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People avoid seeing the hurt in the world

New Time has met an artist who wants to show people what they do not want to see: the dark sides of man.


In Hitler's homeland on a cloudy winter day, I meet the artist Gottfried Helnwein. It is possible he will take me into the darkness of the people, where I find myself at the Viennese café Landtmann one cool Friday afternoon. And it is when darkness subsides that world-renowned Irish-Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein arrives dressed in his distinctive black headscarf.

"The oppression of children and women is the darkest chapter in human history."

Helnwein was born in Vienna just after World War II (1948). Here he went to the Academy of Fine Arts (Akademie der Bildenden Künste) – where Hitler applied twice, but was rejected. Today Helnwein lives in Los Angeles and Ireland, but visits Vienna from time to time.

Behind his glasses with black glasses he says: – I am associated with the culture here. Until the 1980 century, Vienna was a terrible place – the two world wars had destroyed the city and the people. After the Iron Curtain, however, everything changed. The city became open and international. Now young and experimental art is in full bloom.


Helnwein comes straight from the set of the Shakespeare play Macbeth (Reconstruction) at Linesth Landestheater, where he designed the scenography and costumes: – Certain works of art are timeless. Macbeth is one of them. The piece describes the situation in the world right now. It is the story of a king who becomes powerless and kills, just like the king of Saudi Arabia, who ordered to kill journalist Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Authorities around the world have blood on their hands. Torture and murder have not changed. If you look around you, you see all the Macbeths sitting and killing from their thrones. One must not believe that such things belong only to the past.

Wounded children

Helnwein has chosen to express itself in a separate direction:

- I have a confrontational and revolutionary spirit in my art. I don't want to be part of a mass movement. For an artist, it is important to be independent and keep a certain distance from society – to stand outside society. I am inspired by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828) The horrors of war, where he presents war as destruction, hatred and madness.

Murder and torture are recurring elements in Helnwein's art. Why is he so concerned about this?

- To be able to live a good life themselves, people avoid seeing the pain in the world. I understand that people do not want to see it. But the problem is that if it goes too far and you still do not want to see it, it can end in disaster. Just look at what happened to Hitler in a position of power. He was behind the murder of 6 million Jews – and few knew anything about it while it was going on.

"Children's view of the world gives me hope for the future."

- Collective amnesia can be life-threatening. As an artist, I take on the responsibility of showing people what they do not want to see – the dark side of humanity. If you want to overcome something, you must be willing to confront it, because only then can you do something to change it. In our time we have become accustomed to violence. Computer games contain violence and show how "cool" it is to kill. In the media, we are used to seeing people being killed. We must deal strategically with this cruelty, fascism and consumer culture.


My first encounter with Helnwein's art was the installation I Saw This, which hung above the second largest building in Vienna – Ringturm. Every time I cycled across the Danube Canal, I saw a provocative picture of a wounded girl with a rifle in her hand, which I then thought was a photograph.

Before the meeting with Helnwein, I also saw his exhibition Warhol to Richter (open until March 24, Albertina Museum): The first room contains disturbing paintings by Helnwein. The girl who was both physically and mentally injured was clearly a painting. It provokes me, because the content breaks with my concept of children as innocents.

But why is he so preoccupied with producing children? I ask him:

- I describe what is happening in the world right now. The arms industry in the United States, children who kill in school shootings, Islamist children who blow themselves up, bloody computer games, etc. The presence of violence is very clear in our society. The biggest challenge for parents is the internet. How can parents protect their children from the Internet? Eight-year-olds can enter websites with violence, torture and porn with a few keystrokes. When you are a child, you should be innocent and dream – do not try to understand the evil in the world. I am very happy that I live in the countryside with my children and grandchildren. I could never live without children. Their view of the world gives me hope for the future. The er the future, and if we treat them with love and respect, and make them understand some important values, it may be the world becomes a better place.


We turn the conversation into dignity:

- I learned about the Holocaust as a child. The genocide, which cost at least six million people their lives, made such a big impression on me that it became difficult for me to live a normal teenage life afterwards. I could not understand how people could go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. As a teenager, I became obsessed with the idea of ​​justice. Art eventually became a haven where I could relate to existential questions. The oppression of children and women is the darkest chapter in human history. Women have to go dressed in black garbage bags in Islamist countries, they can only drive a car if their husband allows it, women who are raped are punished for it. And children, who are the weakest link in society, are constantly being exploited. You have the Roman Catholic Church where priests rape children.

Helnwein says that he had over 250 visitors to his exhibition at the Albertina Museum in 000, where the director of the museum had stated that he has never before seen so many people cry in front of the works: – Many women have called and told me that they have been abused as a child, and that I helped them overcome that trauma.

There is something frightening about what Helnwein is interested in:

- I am aware of that. Nietzsche once wrote that anyone who fights monsters should be careful not to become a monster himself. He believed that if one stares long enough down into the abyss, the abyss will approach. It's all about balance. We must look at those who suffer – and we must communicate. Our power lies in communicating!



Pinar Ciftci
Pinar Ciftci
Ciftci is a journalist and actor.

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