Extreme Right revival in Europe?
GH: The Extreme Right has always been present but it has strengthened in the past years. In Austria we still have the people from the Nazi period, but I think that in every country there is a potential Extreme Right that represents the fear and hate, of everything that is considered foreign or different. There is a new wave of racism that targets Islam and Arabs and there is a terrible agreement between different ideological groups based on hate towards them. That reminds me of times when many Germans and Austrians thought that Jews where something bad that one should get rid of. It seems that people don’t learn.
ESQ: It is being said that your painting titled “Epiphany” from 1996 is your most controversial work until now.
GH: It was the first painting in which I used a religious subject in a moment when I was very interested in Renaissance art. At that time I realized that the subjects used by European artists weren’t that varied. One was “The Adoration of the Maggi,” a theme that, has been painted by many painters throughout the centuries. And I realized that every artist depicted that scene in his own time.
I wondered how that image would look if painted from a German perspective, just after the Holocaust, and that’s how I made it. It became an artwork that reflected my personal experience of being born after World War II. And it touched some sensitive fibers and was controversial, people responded in a very emotional way.
ESQ: What is your posture towards religion?
GH: That is a very broad subject. The society is more skeptical of religion today, and many belief that religion is the reason behind all wars.
It is true that under the name of religion there have been horrible abuses, which hunts, crusades, wars and the Inquisition, but I don’t think that religion itself it’s the source of these crimes. It has rather been used as an excuse or justification for greed and lust for power.
Religion is a very important aspect in humanity when it means to seek a connection to the metaphysical or the spiritual.
ESQ: I think there can’t be any development or spiritual growth if you don’t get out of your comfort zone and I think your work points to spirituality in that sense.
GH: I’ve met very skeptical people that think that spirituality is something insignificant, but if the skepticism is taken to an extreme then atheistic regimes like Stalinism, Nazism or Maoism emerge and they have killed in a very short time more human beings than all the others in the whole history of mankind. This means that the destruction is enormous when the spiritual side is lost or repressed. If we think about the Roman Catholic Church –there are two sides: in these 2000 years the Church has committed terrible crimes but at the same time since the renaissance it has made possible in the creation of the greatest culture of all times
ESQ: My last question: which artwork makes you feel prouder about yourself?
GH: I think the best thing I’ve done is the way I raised my children. I gave them unlimited freedom, respect and love. The most important thing when you have a child is to respect him or her as somebody who is unique, precious and important, even though there is a little body, think of him or her as a great personality.
I think I did OK: my children had freedom, they were always in touch with art. Maybe that’s why they all became artist – musicians, painters, photographers and writers- and that is something that makes me happy.
I have a big family, lots of children and grandchildren, and the best part is that they all are artists; so when we get together for dinner it is a joy to fool around with them and to talk about art, music, politics, history and Philosophy.