In contemporary artist Gottfried Helnwein's painting, "Epiphany I," an Aryan Madonna-like figure sits holding a naked, uncircumcised new born boy, while some SS officers stand around her, critically sizing up mother and child. The painting is a reproduction of a Nazi propaganda photograph in which Hitler was the central figure; here in the painting, the mother is.
"Epiphany I: Adoration of the Magi," one of five works by Helnwein currently on exhibit at the Schmeidler-Goetz gallery in West Hollywood, is not the first work of art to explore an uncomfortable subject like the Holocaust.
Depictions of tragedy and violence are often so powerful we may wish to avoid them entirely. Holocaust images and those of other persecutions tend to be rendered manageable by being circumscribed to memorials and museums, places that by their very design prepare us to receive them in hushed tones of historical concern. But confront these images in an unexpected context and one's reaction may be less predictable, especially if the content is not the vaguely safe images of Nazi horror, but the very symbols and propaganda that fed the rallying call of Hitler's death machine.
What is in fact the capacity of these symbols to move people? Artists can seem to teeter on the line of propriety in exploring this question. Helnwein, in particular, has been exploring this throughout his career. In one of his early exhibitions, in Germany in 1971, audience reaction encompassed the gamut of emotional reactions, from adulation and Führer worship at the sight of an oversized portrait of Hitler to violent rejection in the form of vandalism to sympathetic watercolor images of deformed and crippled children.
Helnwein was born in Austria in 1948 in a post-WWII culture unwilling to confront its wartime past. Humanist themes pervade Helnwein's work, but his approach is not one of pandering or niceties. From his earliest moments as an artist, Helnwein has sought to provoke and elicit "unexpected reactions that reveal the innermost held feelings and beliefs [of the viewer]," according to Alexander Borovsky, curator at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
Some of the most powerful images that deal with Nazism and Holocaust themes are by Anselm Kiefer and Helnwein, although, Kiefer's work differs considerably from Helnwein's in his concern with the effect of German aggression on the national psyche and the complexities of German cultural heritage. Kiefer is known for evocative and soulful images of barren German landscapes. But Kiefer's and Helnwein's works are both informed by the personal experience of growing up in postwar German-speaking countries.
For some artists, like Annette Lemieux, an artist and professor at Harvard University, historical images, even those of the Holocaust, provide a framework for more current concerns: "I would have to say, that I was not thinking about re-contextualizing past 'found' images. My 'found' images have always been visual substitutes for the present."
One of Helnwein's other works is "Selection: Ninth of November Night," a Kristallnacht commemoration originally shown at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, in 1988. For the large-scale exhibit set in a public plaza opposite the museum, Helnwein photographed contemporary children and whitewashed their faces to appear as Holocaust survivors. Simon Wiesenthal noted, "Helnwein's most convincing idea [was] to present this ... in such an unconventional manner. He made no use of photos of heaped corpses; children's portraits force the observer to stop and consider this idea."
Many of the images were slashed across the neck and one was stolen. Rachel Schmeidler, one of the founders of gallery, contacted Helnwein after hearing him speak about the exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance last year.
Since then, Helnwein has exhibited the works damaged, demonstrating the continued need to speak out against the horrors of the Holocaust and persecution everywhere. This commitment has been lauded by Wiesenthal: "....His images are a constant silent appeal against collective denial and repression."
Some of Helnwein's images have joined the pantheon of pop culture. Many would instantly recognize images from his "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" series: the painting, "Nighthawks," his appropriation of Edward Hopper's 1942 work of the same name, of lonely diner patrons, in which Helnwein substitutes James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Humphrey Bogart as the patrons.
William Burroughs said that the American revolution begins in books and music, and political operatives implement the changes after the fact. To this maybe we can add art. And Helnwein's art might have the capacity to instigate change by piercing the veil of political correctness to recapture the primitive gesture inherent in art.
The exhibit runs through July 24 at Schmeidler-Goetz/Los Angeles Rectangle Gallery, 9013 1/2 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. The gallery is open 6-9 p.m. (Friday), noon-5 p.m. (Sat. and Sun.) and by appointment. For more information, call (310) 273-0135. To see Helnwin's art online visit www.helnwein.com.