- 01 Jul 21
Whether hanging with the Stones, zooming in on Warhol or making sure Dietrich wasn’t completely alone, Gottfried Helnwein has always ended up making great art. Stuart Clark tracks him down to his Waterford castle where Nazi Germany, Israel, Lou Reed, Marilyn Mansion, cancel culture, Donald Duck and Elvis are also up for discussion. Portrait: Hamish Brown
You mightn’t have heard of Gottfried Helnwein, but the Rolling Stones, Marilyn Manson, Dita Von Teese, Sean Penn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Gabriel, Muhammad Ali, Rammstein and The Scorpions definitely have.
Currently splitting his time between Los Angeles and Castle Gurteen de la Poer in County Waterford – more of which anon – the 72-year-old Austrian artist and photographer also managed to penetrate Andy Warhol’s inner circle; was much admired by William Burroughs; helped illustrate the Michael Jackson HIStory album sleeve; and was one of Marlene Dietrich’s few friends at the height of her “I want to be alone” shunning of the world. And that really is just for starters.
With his jet black hair and penchant for bandanas, Gottfried could easily pass as a member of an ‘80s Sunset Strip metal band, albeit one who can recall that and every other decade he’s lived through with total clarity. He’s no shrinking violet, but the man from Vienna has seen enough rock ‘n’ roll casualties to not want to be one himself.
Born three years after Nazi Germany surrendered, Gottfried grew up in a country devastated on every level by its recent past, but reticent to talk about or even acknowledge it. It was his own piecing together of these events that made him want to explore the evil that men and women do in much of his work.
There’s a lot of ground to cover so let’s jump straight in...
STUART: What was the first piece of art that blew you away and made you think “maybe I could do this?”
GOTTFRIED: It was Donald Duck! I was five-years-old or something and living in the Twilight Zone that was post-war Vienna. The shadow of the Third Reich was still cast on us. We had no children’s books or TV. The first thing that came was black and white movies – Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and stuff like that – which we’d watch after mass in church. Without knowing the recent historic events, as a kid I thought, something was not right, everybody seemed broken, grouchy and depressed. I never heard anybody sing or laugh. It really was a dark and ugly place. I was convinced, I’d landed in hell. But then the public relations officers of the American Army thought, “We have to educate these Nazi kids and give them some American culture.” In their mind the best America had to offer was Walt Disney, so they got Donald Duck comics by Carl Barks, the artist from Disney Studios, translated and published in Germany and Austria. When I opened one of these comic books for the first time, it was a culture shock. I was stepping onto the sacred territory of Duckburg, a dazzling, three-dimensional universe without limits. For the first time I perceived colour, and life started to make sense.
You wouldn’t have known it at the time but another of your enduring loves, rock ‘n’ roll, was hurtling down the tracks.
Yeah, a little while later we bought chewing gums coming from America that had little pictures of singers and actors in the pack. One day there was a picture no bigger than a stamp of Elvis. I didn’t know who he was, never heard of him, but I was completely awestruck, not being able to take my eyes off him, because I didn’t know that a human being could be so beautiful. He had this country outfit on, the quiff and a guitar in his hand, the background was blue with golden stars. The first time I heard him was on a music box in some country inn. I put my coin in, Elvis started singing and it was like waking up from the dead. Suddenly everything was different.
Was Austria coming to terms with its role in the rise of Nazism or pretending it had never happened?
People had collective amnesia and were unable to remember and talk about anything, but I was a very curious, inquisitive and insistent child. So I kept asking my parents, everybody, questions that went unanswered. The Holocaust and the World War were never mentioned except one sentence I remember my teacher saying: “Austria was the first victim of Adolf Hitler.” I’m not sure my parents’ generation ever accepted their part in accomplishing one of the greatest genocides in history.
They introduced you to Laurel and Hardy, which is obviously a good thing, but otherwise did you gain anything from your Catholic upbringing?
The first thing I have to say about the Roman Catholic Church is that it’s the most powerful propaganda machine in history ever. It was so well conceived that for 2,000 years it controlled the whole planet; it penetrated everything. But it wasn’t all bad because the great Renaissance would not have been possible without the part the Roman Catholic Church played in it. They might have committed some of the worst crimes, but they also helped to create the greatest culture the world has ever seen; all the amazing music, paintings, architecture and literature. The Sistine Chapel wouldn’t exist if this maniac, Pope Julius II, hadn’t forced Michelangelo to paint that stuff. What’s also fascinating about the Roman Catholic Church is how it collected and absorbed every mysticism, cult and mythology from the past and integrated it into their own eclectic system. The Nazis on the other hand were lousy propagandists and therefore only lasted a few years. Their system was just too stupid, too simplified, like Stalinism. Life is too complex for that sort of one-dimensional belief system to survive.
With so much of your work referencing the Holocaust, bringing your The Crystal Night installation to Tel Aviv must have been a very emotional experience. What did you make of Israel?
I actually liked Israel. I felt at home, because I found a lot of old European heritage there. Don’t forget that during the 19th century Jews were the intellectual and cultural elite in Vienna, at that time the capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Almost every great writer, and practically all patrons of the arts and collectors, but also many great composers and scientists were Jewish. If you care about people, though, you can’t look at Israel without also looking at Palestine. I, as an Austrian, somebody of a German speaking country, can not really comment on Israel’s politics. That’s still a no no. An example of that is Günter Grass, the great German writer and Nobel laureate who wrote a political poem, criticising the threat of Israel’s nuclear arsenal to world peace. Israeli politicians freaked out, called him a Nazi and an ant-Semite and banned him from entering the country. Everybody attacked him, especially German politicians and the press. It seems the historical guilt is so deeply burned into our collective consciousness, that there is the need to constantly prove to the whole world: “I’m not a racist, I am not a Nazi.” One way of doing that is attacking and accusing others of being “Nazis and anti-Semites.” I remember a Holocaust survivor, living in Israel, who said: “Seeing how my country is treating the Palestinians, reminds me of how we were treated in the Warsaw Ghetto by the Germans.” I am just quoting.
I remember the attempt to ‘cancel’ Günter Grass. People are trying to do it now to Dua Lipa following her comments about Palestine. What’s your take on cancel culture?
It’s hypocritical and evil. There’s nothing good about it because it’s too generalising; there’s no nuance. Political correctness is nothing else than dictatorship and censorship and the end of free speech. It’s a threat to art and creativity and our freedom.
I lived in Israel, have numerous Jewish friends, absolutely respect their right to exist, but still think what they’re doing in Palestine is abhorrent.
The official unwritten rule is, anybody who criticises Israel’s politics is an anti-Semite. Israel is one of the biggest military powers, it has nuclear warheads and missiles and one of the most brutal and effective secret services. Now, calling somebody anti-Semitic, just for criticising the politics of Israel’s right-wing government, is as absurd as calling somebody “anti-Slavic” for criticising Putin.
Did you get to visit Banksy’s Walled Up Hotel on the West Bank?
No, I didn’t.
Any idea who he or she is?
None. He’s obviously a very smart guy who’s found an amazing gimmick. He’s funny, provocative and has a very intelligent strategy.
Do you see similarities between Banksy and one of your most famous subjects, Andy Warhol?
I think Warhol started it all. He understood modern communication and the power of mass media, and he created his own myth. Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Banksy are his grandchildren following in his footsteps.
Warhol was even pickier than his beloved Studio 54 about who made it through his front door. How did you manage to gain such great access to him?
I just called and they said, “Yeah, sure, Andy would be happy to see you, come by.” It was really easy and uncomplicated. As he liked to compliment everybody, the first thing he said to me was, “I love your work, Gottfried!” Then he asked me to follow him into this big room with paintings, leaning against the wall. It was dark; he sat down and then said I could photograph him. He stopped talking and just froze in the chair, no movement. It was kind of awkward, but after a while everything transcended. It was like nothing mattered anymore; I raised my Nikon and shot.
Did you leave the room in New York thinking you’d learned something about the person behind the construct?
Not at the time, no, but when I met Lou Reed, who knew him really well, he said, “Your picture of Andy is the only one I have seen, that shows his true self.” So maybe I did learn something about Warhol.
I imagine that a shoot like that requires meticulous planning.
No, the rule for me was to not prepare anything, not to use any aesthetic gimmicks. Just go there and talk with the person and see what happens. When I look at portraits by most of the great photographers, they usually tell me more about the photographer and their vision, than the person in the picture. So when I photographed Warhol, Burroughs or Bukowski, it was about them, not me. Raw, just black and white, 35 millimetres, no tricks. Just getting a real connection to that being and pushing the button at the right moment.
When did you shoot the Rolling Stones?
In ’82 in London’s Sheperton Studios where they were rehearsing for their world tour. I actually spent almost fourteen days there, waiting, photographing them and watching the heroes of my youth rehearse from one-and-a-half-metres away. This, I thought, is how you feel, after you die and wake up in heaven.
To reverse back there a bit, Lou Reed wasn’t exactly known for dishing out compliments.
(Laughs) I don’t know why, but he was extremely nice to me. He said in an interview with Der Spiegel: “My favorite photograpers are Nan Goldin, Anton Corbijn, Cindy Sherman. And Gottfried Helnwein. I love Gottfried Helnwein.”
You’ve mentioned a lot of contenders already but who is singularly the most charismatic person you’ve met?
Who really touched and impressed me was Muhammad Ali. You can tell this is a guy who loves people. If you go up to Sean Penn with a camera and try to photograph him, he might punch you in the face. But he is probably the most intelligent man in Hollywood, he has integrity and he respects other artists. He was always very generous to me and I consider him a true friend. John Lennon hid away from the public. But Muhammad Ali would hug an old lady and start conversations with strangers in the street.
In December 2005, Marilyn Manson and Dita Von Teese got married in a private non-denominational ceremony at your castle. I don’t want to put you on the spot, but what do you make of the recent allegations about him?
Yeah, I mean, I never saw any of that. I think I know him quite well and we were hanging out a lot in L.A. He got married here in my castle and we’ve done artistic projects and videos together. I can’t say it didn’t happen or whatever. But this side I’ve never seen. He is really intelligent, sensitive and very creative. We got along really well and I always thought I understood the way he thinks and acts. He had the air of a modern Lord Byron. But maybe there’s a dark side I don’t know.
You’ll have to forgive me for being a total fan boy, but I want to know everything about your friendship with the great Marlene Dietrich.
That was really fascinating because in every way she seemed to belong to a different era. When she retired, she said “nobody should see me ever again because I want people to remember my face when I was on stage”. But then in 1984 Maximilian Schell made this movie about Marlene, albeit you couldn’t see her. He always spoke to her through a door. I was asked to do a portrait of Marlene for the movie poster, and I did, also without seeing her. Afterwards she called the producer and said, “I have been photographed to death, but this is the best portrait I have seen so far; I want to have that poster, send me one.” I signed it for her; then she called again and for her last ten years me and my wife were in relatively close contact with her. I collaborated with Marlene on the book Some Facts About Myself. That was on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I took pictures in East and West Berlin and Marlene wrote the memories of her life as an artist, far away from the city she was born in. It was the last text she wrote.
So, you never caught even a glimpse of Marlene Dietrich’s face?
No, my wife and me talked to her on the phone. She called sometimes out of the blue. She would suddenly sing, or she would cry and sometimes she’d laugh if she remembered something funny. She’d tell you stories. She talked a lot about Billy Wilder and she’d always comment on the news, whatever was going on. When we called her she’d usually pretend to be Madame Davis, her former secretary, who Marlene had had to let go because she couldn’t afford the wages anymore. She’d be like, “Madame Dietrich is currently not at home.” We’d say, “Marlene, it’s us” and she’d go, “Why didn’t you say so?”
It’s awful to think that someone with as much god given talent as Marlene Dietrich died almost penniless.
By then, my wife and I would go to her apartment and talk to her, but only through the door. I think she was short of funds at that time and asked if we knew anything she could make money from, so we arranged a few things that didn’t involve her having to leave her apartment. Then we bought some of her costumes. She’d kept all of them including the one from her last movie, Just A Gigolo, with David Bowie. Marlene called us shortly before she died. My wife was on the phone and couldn’t understand her because her voice was so low and unintelligible. You could tell she’d had a stroke or something. She was the most beautiful and exceptional being.
In 1998 you bought Castle Gurteen de la Poer, which is the polar opposite of your other home in Los Angles. What attracted you to Ireland?
When I first came to Ireland twenty-four years ago, I thought it was literally the free-est country on the planet. Not only bucolic landscapes and romantic villages, but also a place where nobody asked any questions, you were not under surveillance, and nobody bothered you. No bureaucracy, no secret service, no military, nothing! You could do whatever you wanted. People drove to the pub, drank their pints, got back into their car, and drove home without a driver’s licence. Nobody cared, and in my view, that’s how the world should be.
I’d have to disagree with you about the bureaucracy part and I’ll be (metaphorically) shot if I don’t mention the fine work done by the Irish Defence Forces but, yeah, I take your point.
Of course times are very different now, but in the first ten years, I never saw anybody in uniform and I asked myself: “Does this country even have a police force?” Maybe Dublin was different, but the Irish countryside was like the free world I have always dreamt of. I’ve never been in a country where people were so sweet, friendly, genuine and down to earth. No bullshit, no crap. You could go into any pub and you were part of the family. I really have respect for the people here. When you think how they were oppressed by the British Empire for hundreds of years, treated like shit. You had the famine where the population was reduced by half. Despite all the hardship and years of slavery, people here are proud, and unbroken and they have a great sense of humour. I consider it a privilege to live here.
This is a tough one given all that you’ve done, but which of your achievements are you proudest of?
That’s not tough at all! The thing which gave me most pleasure, was raising my children. We never had a fight; I never had a problem with them and it was always just fun and joy. I never saw myself as an authority figure or disciplinarian, I just wanted to be their accomplice, their co-conspirator, their ally. It’s the same now with my Grandchildren. I’m truly blessed.
• More of Gottfried’s amazing work can be seen at helnwein.com