Text by Gottfried Helnwein
These paintings are about America, I guess from a very European point of view. They're based on photographs, mainly newspaper photographs, of the Fifties and Sixties from archives in New York and L.A. Most people in these pictures are real people, caught in some long forgotten, petty events. I rearranged the scenes, introduced new characters, and created new relationships and contexts. And then I painted them in black and blue. That's how I remember America back then in the early Fifties in Vienna, where I was born. The big war had ended a few years ago, but the city still seemed undecided as to whether this was the end of the world or if life should go on. It was a strange, sad and surreal world. The streets were empty, the houses dark - many of them in ruins from the bombings. The few people I saw seemed ugly, clumsy, and depressed. I never saw anybody laughing and I never heard anybody sing. It was a world without sound and colour. Everything moved in slow motion, like slime. We had no phones, no television, no cars, no music, no pictures, except the paintings of tortured people in the Roman Catholic church which made a deep impression on me, haunting me in the sleepless nights of my childhood limbo. And then, without any warning, suddenly there was America. When I saw the first picture of Elvis I was in a state of shock, because I couldn't believe that a human being could be so beautiful. That was the beginning of the never-ending flood of American images that suddenly came over us and started to penetrate and transform everything.
The world that we inherited from our parents was a depleted, exhausted, and empty place. Most of the artists, writers, and intellectuals had left the country or were dead. The museums had been looted by the Nazis and everything that they called "degenerate art" was gone. The books had been burned. And now all the images, pictures and designs of the Third Reich that had suffused everything for so many years had also been trashed overnight. It was a pretty empty place now.
And out of this void we grew up into a world of wonders that we knew only from black and white movies and photographs where everything was impeccably staged and arranged. Shiny cars that looked like spaceships; cops and celestial, pale girls in perfect light were frozen into amazing poses always in the right spot of the picture, casting long, black shadows. How these guys were holding their cigarettes and what they did with the smoke was a piece of art. The houses and the streets of New York and LA became our streets. We knew all the details of the interior of the American middle-class home.
But we also saw the mountains of corpses in Auschwitz filmed by cameramen of the U.S. army. We started to see the whole world through American eyes in newspaper pictures and movies. These images introduced us to a two-dimensional world without boundaries where fact and fiction, future and past have equal rights and where distance and time have no meaning.
I think there will never be another time where people can get rid of some unwanted reality by just burning pictures - simply because there are too many now and their number is growing in a never-ending explosion. The pictures are not under our control anymore.
The invention of photography has changed the course and logic of art and history. For visual artists the basic rules were turned upside down, and ever since they have been struggling to find and redefine their position. I think photography is the key medium and I'm fascinated by its almost unlimited possibilities to shift and twist reality.
My paintings do not intend to tell a story. Maybe they are freezing the moment just before it's going to happen or a moment in the aftermath. The viewers have to complete the narrative themselves. And, if there is a conclusion, then it is outside of the painting.
FEBRUARY 1st, 2000
Article source: HELNWEIN.COM