Critics’ Picks

Gottfried Helnwein, In the Heat of the Night, 2000, oil and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 120".


Gottfried Helnwein

Albertinaplatz 1
May 25 - October 13

In the many self-portraits on view in this retrospective, Gottfried Helnwein appears tortured: His head is tightly bandaged, his eyes obscured by menacing forklike instruments, his mouth contorted into a perpetual scream that threatens to break into insane laughter. Helnwein’s drawings, paintings, and photographs owe a clear debt to the work of the Viennese Actionists, who staged gruesome performances in the 1960s, just a few years before Helnwein became a student at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna. But Helnwein’s relentless depictions of bodies in suffering also recall the Neue Sachlichkeit painters, particularly Otto Dix and George Grosz, who unflinchingly portrayed the mutilated veterans of World War I.

War and violence are the backdrops of Helnwein’s oeuvre to date, but when he departs from blood and guts—or anything resembling documentary footage—it is most often for hauntingly blurred portraits or eerily quiet images of children. In the watercolor Beautiful Victim 1, 1974, a young girl in a thin pink dress lies on the ground in a nondescript interior, her eyes completely covered by a thick wrapping of gauze. Here and in a number of photographs of his performances with children (including his own), Helnwein deploys the young girl as a symbol of vulnerability and tarnished innocence. An untitled painting from 1988 makes his social commentary clear: Hitler, his face half-concealed by the dark shadow from his military cap, holds the hands of two smiling yet reticent girls, looking like any good politician angling for a photo op. Having grown up in the shadow of Nazi Germany, Helnwein appears to be projecting himself onto the young girls who populate his oeuvre, obsessively working through the personal and collective experience of stolen childhood.

In the artist’s most recent monumentally scaled paintings, the little girl persists, though she has morphed into a variety of cartoonish, disturbing archetypes— an anime character, a gun-toting outlaw—that appear alongside other portraits: a sinister-looking Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, for example. The all-too-frequent stories in the US media of accidental child deaths from gunshots give the exhibition’s final works, despite their apparent surrealism, an unnerving resonance.