Viennese painter Gottfried Helnwein practices the grotesque as an act of selfexpression.
in 1979 he painted a portrait of a dead child slumped over a plate of food.
It was printed in a magazine accompanied by an open letter addressed to an eminent Viennese psychiatrist who, says Helnwein, "makes decisions about who is normal and who isn't." The psychiatrist was once an SS leader in charge of drug "experiments" at a children's camp in World War II.
As a provocative test, Helnwein himself has walked the city streets with his head bandaged and table forks pulling pulling his mouth into a hideous grimace. Recalling the "mistakes of the past", Helnwein disdains all "big group influences, whether political, artistic, or scientific." His work is a "cry for freedom: The individual must feel and think on his own."
Nevertheless, Helnwein is fascinated by two extremes of social organization: the military and the circus. Whereas the military suppress individual emotions, the circus affirms the passions and distorted beauty of "the strange and freaky. Choosing to be grotesque is an act of freedom," he maintains, citing Salvador Dali as a genius of the grotesque.
Society licks the kneecaps of Dali, he observes, "rather than locking him away in a hospital, as they would most people." Helnwein, who admires Dali's ability to warp social roles, emphasizes that role playing "may be essential for survival."
Art and life are inseperable from theater, says this child of the vehemently antiestablishment street theater of the Sixties. Corralling his models from the streets, he distorts faces to conform to his inner visions.
"I make my models older or younger, more beautiful or more ugly."
His portraits reveal characters convulsed by powerful feelings. The uneasy, spastic potency of their emotions leaves us unsure whether they are laughing or crying, in pain or ecstasy.
Whatever the interpretation, one cannot fail to notice that Helnwein delivers a powerful Heimlich maneuver to the solar plexus of our times.
Gottfried Helnwein, OMNI, New York, 1983
01.Aug.1983 OMNI, New York Douglas Stein