Nazi dreaming

Art - Julia Pascal on the man set on reminding Austria of the past it would rather forget

Gottfried Helnwein's latest exhibition, "Face It", is the artist's first show in his native Austria since 1985. A retrospective of 40 works from the 1970s to the present, it is more shocking than the Royal Academy's infamous "Sensation" of 1997. Helnwein aims to disturb not with, say, an elephant-dung Madonna, as Chris Ofili did then, but with a far more controversial Virgin.

In his last will, the Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard, who died in 1989, banned the production of his texts on home soil. Bernhard never hid his fury at Austria's refusal to admit its history. Helnwein, born in 1948, clearly shares Bernhard's view. He is furious about Austria's self-image as victim of the Third Reich, rather than its willing collaborator.

In 1965 posters for the Freedom Party, later led by Jörg Haider, demanded: "Forget about the past! Look ahead at the future." Helnwein, then still a teenager, reacted by painting a portrait of Adolf Hitler that got him expelled from art school. His "crime" was to have reminded Austria of its best-known son.

Since then, Helnwein's work has often provoked howls of anger at home. In the early 1970s, he was part of the Wiener Aktionisten ("Vienna Activists"). These dissenters were the interface between street theatre, public art and political protest. They threatened Austria's collective amnesia. Most were either imprisoned or forced into exile. In 1971, protesters defaced his first public Aktion with stickers which, without a trace of irony, proclaimed the work as entartete Kunst - the Nazi term for degenerate art. The mayor of Vienna ordered the police to confiscate his canvases. A year later, another exhibition in Vienna closed prematurely after threats of local council strikes.

Helnwein consistently refuses to allow Austria (and Germany) to whitewash the Hitler years. In 1988, on the 50th anni- versary of Kristallnacht, he constructed a four-metre-high, hundred-metre-long "picture wall" of enlarged photographic portraits of young children and erected the installation in central Cologne between the Museum Ludwig and the cathedral. He titled the work Selektion - a reference to those selected to be gassed in the concentration camps. Several photos got slashed. He further inflamed opinion by making a picture of a dead child slumped over a bowl of food. It was a direct accu-sation against Heinrich Gross, a leading psychiatrist who admitted in the 1970s that hundreds of children were poisoned at a Nazi-era hospital where he worked.

Helnwein's art is never easy entertainment. Varying his techniques, he uses oil, acrylics, collage, computer manipulation or digital print, and challenges audiences to make their own "readings". A group of photographic self-portraits, Der Untermensch (1970-87), includes images of the artist in Nazi costume, his face a mask of black make-up except for a white mouth. There is a series of foetus images: one has a nose reminiscent of Julius Streicher's stereotypical Jew. When, as a young man, Helnwein cut his face and hands on the edges of skis, or with razors or wood-engraving tools, it prompted him to paint bandaged figures starting with his own body. Immolation is a constant reference. The theme plays out on several levels.

Certainly his presentation of damaged children evokes direct associations with Dr Mengele's experiments, but he has also photographed young girls dressed in SS hats, thus provoking questions about the effect of the Third Reich on the next generation of Austrians and Germans. As the Russian art critic Alexander Borovsky notes, there is "no abstract existential angst" to Helnwein's impulses. Rather, they are deliberate critiques of perversion, by Nazi culture and by our own.

Although Helnwein's work is rooted in the legacy of German expressionism, he has absorbed elements of American pop culture. In 1977 he became interested in adapting Disney cartoons. Of that time, he has said: "I learned more from Donald Duck than anything in school." His earlier series Peinlich ("Embarrassing") - pencil, watercolour and India ink on cardboard - shows a typical 1950s little girl in a pink dress and carrying a comic. Her innocent appeal is destroyed by the gash deforming her cheek and lips. It is as if Donald Duck had met Mengele.

Helnwein declares himself fascinated by the relationship between "high" and "trivial" art, and has enjoyed an impor- tant relationship with American celebrity, living between Los Angeles and Ireland. He met and photographed the Rolling Stones in London, and his portrait of John F Kennedy made the front cover of Time on the 20th anniversary of the president's assassination. Andy Warhol and Muhammad Ali posed for him; he shot the cover for one of Michael Jackson's albums. Examining his imagery from the 1970s to the present, one sees influences as diverse as Bosch, Goya, John Heartfield, Beuys and Mickey Mouse, all filtered through a postwar Viennese childhood.

Helnwein also has a strong sense of theatre. He has worked in opera, designing sets and costumes for Maximilian Schell and working with the equally notorious Austrian choreographer Johann Kresnik. His poster for the 1988 production of Lulu at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg caused outrage across Europe. A tiny Sigmund Freud in a long coat stares up at a gigantic woman, who lifts her skirt to expose her vagina. The opposite of porn, it provocatively illustrates Wedekind's view of a sexually ambiguous bourgeois society on the brink of destruction. This iconography overturns the 1929 screen image of Louise Brooks as Lulu in G W Pabst's Pandora's Box. Whereas that film presents us with a face, Helnwein shows the pubis.

Of all his paintings, the most disturbing is Epiphany (1996), for which he dips into our collective memory of Christianity's most famous birth. This Austrian Catholic Nativity scene has no magi bearing gifts. Madonna and child are encircled by five respectful Waffen SS officers palpably in awe of the idealised, kitsch-blonde Virgin. The Christ toddler, who stands on Mary's lap, stares defiantly out of the canvas. Helnwein's baby Jesus is Adolf Hitler.

"Face It" is at the Lentos Kunstmuseum, Linz, Austria, until 5 June. For further details go to or to

Julia Pascal's latest play, Crossing Jerusalem, is published by Oberon Books (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Religion: who needs it?