When Cesare Bonazza, my dear photographic partner in crime, said he was going to take me to see something very special in downtown Los Angeles, I was totally unprepared, mentally and culturally, for what was to follow.
Cesare had discovered the legendary -- and controversial -- Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein. Now, I'm an avid fan of Andy Warhol but the art world has always seemed way too intellectual for me. Still, I was interested enough to allow myself to be ushered through a studio door into the magnificent world that is Gottfried's.
The man himself seemed far too well-scrubbed to pass for an artist -- dashingly handsome doesn't do him justice! I immediately thought of Dennis Hopper in "Easy Rider" but that could have been his bandanna. Dressed head-to-toe in black, he rarely removed his extremely dark shades, but he was effortlessly charming with plenty to talk about. His wife, Renate, with her vivid red hair epitomized European boho-cool chic, and took a hands-on role in the studio, and their three children, Ali (named after Muhammad Ali), Amadeus and Mercedes have appeared in countless installations -- this is very obviously a family business.
The pictures are simply unbelievable. They look like photographs but are actually paintings -- and the realisation of this fact is part of the thrill of seeing them. Gottfried decided early on in his career that a photo had more impact -- and, hence, more power -- than a painting, which is why he likes to create art that appears photographic.
He was born in 1948 in Austria right after World War Two and, as a child, American colour comic books were his only escape from all the postwar doom and gloom. He even credits Donald Duck with teaching him more about the world than any of the schools or colleges he attended!
In 1969, with the support of the artist Rudolph Hausner, he was admitted to the Vienna Academy of Art -- a renowned crucible of creativity. Some of his work is disturbing to say the least, and has been described as "the visual equivalent of a contact sport". He uses art as a way to fight back at society, his pictures forcing people to face things they might prefer to forget about. Children feature heavily, as do bandages and chilling images from the wartime era. All very challanging, yet fascinating.
During my private tour, Gottfried explained his amazing techniques and told me little anecdotes. One of his less-stark paintings was of glorious green hills -- a commission for Lord Lloyd-Wbber, who is his neighbour in Ireland. The detail was unbelievable -- I stepped back and, even though it wasn't quite finished, it looked like a beautiful photograph of a landscape.
Gottfried's art uses diverse media, not just to tell a story but to trigger a response, winning him many admirers. Fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger is an avid collector and lent some pieces he owns for the launch of the new studio -- the reason for the party.
Hosted by "Almost Famous" star Jason Lee's Foundation for the Arts (Jason has begun filming the foundation's first feature-length documentary that will feature Gottfried's work -- for more information, visit the website www.jasonleefoundation.org) , the party was meant to be low-key but Gottfried's pals, as well as Arnie, include Marilyn Manson, Beck Mena Suvari, super-cool Sean Penn and Leonardo DiCaprio -- and when this kind of gang turn up you have serious juice!
The funniest thing about Gottfried is his unabashed love of LA. He says that by far the most interesting people he meets are here, dispelling the myth that New York is the only place to be. This adds to his mystique, as most people would never admit to loving LA unless talking about the weather or ocean. But Gottfried has never been one to conform . . .
The party was a smash and Gottfried summed it up rather sweetly, by saying: "I have found the right people to work with. I feel my art can be an injection of aesthetic energy here. LA is a very exciting place for me." Celebrated American writer Norman Mailer has commented: "Helnwein is one of the most exciting painters we have today." And as for me? I liked him immensely and fell in love with his Elvis portrait from his amazing "Fire" collection, which -- if my bank manager is unwise enough to take my call -- will, I'm sure, be living with me sometime soon.
28.Aug.2002 OK! magazine Tamara Beckwith