EPIPHANY I (ADORATION OF THE MAGI 2), 2010, by Gottfried Helnwein. Mixed media (oil and acrylic) on canvas


‘Inferno of Innocents’ showcases truth in art

By February 21, 2011

EPIPHANY I (ADORATION OF THE MAGI 2), 2010, by Gottfried Helnwein. Mixed media (oil and acrylic) on canvas

Truth is like a lion in a cage. There’s no need to defend it — just open the door.

The artistic pursuit of truth is the driving passion of internationally renowned artist Gottfried Helnwein. His work is disturbing and controversial, because he places the lion outside of its cage, right in front of the viewer.

“Gottfried Helnwein: Inferno of the Innocents” is a survey of a broad spectrum works by a man determined to make humanity confront itself.

A child of post-World War II Austria, he grew up in a confused and somber time. Austria desperately wanted to forget its Nazi past, which included a former favorite son (Adolf Hitler) and Aryan ideals of the master race and of beauty. Austria also has a strong, proud Catholic identity. The country wondered how its morals and ethics could have failed so dramatically. It was a crisis of conscience. Thus, Helwein’s childhood was heavily overshadowed by a repressed national memory. Strangely, hope was gleaned from American culture, as represented by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

As a child, Helwein wanted to know why no one would speak of the “secret truth” that everyone  except children seemed to know. When he grew older, he learned of his country’s past. At a time when other artists were pursuing abstract art, he chose to enter the field of near photo realism. He cast his gaze on the darkest areas of the human psyche. The scars of war run deep, even to the next generation.

In his work, as evidenced in the Crocker’s exhibit, Helnwein spends much time portraying the child. To him the child always portrays innocence and hope. The children in his works are in situations that are unpleasant or painful to consider. One wishes to look away … but can’t, because the images presented are compelling.

One of Helwein’s most famous works on display is “Epiphany I (Adoration of the Magi 2).” This work is disturbing and compelling. It is classical in its beauty and form, like a renaissance work. But the characters are unexpected. The Madonna is blonde…the Aryan ideal. Her holiness, dignity and modesty are without question. The Christ Child stares at the viewer from the canvas…naked and seems about to burst into tears.

The Magi are five handsome Waffen officers who seem fascinated by the Virgin and Child. One carries a scroll of paperwork. Are these orders? Are these Nazis coming with orders to eliminate this Jewish woman and child? Why do they look at these two with wonder? What does this say about faith? What does this say about humanity?

Some believe the Christ Child is an infant Hitler, although the artist claims otherwise. Perhaps the subconscious betrays even the artist?

“The contradictions between the human potential for beauty, enlightenment, tremendous accomplishment and sordid ugliness has been the ongoing topic of Helnwein’s art,” said Diana L. Daniels, associate curator at the Crocker Art Museum. “His is a voice of tolerance, empathy and personal freedom, and his paintings make concrete for us the role that values, ethics and faith in humanity play in fostering human happiness.”

“Inferno of the Innocents” is an exhibit that is guaranteed to make one think long after the stroll through the galleries is completed. Because of the disturbing images, parents should consider the maturity of their children before taking them to this exhibit.

“This exhibit will upset some, but it will also challenge and inspire others,” said Lial A. Jones, director of the Crocker Art Museum. “Artists respond to the world around them. Sometimes that response is beautiful, sometimes difficult. I believe that museums have a responsibility to exhibit works that are important and relevant. This show, like others in our past and future, does this.”

“Inferno of the Innocents” runs through April 24. The Crocker Art Museum is located at 216 O Street in Downtown Sacramento. Museum hours are Tuesday and Wednesday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. For information about lectures and other events related to the Helnwein exhibit, call (916) 808-1194 or visit crockerartmuseum.org.

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Susan Laird


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