Interview with Gottfried Helnwein

Vienna. May 23, 2013

As a child, you used to visit churches because you had a strong catholic education. In which churches did you go most often?

I lived in Favoriten, which is a working class district, it is the tenth district in Vienna. What was the name of the church? I don’t know if I know the name.

I wanted to know about the architecture of these churches, because I read in your interviews that the first contact you had with art was in the churches.

That’s right. Interesting thinking. Well, I was in different churches, I mean we had one church very close to our house, which was ran by nuns. And for first I was in kindergarten there, but we went in different churches. The images I saw were not only in one church, it was in different ones, always in the country side where my grandparents had a farm.

This is a collection of many images that I saw and they were the only images that I saw as a kid, because there was not much advertising and television had nothing after the war. There were only churches and that’s where I saw suddenly murals and big paintings. And also in mass it takes sometimes very long, so you sit there an hour or more, which is very boring for a kid sometimes. You look around, you look at the pictures and say: “My god, what’s going on there?”. But there’s not an specific church. Now, if you’re a researcher, that’s a very good question, but unfortunately there’s not one church I could name. It’s like, many.

I would like to know if those images were based on a special art movement, for example Baroque.

Yes, it would be Baroque, Enlightenment century maybe. So I was in Mariazell, that’s a famous church, in Maria Taferl, in a church where my grandparents lived, Staatz, which is the name of the village in Lower Austria. So this would be some churches that come to my mind.

About this Baroque style, I recognize a certain influence in your work and I would like to know if you see it. Do you appreciate Baroque art, as an artist?

Yes, I like the traditional western art very much. I wouldn’t say I focus on Baroque specially, I find amazing masterpieces even in Gothic times, in Renaissance, but also in Baroque and also later, 18th century, 19th century, so I wouldn’t say Baroque is very special for me, it’s just a part of one for me. It’s one great culture that starts short before the Renaissance and ends basically in the beginning of 18th century. I mean, the greatest, most important period of culture on the planet, in the history of mankind. Never before or after and such in a short time, in such a limited place, so many geniuses and creative people, like giants in architecture, literature, music. And more and more I must say I get so much admiration for these amazing creative spirits that crave for art. Because when you look to any place or time, nothing can compares to that. In Egypt and China was mainly a culture of industrial art, they had certain aesthetic and certain symbols, and they were mass produced and they were beautiful, they had beautiful architecture, but it was nothing compared to the Renaissance. The Renaissance starts for me, I don’t know, 13th century, 12th century, I don’t remember, so this time for me is very precious. And, in the beginning, when I started to paint, I was not really much influenced, because I didn’t know much about it, I was not educated as a kid, and except those paintings in the churches, there was nothing famous about it, I haven’t seen much. So it was mainly trivial arts that really got my interest. It was comics and rock’n’roll.

I asked this because I detect some usage of chiaroscuro technique in your paintings and I recognize it very much in paintings like Artemisia Gentileschi’s or Caravaggio’s.

You’re right, but it was the other way on. When I started, I didn’t know anything about these painters, so for me, not in the very first paintings, but very soon I started to use exactly that technique of light and dark. And that’s how I started. It was really something that I developed myself and then later seeing Caravaggio, I was blown away. Several times I had experiences of recognition of something that I kind of have tried and one happened to be this technique of Caravaggio. And when I saw, I thought: “My God this is so familiar, it is so close to my heart”. And something feels so close to the artist. This experience that I had, it is something that makes us feel so close to the artist, more than you can ever feel in person, even if the person is sitting in front of you and you know somebody. I mean, these are people I’ve never met, they are long gone, the bones are even gone, but through the art, I don’t know, the soul, the inner universe is still there and you can actually enter it. And it is something I feel, it’s almost a religious experience. I feel so humbled, so happy, so enlightened and touched. I am allowed to be so close to somebody. And sometimes I see something that is very familiar to my own work. I think it’s an achievement when you see something you can inspire and use it, but it wasn’t the case, I just developed myself and then I saw, oh, it already existed.

You always painted blonde and androgynous children. Often they were your own children, but recently you had an exhibition in Mexico and you photographed Latin American girls. I mean, they were not blonde and androgynous anymore. What does this represent in your work?

For some reason I was only interested in children. Always. Even long before starting painting, children were for me the most precious beings that existed. I always thought children as special, children have an essence, have so much possibilities. You look at the child and there is a whole potential utopia, everything is possible when you look at the child. And then somehow I became startled on how society destroys it in many degrees, through education, through manipulation. Children lose the spark they had in beginning. They lose and lose and when you look at most of the grownups? Not much left. So the hope, the fire seen in the eyes of children, they have imagination, tell stories, make up things. Their universe is limitless. But for the grownups, everything is limited, they are scared of things, anxious, they’ve lost their own universe.

For me, children are something sacred, almost like spiritual beings more than anything else. And at the same time when I saw how this world is kind of brutal, abuses children generally in many different ways I see this is a kind of metaphor for the conflict that is going on in the history of mankind, like a brutal, physical force of the material universe against the spirits, spirits who are sensitive, subtle, the opposite, light. I always thought children are the most beautiful things and knowing that they get abused and punished and pain is inflicted on them, that was something that always startled me. I always was thinking. And that was the reason why I started to paint, because that was the subject. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Nobody talked about. So I thought, maybe I draw it. So I started to draw and paint. And it was really the motivation and reason why I began painting.

But why do you paint blonde and androgynous children?

For some reason when I think of children, I thought in order to show what I want to show it was clear from beginning it had to be girls. I don’t know, I never thought of it. These qualities I’m talking about, angelic, non-physical qualities, I see even more in girls than in boys, generally speaking. It’s not totally fair, but in boys and men there’s more a tendency to a physical force and macho stuff. It’s different. Girls have as a potential more spiritual qualities, I think. So that’s why I choose girls. And my girls were, of course, German and Austrian girls (in the beginning Austrian girls), because we didn’t have black girls in Austria — at that time, at least, I never saw a black person or with dark skin. These were the children I saw. I think if I would have been in Mexico or in other parts where people have dark skin, I would have take them, so it’s not a statement, it’s just the girls that I found. And now I was in Mexico and I made a whole series of photographs with girls, I really must say it’s true, it’s starting to get something different. Because I was always emphasizing the white skin, really pale, because when they are pale, it’s even less flesh of meat, more dissolving into spirit. So when I photographed these girls in Mexico, it was mainly girls with dark skin and I thought they were incredibly beautiful and so innocent, so amazing, but it’s a different color aesthetics. It was fascinating, a great work.

I was wondering if you were already misunderstood by always using blonde white children while you also use Nazism as one of your themes. Like if someone could think about Aryanism, for example.

No, the opposite (laughs). Interesting to be said. I can see that somebody living in a multiethnic culture would see like that, but I lived in a country where everybody was blonde or had brown hair. You didn’t see anything, it just didn’t exist. When I was a kid I never saw a black person. Black people were only on cartoons or drawings, but I have never seen anybody. It’s not an statement, it’s just where I grow up. I think if I was born in China they would be all Chinese girls, you know? But it was a decision that I used only girls. It was just an aesthetic decision and never a question.

You named your collection The Disasters of War after the works of Goya. Who is he for you?

Goya is one of the great artist that I really admire. In the beginning, the only painters I knew were the romantic painters, from the Romanticism, 18th century, Austria and Germany. That was the only high art I had a very close, intimate relationship. Other than that, I learned only later. But Goya became something important for me. It’s like you know there’s lots of art I admire, but some of the artists or art are so close to me that it is almost scary, it’s so intimate. Goya would be something like it. I see some works and I think, it’s so familiar to me the way he thinks, I would think so, I would have done that. There are other artists that I admire that surprise me completely and I don’t like them less and some artists that I really admire and worship, that are totally surprising, I never saw that, completely foreign, it’s fascinating, but with Goya is something like as if it would be something from my own universe.

I understand his concern about suffering, the grotesque aspect of life, the strange, scary and funny side of life and also the pain and destruction, the death of war. And at the same time he painted the rich, he also painted the simple life and the simple country life. So he really took all aspects from life, from the top to the bottom, from the humble to the court of the king. I understand it. The way he did it, it was transforming everything. You look at the royal family and I see that all the grotesque figures of the Caprichos are also here, in a subtle way. But he was always lurking the dark side of life, especially in the end of his life, with his black and white, black and dark horrible figures. But, of course, they were beautiful.

You also appreciate DuChamp’s concept of art, so I believe you enjoy the work of the artists from the beginning of the 20th century. What is their contribution to you as an artist?

I don’t see it has a direct influence in my work, I don’t think so, but for my way of thinking, for my philosophy, it’s also something that I wouldn’t like to miss. That’s surprising for me, I would say. I am very thankful that these people existed, because it adds points of view that I didn’t have. And I think that’s also the purpose of the journey of life that you learn about different points of view that are not yours, because then you collect more points of views and in the end of your life you will have learned so much, you learn to see the world through the eyes of others so often that suddenly you have a much bigger picture, much broader picture.

For me, these modernist artists are very important because, in the beginning, you have Malevich, who makes these black squares, here you have Duchamp, Kandinsky, you have Dadaists, and I guess they were all statement. It was all something necessarily about somebody who would cut the Gordian Knot to dictate complete simplicity. I like that, because that’s when art becomes dictatorship in a good sense. Suddenly Malevich stands up in this flat, painting narratives. He says dictates complete reduction and simplicity. I think this is fantastic. And with DuChamp, it is very playful and it is a really good statement, because it makes you think and puts it saying why, and he says because I, as an artist, declared to be, so it’s a ready-made. The tragedy is that, I mean, what I really liked about DuChamp was that he made his few statements and then he stopped doing art and started playing chess. I actually ordered pieces that he did and I think they were thrown away or something, so when you see some of them in museums, they are all copies, there’s no originals. And I think that was probably his best statement. And he could make few statements and with integrity. That is some statement I would like to make. You don’t repeat it, you don’t make series just to make money. That I really must say it’s respectful of them. When you look at the artists you have since then, you see thousands of artists copying that. Again and again. It doesn’t get better. It’s ridiculous. You go to the museums and you have a break on the floor and that’s abusing the originality of that statement. I mean, these guys are great heroes for me. Copying that doesn’t make sense.

What’s the importance of the Viennese Actionism for you and your work?

Again, that was another experience of recognition, of surprising recognition, because when I did my own performances and wounded myself I didn’t even know, in the beginning, it was art. I saw it was a ritualism or as an experiment. And I did those photographs with children with bandages and it was much later, early 1970s. When I learned about that, I was shocked, because, oh my god, this is exactly what I was did and it was so strange. It was really irritating, because I didn’t understand how could somebody, this was really unique, who would do something like that? But what I understand is that in certain times, in certain places, everything is ready for certain statements in art. So there is times when the society really puts the artist directly in certain ways. So I think it’s often when artists are living in the same area, in the same society, even when they don’t know each other, coming to similar aesthetic solutions. It was in that case. In that respect I must say when I look at Wien Aktionismus I kind of really understand because I know that Vienna, where I lived in, which was a horrible society, a really dark time, for many reasons, and I so much understand why they did that at that point of time. I think that’s almost the only possibility to react to what was going on with society. As an artist you felt the only way to react was anarchy and that you have to scream. Anything else would be senseless. Because these people were so desensitized, they were so stupid. Subtle things were completely waste. So that time demanded something, indefectible aesthetics that would hurt. That’s what Viennese Actionism is for me. And when I look at it, I see Günter Brus. I respect him a lot, who also ended his performances long ago and became a propaganda and crafts man, and a writer. He’s very poetic, I respect his guy very much.

About this desire to break and shock society, I was thinking about the paintings you did about Hitler during that time. Did it have the same meaning, to shock and to show?

Not, it was not to shock. Shock was never my idea, it was more… it was very early. The first Hitler painting I did, I think I was 18 or 17… 17 probably. And I felt helpless. I wasn’t an artist I was just in a school of Graphic Design and all my life I felt I didn’t want to be here, the world I lived in, I didn’t like the people, I never liked the system, the things I had to learn, I never understood why I should learn them, why the teachers are so mean. I always felt the people were not sensitive. I always felt like I was so much sensitive for my environment, I always felt like an elf that fell in a world of pigs, of wild animals. Everything was so brutal. And the school, everything was very authoritarian and oppressive and so learning about the Nazi time, not much because nobody talked about it, but knowing more and more, because I always researched it, and somehow that was my statement. I saw that Vienna, the time when I lived here, I saw that it was like a jail. That was the image that would came up, that would came to the point, that’s why I did it. I had no idea why it would, if it would bring someone upset, I didn’t think about the consequences. I just thought I am the one who have made this statement, because that is what I feel. I feel the presence of that. So I painted the first time when I was supposed to paint a nude, which I found boring after awhile, then I painted that and then I saw the professors freaked out. Everybody got nervous, everybody was running around like chicken and I thought: “Oh shit, what is this? What is going on? Wow”. And it was actually interesting, because I didn’t expect, I just expected they would take that away and don’t do much. But no, everything stopped, they were running around, confiscating and running away, coming back, totally nervous, kind of as you put your finger into something you cannot, because that hurts.

They behold the war, part of it, so the new Republic pretended we had nothing to do with it, that’s impossible, we are democrats, we are nice people, but if somebody paints such thing, the whole past explodes in their face and they get really nervous and upset. And then I realized how powerful an image can be, I thought: “My god, an image has so much power”. And that was actually also something that drove me towards to being an artist: that you have a magic, a power, what images can do, how you can manipulate, change and instigate reality. I like that.

Remembering the Heinrich Gross case, you mentioned in some interview that media didn’t cover it very well until a newspaper published an interview with him and then you painted the watercolor Life not worth living.

I read the interview in telenewspaper and I was shocked, it said “I killed 800 children” and I was like, holy shit, I mean, what the hell is this? And then you see, now I expect people to be shocked and react. And at the same time, on television, not related to that, was this television presenter who showed up and did not have a tie, just have a white shirt and that caused a big react. I think almost 3.000 letters were sent. People freaked out. The guy should be guessed, he should be killed, because this is the end of the world. The guy without a tie. And that’s what I mean, people were upset because of somebody not having a tie. For me, it has to do with this media, because here if somebody comes with a shirt and no tie, then people freak out, got completely hysterical, and here is someone who said “oh I killed 800 children” and nothing, no reaction. Then I thought, what the hell is that? I mean, are they all insane? So that’s when I decided I want to paint that. Very simple, not overdone, not sensational, very subtle and published this little letter to him. Then there was a big reaction. The reaction was on the painting, for some reason. Suddenly people got really upset, there was lots of discussion. The painting really trigged huge discussions about that. Seeing my painting suddenly made them realize what this guy really did.

Maybe the reason has something to do with what you said before, that the image has this magic to make people emotional, to touch people. Images could have this power rather than a plain text.

Yes, I think they do. Actually the chief editor has once wrote an opening letter for a magazine and he said it’s really strange and frustrating for a journalist, because they have uncovered so many scandals in this country and corruption and huge things but never had the reaction, even to kills, to what they got when Helnwein did the painting, then people really freaked out. It makes you think that an image of this can reach deeper than he can do with his works.

But do you think media still influences your work?

Wow, that’s a complex one. The problem with media that I have is today you have mainly the mainstream media, which is a burden I hold, because it’s propaganda really, it does not have much to do with reality. Today we have probably really one news agency, I mean officially maybe three or four, but in reality it’s just one source that produces the whole media for the whole net and it all comes from America. They invented it, they knew if they wanted to conquer the world in the 20th, 21st century, even with the biggest army of all times, with the biggest secret services, which they have, you need something that’s much more powerful, that is you need to control the media, especially today. Because ideas, images travelling so fast, but the media, whoever controls that, controls the planet. In that sense, the American establishment was really amazing, they are so smart they created the biggest propaganda machine of all times, so I must say the propaganda of Goebbel’s of the Nazi times was stone age compared to that, this was really state of the art. They know how to manipulate people and it’s really convincing when you see films from all over the world, you can be anywhere, and they’re fast. What they don’t tell, the really important incidents, they don’t mention. And then you have lots of distracting little crap that nobody needs to know just to give you sensations, distractions…

I think that less and less independent journalism exists, it’s all a big propaganda machine and most people just believe. And the chance is that we have the internet, there is a chance. I don’t know how long it will last, because there is now an independent field of people that blog, that write, also former journalists. It’s like, you can if you know how to do it, you know how to research, you can get lots of amazing information that you probably wouldn’t know. I don’t know how long the internet would be as free as it is now, they are working on it, to limit, but right now you can get lots and lots of information and that for me, for my research, because I research a lot, it makes everything more clear how manipulated and stupid the mainstream media are. How they manipulate people are, how they distract them. So I think I have problem with these governments, with these banks, international banks and huge corporations and this media. I think they are the biggest threat to the planet and they work well together. And in secret.

I asked this because media influenced you on painting the watercolor Life not worth living, but in Media Studies, we consider comics a kind of media too. And you brought comics to art, like Pop Art brought media to art, to the museums.

I was always interested in media because of the power to create a reality, you know? Because if you repeat something often enough people think it’s reality, they think this is how it was. And you ask: “How do you know?” and they say: “Oh, I saw it on the media”. Ah… That’s what happens. You haven’t been in the 9/11th, you haven’t been in something happening in China or somewhere. You read it. That power of media, that fascinated me always. And it’s true. I mean media basically is something neutral, it could be a very effective tool of communication to our world. Never before could communication travel so fast and so far, never, ever, so that’s actually good, but my attention is very much on that huge amount of abuse. But as I said there is also an alternative media culture that actually does the opposite, that gives the information, people spread it, pop it, pass it on. So I like media, because media means communication.

You said in an interview that Austria has a tradition of darkness. That appears very clearly when you remember your childhood and mention some criminal cases. But beyond the memories of the war and such incidents, do you see something else in the Austrian culture and mood that characterizes this darkness?

Yes, I mean the Austrian culture is my culture, that’s where I come from, that’s where I’m rooted in and I can’t change this, but I must say since I left Austria and I lived abroad, and it has been a long time of not being here, I started to appreciate the quality of the Austrian culture tradition. I suddenly saw that it’s something, it’s really a very important part of my spiritual home and I like this culture when you go back to Baroque times and you see that Austria always had a important part of the culture and it was death and darkness. And that’s why you have in Austrian culture: Kafka, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Schubert and great writers. There is a lot of artists that are interested in the other side, in the dark side. But at the same time the Austrian art has a very sweet, bright side that very often goes into hitch, they go to Vienna Awards. You have the sweetest of the sweets and the darkest of the darks, which is actually very baroque.

I think Baroque times were one of the most important in Vienna, because you have two components historically. One was the plague, because the plague hit Europe twice and in Austria it almost killed most of the people. The second time, it was in early Baroque, people kept dying and dying, you had big holes to throw all the bodies and nobody knew what to do. So death was really close and then, when it was over, suddenly it was the time of high baroque and the means were the church. Everything was done according to what the church recited, the subjects were products of church. That was the biggest problem for me, and the idea was the counter information. Like, let’s have the most amazing churches, the most fantastic music, sculptures, gold, angels, because protestants don’t have pictures, they don’t like pictures, sculptures, let’s blow them away. Everything you have in aesthetics and art, you know? Which was a very good idea, because suddenly all the artists, all the studios got that work.

In these Baroque churches, everything was theater. Baroque time was basically living on stage. Everything was theatric. In these churches you see Eros and you see the most beautiful angels and women. A girl in ecstasy and you see a skeleton dancing, and you see skulls and death. And also on a catholic church there is much blood and pain and torture. But in Baroque time, it was all something transformed into theatre. It was not something really scary, not really bad and mean, like Spain was, in Inquisition. That was when church started to become absolutely mean, totally destructive, really scary. In Baroque time, it was only theater, it was stage. But it was a time of very artistic ways of death, humor, ecstasy, beauty, Eros, they were all on the same stage. And I think that has a big influence in Austria, because Vienna, as I know, it is very theatric, everything is typically intensively performed. Even when we talk, it’s always performance. The Viennese are so poetic with words (laughs), a lot of language expressions… So that’s what Austria is for me.

In this relationship between light and darkness, do you have a special meaning for this as a person and as an artist?

I think that’s what I see in life. My main passions, besides aesthetics, is history, so what I see is really this battle between beauty and salvation and aesthetics, like you have on this planet we had the most amazing geniuses in our fields, we had Mozart or something, and you think, how is it possible, it’s so divine, this guy is a god, and then you have the worst of the worst on the same planet. They all have bodies, they look similar, but that’s not something you can… that’s irritating you… You cannot have somebody that is looking your knife. His name is Doctor Mengele, he joins SS, he wants to work in a concentration camp and make experiments with these innocent children and torture them. He is a good looking guy, very nice, very polite, good manners, and there is somebody who is probably working in Am See, not as good looking. His name is Schubert and he is like an angel inside.

So I see always these discrepancies between these two elements, almost like Manicheism. It was an old religion based on an old prophet, Mani, and the principle was dark and light, the opposite of good and bad. That is what I always see, this extreme contrast between something that is positive, good and divine, and you have something that is completely destructive and evil. In the societies composed by these guys, people look the same, they are all friendly, but when you research a thing deeper, and I did it, then you see. Because I wanted to know how bad does it get, what people do, and this is hard when you find what people are doing on this planet and did. It’s like, it takes your breath away. You have to stop, because you tremble. But it’s important to know, it’s there. On the other side, you have geniuses that, my god, musicians, some painters or writers, they can only be not human beings. In that sense, that’s how I see art too. Personally, I can relate much more to minimalistic art and objects, but I like the narrative, the spirit, maybe not the aesthetic, but the spirit of Baroque.

I asked that because when you use the theme of Nazism in your paintings I was wondering if you did so just to mention the historic event or something more symbolic.

I think it’s more symbolic, but it also of course touches that subject. It was not mainly talking about that specific history, I just used because it was so close to my past. It has certainly some aesthetic topics and aspects that are more symbolic, it’s broad, it’s not only the Nazi comes directly, I just used it. As a painter, I can use anything and I like to use people, as you see. My work is mainly people and faces and I have used people from history, images and people that I used to know. But it is a more symbolic meaning, I think.

Because you use punctual symbols of Nazism, for example, uniforms, SS officers, but in my study I have this theory that maybe you are talking about Nazism not only as an historic event, but I think of you are trying to communicate about this shady face of humanity, like the shadow archetype by Jung.

You’re right, absolutely, that’s what I mean it. It’s meant in an universal sense. It’s not meant an specific year in history, I just use that to show… but it’s meant in a universal sense absolutely. The dark places of mankind which call much further back to the Nazi times, of course. And resides today. The people don’t have the uniforms anymore, but this type of darkness is still there.

Do you think that for this reason, maybe even almost 70 years after the war has ended, your pictures keep touching people such as Brazilians, who didn’t really live personally these events?

When I look at Shakespeare, for example, he writes about Macbeth. Macbeth was supposed to be a little Scottish king, not very important in history and the whole piece is about Macbeth and another piece is about Richard the Third. So it was long time ago, in history, but when you look at Macbeth, it’s so universal, so fresh, so much contemporary, because it’s a story about greed of power, so much that makes completely insane. On that trip, you have to start killing. It’s so relevant until today.

You have layers, one is this specific historic that you use, but it’s also universal as a great art, for anytime, for anybody. I see this in my paintings, I show them in many countries and it’s so interesting to see how people react to them. And there is a little difference, of course. If these paintings are seen by old Jewish Holocaust survivors, then it has a little different significance, they trigger different remembrances, than if you show them to some Chinese person, but I find the essence of what I want to show, they all understand for some reason. That’s to any kind of art. Because when Goya describes the disasters of war, he talks about the war of French people against the Spanish people, but of course it means all wars. In that extent, the painting Guernica, it doesn’t mean this little town, it means every town where people get mass murdered. It means the insanity of war. I think, it has of course the universal meaning of the works anyway.

And as you picture violence, some of your images may have a message of a Memento Mori. I would like to know what’s your relationship with death, with the idea of death.

Memento Mori. I think it’s important to know, especially when you get older, you realize that, so there’s much little less time. Knowing that you have to die, everybody has to die, it’s very interesting, it could scare people, it can excite somebody to believe that misery has ended. Death is always a part of life, you cannot think of it, but it’s still part of life. I think for an artist, especially, it’s an important principle, that’s why I see many paintings of skulls or symbols of death. As an artist, that’s what the deal is, I think, your deal with life and death and when what you have is limited, it makes you reconsider things. You know you have a certain time, you have to achieve something, you have to do something. You don’t want to leave, not until you have left something that have changed your planet a little bit or contributed in some way. I think that people have not give enough completely, that’s really important. So I think it’s good to be reminded we don’t have much time, so move your ass, do something. You have lots of time!

Do you think that showing violent scenes would make people think about that in a way to prevent such harmful attitudes in the future?

I don’t know. Again, I was thinking of Goya, why would he describe the disasters of war so deeply? And I always think he felt it’s necessary to force people to remember that, because you see that and you think this is so horrible that you can hardly do this to people. And you wish you know as soon as people will really see that, not run away from it, there is a chance that history will not repeat. But if you don’t look at it, if you run away, if you forget it, if you have amnesia, which is comfortable, all the pain is gone, but the problem is, history is then repeated, because people make the same mistakes and the same disasters. So the idea is to force people to look and not to forget. You don’t have to repeat the same things, that’s always what I and other artists say about the Holocaust, because the Holocaust was the most severe, the most destructive, the most insane attack on humanity. And already it would be forgotten, if there wouldn’t be people that are constantly talking about it. Like it was forgotten already. I think it was in the 70’s, it was already gone, and then in America somebody thought about a television series called Holocaust. Suddenly, because of this television series, people, also young people, started to talk about that, everybody wrote about that. It also happened in Europe, Germany and Austria. And now people talk about it again. And another artist did Schindler’s List. There are lots of attempts by different artists to force people to remember exactly what happened, what really happened here. I think it’s important.

The Holocaust is an example, but it means more than that. If you look out for one, the Holocaust is a very good example. Because what is unique about the Holocaust? Because in such a short time, in such an amazing efficiency, so many people were killed, but in cold blood, not with anger, just with discipline, hard work and obedience. And that makes it cold and emotionless, makes it even more satanic and evil and shocking than other genocides, I think. And it happened in modern times. If you think of Genghis Khan, yes, it was bad, but it is so different, it is not us, really different people, other culture, and civilized, different time. But in Germany, they were educated people who went to the opera, spoke different languages, spoke Latin, I don’t know, people who had great manners, great engineers, so that was a great civilized society. And then they sit down and say, wow, so, how can we get rid of the Jews? How many do we have in the Wannsee Conference? Eleven million in Europe. Ok. So how can we get rid of the eleven million bodies in a short time? What do you have in the industry? You have to build gas chambers. Something like that. People sit down and solve a problem. That shocks. That, I think, is the big threat of contemporary. And I think people should need to talk about it, need to force anybody else to remember that. Because if you know that, if you have it in your mind, then if you see it coming, then you’ll not say the same discourse. So in the next dictatorship, the uniform will look different. You will have suits and ties, but the recipe will be the same. If you know history well, you know immediately, you know, you scream, you’re no kind of fool. But if you don’t know anything, you’ll believe in everything. So even if Hitler wouldn’t come, they would do the same thing. So education is really important.

As an artist, I think there is a side in art that I want to educate and inspire people. And then I hope through aesthetic and education you can inspire people. I think it does, but not directly. Most people doubt art could do it directly, but I think art is the most powerful thing that exists, because it’s just not direct, it’s not sure, you can take time, you can be very subtle. It’s not directly visible, but art can transform, change everything. And absence of art is a disaster. Because in variable dictatorships, with Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, you have an absence of art, art is suppressed, because they know, art is a problem for them, so they need to burn books, poems, music, few artists can change it. Because the aesthetics travel so much faster than stupid speeches of dictators, like a tune or something aesthetic, travels faster than anything else, like faster than the light speed.

He was a kid called Elvis, who started to sing in America, and in a very short time the whole planet knew the songs and everybody knew his face, everybody related to that. And America tried to oppress, they were scared about it, in the beginning, it wasn’t for people to show on television. Then when they couldn’t stop him any longer, they forbidden to show him under the pelvis, only over, because if they saw the way that he moves, people would make wild love to each other. That they didn’t want. So you see how scared powerful people get of artists? That’s why often they put them in gulags, concentration camps, they forbidden art with censor, so I think art can change something.

I was thinking, media is always trying to remember us about scandals and big cases of violence and murdering, but do you thing that media has the same impact of art when talking about the same subject?

No, it’s the opposite. It looks like it’s similar and it’s the opposite. It’s not true. Because when you watch the amount of news that we get, and the horror, mainly it’s catastrophes that you hear about. Catastrophes, terror, threat. The only thing it does, when you look around, it depresses people, makes them less happy, less optimistic, less self-confident, people fear about the future, it scares them. And that’s the purpose. And I think that’s an important thing. What is the purpose? The media purpose is to scare people. It’s what the powerful people want. Because if you scare people, if you tell the terrorists are everywhere, then what will people do? They’ll willing to hand over their freedom or security. That’s the deal. The government says we protect you, you just have to give up your rights, your freedom and then we protect you. And that’s an injured thing. Media is the opposite thing. Art can talk about the exact same thing, about horror, about pain, but when you look at the painting of Hieronymus Bosch, for example, the torture, the insanity, terrors, monsters, killing… Cities are burning… But look at the people in the museums looking at it, do they leave the painting depressed? Do they want to commit suicide after that? No. People look at it and feel “wow!”. They feel brighter for some reason and it’s strange, because it’s something bad, but it’s so beautiful, my god, how could he paint it? So it’s basically the magic of an artist, you can take something so horrible that nobody can even look at it and so with aesthetics and turn into something that salvages you, relieves you. It shows you that the soul or the aesthetics, which is coming from the soul really, is much more powerful than anything, anything in other planet, even death you can transform into something beautiful. That is why art has the opposite, the exact opposite effect of the media. If they talk about the same subject, it’s on different universes. The same with Shakespeare, in other period, when he talks about Richard the Third. It’s about insane dictatorship, but it’s beautiful. You look at the language, the language is so beautiful. I mean, something that lasts forever. So it’s exactly the opposite of what media would be.

You mention in some interviews that when you were a child, you found a picture of your relatives wearing Nazi uniforms and that they didn’t want to talk about those memories as much as the other people around you. How were they coping with that recent past, while they were living with a new generation that didn’t experience the war and was much more interested in the American pop culture? Were the adults interested in that too?

No, for the grownups, American pop culture was horrible. Comics were considered something really bad and usually were forbidden. And when I said Nazi uniforms, they were not SS uniforms, they were like soldiers. Everybody was a soldier. But still, the uniform was from Hitler’s army and that was also something that startled me. “Why did you go?” was my question. I did asked them but I didn’t get an answer. Why would you go? Because I would never put a uniform and kill for somebody. Never, ever. But for them, they were broken already much before. They were disciplined to obey, obey, obey. The whole purpose of life is to obey. That I have seen millions of times and that’s why I have made it my core belief: “Disobey, disobey, disobey”. That’s the most important thing. My children, they grantee you, I always tell: “Disobey, disagree”. I think the most important thing you can tell a young person or a kid is to find out who you are and never let anybody else manipulate that or make it small or fight for that. It’s the most precious thing you have. There’s no authority above you. There might be great people that you can learn from, but it has to be your decision if you want to do that. So no system should be allowed to manipulate or tell you what you should do.

To come back to the question, when I asked my parents, this parents generation, they couldn’t talk about it. Not that they didn’t want to, but they didn’t trust me, I would never understand what they did. They just realized later that this was bad. But you also got a chance, if you forget it now completely and become totally democratic and part of the new system. So they said, yes, there is nothing good about the past and nobody had a past. But our generation, some of them decided to ask questions, which was something very uncomfortable for the parents. They didn’t have an answer, just “you don’t understand, you’re just a child”, you know? Somebody who hasn’t ever experienced the war couldn’t know anything. And it was a big break between two generations standing between us. That’s why there were so many revolts, rebellions and revolutions of students and young people. But I personally saw that, the oldest student revolutions. I really felt like a revolutionary, I wanted to understand and know where the political stream was going all the time. But I had violent daydreams, you know? And when I saw, later at the university, all the students with a neo-Marxist discourse, discussing Lenin… This is the same thing again, just a different variation. I don’t want to live that dictatorship, just a new one. This is disgusting, I knew it, not a solution. People are following for the next dictatorship. That’s not freedom. Like, now you march for a different Führer. And I said no, that’s not freedom, freedom for me is something different. For me, I must say, I’m obsessed with the idea of freedom. Freedom and independence is the most important thing for me. Freedom and aesthetics, but aesthetics is freedom.

There is some kind of criticism against the American culture in your series The American Paintings. Why the American pop culture was some kind of savior when you were a child and what did it become to you as you grew up?

Yes, it was, because it was like light into a dark universe. A color into a colorless universe. Because, for me, it was all black and white and there was really no colors. Everything was slow, very slow, that was how I felt. And it was very dark and no colors. And gray. When I opened my first Donald comic book, it was like opening a door to a new universe. A universe of colors. The first time I experienced colors, space, endless space and speed and endless possibilities. So it was entering in paradise. For me it was really important. And also the movies. When I saw black and white movies, Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, some early American movies, but I didn’t see that much… And then there was Elvis. I saw him as a picture in a chewing gun, like a old picture. I didn’t know who he was, didn’t know his name, never heard the music, and when I saw the picture, I thought “my god he’s the most beautiful being I saw in my life”. I said how can a human being be so beautiful? So I kept this picture like the picture of a saint and two years later I heard the music for the first time and I was blown away again and my god! It’s like this music is going into your guts, you know? It’s different. America was like the taste of freedom. You thought “I want to go there”. And when I did the America series it was actually kind of remembering the times of the first black and white movies that I saw, when there were no movies and all that stuff. There are maybe some subtle criticism of America, but it’s more like also sentimental of a certain time period and aesthetics and it’s just remembering a certain time that is very important and that gave me hope.

Because there is a relationship between Disney, American pop culture, propaganda and capitalism in general. Do you see this?

At that time I didn’t see this at all, because I only saw the aesthetics into art. I didn’t know anything about money, I didn’t know any corporations, they didn’t exist for me. Duckburg and Donald Duck are not from that world, they’re from Paradise. You know Uncle Scrooge? He has lots of money. It’s not real money, it’s like money from heaven. I didn’t think of that, but I must say capitalism is a term that can be used for many things. But capitalism then was totally different than now. It changed. I think Disney made lots of money, but he used it to produce art. He was one of the greatest geniuses that have ever lived. But today it took an ugly turn, so now it is going down. Because capitalism now becomes totally destructive. Like, conquering other countries, bombing them, stealing their resources, having torture camps. Now capitalism, like the neo-cons, they really created something new. I think the capitalism in time of Walt Disney was a little different than now.

But these references to American pop culture that you have in your work have more to do with your feelings as a child or now as a grownup?

How to tell, it depends in which paintings they are. I think when the new paintings refer to the gore, different types of comics like manga or anime, which is not my aesthetics, for me is a new different thing, it’s like a different generation, my aesthetics was Disney and that stuff. But I see how this type of aesthetics penetrate in the planet, it’s like a new reality, and also like computer games and fashion, it’s very influenced by that, advertising. And that all mixes this propaganda and distraction, and the same time you have war, war as an entertainment in the movies, war in computer games, you kill people in computer games. Or the same people, when they get older, then they work for the army or for the CIA and they sit in front of screens and they play the same thing with joystick, exactly the same thing, but just now it’s real and he goes and kills a family, in Pakistan or something. But it’s the same game: killing people. So this is something that is interesting that I propose, not direct, but indirectly.

Why did you choose using anime action figures? What’s the Japanese pop culture for you?

Anime was always very foreign and strange to me, it’s not my aesthetics, but I realized one day that this strange Japanese creation had permeated our culture especially of a younger generation, to a remarkable degree.

From beginning on I have often used comic characters in my paintings as some kind of opponents or counterparts to the otherwise very realistic players in my narrative. It was usually Donald Duck, but in the last years, I decided to use Anime Characters. It made more sense in context with the themes of my recent works.

Does Neon Genesis Evangelion have some meaning for you and for the pictures where one of its characters appear?

No, I chose this character intuitively and the more I worked with this silent blue-haired girl the more I liked her.

As in many cases, the Occidental ideals and morals are different from the Oriental ones. When you put an anime doll beside an occidental child, what do you want to imply?

In the works that you refer to, I just think of child versus doll (artificial child), there is no racial or ethnic issue implied.

I recognized in the exhibition in Albertina Museum that people often went close to your paintings in order to see the brush marks or maybe understand how could you paint something so realistic as a photography. And in the monograph Memorializing Holocaust, by Katy O’Donoghue, she mentions that in the Epiphany series you used techniques of digital painting, printed the manipulated photographs and then painted over. How often do you use this method and since when? Do you paint everything over with oil and acrylic or just emphasizes some parts of the image?

I usually project and outline and then paint. But I have always experimented with different techniques how to transfer my final composition onto the canvas. Sometimes I print a pale image onto the canvas and then paint it completely over and often change it with many layers of brushstrokes. I still experiment with different methods.

But I agree fully with Picasso, when he said:

“I wish to reach the point where the viewer cannot see how I painted my picture. What does it matter? My only wish is that nothing but emotion rises from my picture”.

Pablo Picasso

Originally published at on May 29, 2015.

Written by

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.

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