periodico visionario da palermo
L'INFANZIA A PEZZI - SHATTERED CHILDHOOD, GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN
The Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein is well aware of the discomfort the
public feels when confronted with images of children not represented as innocents
but to whom a powerful sexual identity (and an awareness) is designated. In
his work, and especially his paper drawings, he has created some of the most
powerful and disturbing representations of abused childhood in history of art.
We are not talking about the form of abuse commonly described in the penal code.
By altering or removing the inbred pulsation that spurs us to stubbornly refuse
or deny what we do not recognise, the manipulations and interferences (The Intrusion)
adults perform on the social body of childhood are denounced.
"In the dancing school of that theatre Andreas and I started as children.What pushes parents to send their children to such a school? The idea that children are like a sort of straw through which parents can suck life out of. Don’t you dare to ask me for a better answer since only just thinking of these parents makes my blood boil […]"
Peter Høeg, Tales of the night
The Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein is well aware of the discomfort the public feels when confronted with images of children not represented as innocents but to whom a powerful sexual identity (and an awareness) is designated. In his work, and especially his paper drawings, he has created some of the most powerful and disturbing representations of abused childhood in history of art. We are not talking about the form of abuse commonly described in the penal code. By altering or removing the inbred pulsation that spurs us to stubbornly refuse or deny what we do not recognise, the manipulations and interferences (The Intrusion) adults perform on the social body of childhood are denounced.
Helnwein does not only limit himself to addressing the issue but tackles it forthwith without looking away or withdrawing. He tries to capture the essence, the strength deriving from it and offers it to the spectator whose certainties start to vacillate. In The doubting Thomas, a male character kneels in front of a young girl and rests his head on her lap in sign of abandonment, of absolute prostration.
Also in Untitled (1993) both the recognition of the “fluidity” of childhood elusiveness and the desire to compress it in a fixed and reassuring environment is staged. In many of his paintings and photographs young girls are portrayed with their heads or hands (the sense of tacitility) almost entirely covered in bandages, a way of avoiding, through sensorial excision, all contact with the world or the possibility of getting in touch with it. In other words, the artist attempts to chase away once again the contagious and uncontrollable carnality that childhood senses are able to project onto it (see Beautiful victim II and Child of light, of which Helnwein has created many variations).
However, Helnwein’s ideas on the subject of childhood are more complex than this. The many images of children suffering (as seen in his recent series Angels burning), a disturbing form of suffering looked at in awe as the consequence of something we ignore the cause of (what else but not the sombre irrationality?), also have the function of reawakening our already anaesthetised senses before the sufferings of the world.
"Sonntagskind" (Sunday's Child), 1972, 102 cm x 73 cm, watercolor, colored pencil and pencil on cardboard
Gottfried Helnwein, Trevor Brown, Mark Ryden
Trevor Brown, the English artist living in Tokyo since of the early 1990s, is particularly fond of strong images: from bondage scenes to scenes of extreme violence always at the expense of young girls, adolescents or of their feticistic translation, i.e. dolls.
Owing his work to Romaine Slocombe, the father of medical art who in 1983 published
his manifesto/book L'Art Médical, he decided to dedicate his latest volume
Medical fun, to this artistic trend. In Slocombe’s works, beautiful Japanese
young girls are portrayed sitting on wheel chairs, or hospital beds wearing
full body casts, plasters and bandages. This imagery is powerfully carnal and
close to Ballardian aesthetics even though the dynamics of car accidents, the
contorting metal plates that shred the flesh, the eruption of sexual energy
freed by fragments of shattering windscreens is somewhat “fixed”,
“frozen”, “cleared” of all violence, and returned to
us in the purity of the plaster casts which recall a traumatic event already
Through the abundance of scars and bruises, signs of a doctor and nurses’ medically based violence and not of a post traumatic healing phase, Trevor Browne is closer to Ballard than the French photographer and painter is (but the writer is ousted by the temporal extension of the accident, by the violent yet erotic ritual that takes place amongst the walls of a hospital). Trevor Browne replaces the grace of immaculate bandages and plaster casts with dripping blood, bloodstains and improbable leather and iron orthopaedic busts saturated with undoubted fetish connotations. Once again the scope is not therapeutic or aesthetic but rather caging - some busts are fastened by chains. It is as if pleasure, or the mere possibility of experimenting it, exclusively belongs to the “torturer” or to the spectator and is repressed, compressed, or caged within the “victims” whose orgasmic discharge is postponed ad infinitum (whilst many of Slocome’s subjects are photographed with an ecstatic post-coital expression on their faces).
Brown’s originality also lies in his capacity to absorb the spirit of medical art and successfully blend it with his interest in dolls. In the past Slocome had already suggested to implicitly follow this path. “I remember a children’s book of illustrations with broken or mended toys. I have one particular picture in mind of a red-dressed dark-haired doll with a bandaged head and a bandaged arm. […] Oriental girls perfectly befit my medical imagery: they bare the closest resemblance to dolls; their black hair is intensely graphical and their slanted eyes are closest to real expressions of orgasmic pleasure”. Brown enriches what initially seems to be a purely aesthetic fascination with critical intent.. His dolls directly lead back to childhood, they are its transfiguration, its fetish. They are “disassembled”, violated and tortured, but what he tries to “draw upon” is precisely the fetish, the empty shell, unmindful of Freudian teachings, which society has developed for itself: the unnatural image of a non erotic, disinfected child unable to feel or provoke passion. It is certainly a dangerous journey that Trevor Brown has courageously decided to embark upon, hampered by misunderstandings: the public often reacts ferociously, the critics flee.
The not always intentional message on stake is often distorted, morally mistaken
for a dangerous and grim staging of personal perversions, similar to instigation,
as some who would like to censure it sustain. On the contrary it “condemns”
the manipulation and childhood sacrilization carried out by contemporary Western
society which manages to extrapolate the essence of childhood and portray only
its purity, merely a social construct.
Trevor Brown, who not by chance shares the same purpose of intent as Helnwein, claims that the representative nature of his work expresses the continuous tension that lies between “ dangerous and cute” from which the upsetting power of his paintings derives. This also applies to Mark Ryden who, in Little boy blue, decides to portray, as the author clams, “the fascination of the contrast between innocence and evil”. In the painting a beautiful Arian boy with penetrating glassy eyes and pale, white skin, just like a porcelain doll’s, rides his tricycle (a typical vintage iconography loved by Ryden) wearing a pink and light blue suit to which a swastika has been sewed in full evidence. A (toy?) gun is carefully placed in a light blue holster on the belt that fastens to his trousers, an element that surely could not go missing. An immaculate shirt and tie peak trough the V neck jumper. The soft colours, rather than the more obvious belligerent reds and blacks, are those that belong to “differentiation”, to the path that leads towards sexual standardisation: a behaviour that, from tender age, belongs to the depurative critique which attempts to tighten and obstruct the possible fluidity and poliformism, typical of childhood, in order to mould a sclerosed adult who will never cross the boundaries of socially established roles. Ryden had already got us used to his pictorial universe “prevelantly dominated by children with gigantic eyes, like enormous dilating lights that open up to the pulsating realm of life, and with which they share a serene and unaware empathy.” In his paintings it is easy to identify in children the true masters of adults; their perfect syntony with the universe renders them superior, able to measure up to the divine creation” (Gloria Bazzocchi).
Ryden himself reminds us of what Picasso once said regarding his childhood in an interview: “all children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist when you grow up”. This could be understood as meaning that the problem is how to face adulthood, the adults, and the regime they impose. Little boy blue represents an the example of what may result from the encounter with powerful and deadly adult symbology (the swastika and the nazi decorations).
According to Ryden, childhood can be positively associated with the power to
be amazed, with the endless discoveries deriving from hovering and resting eyes,
becoming more and more opaque with age. Art, therefore, would only be necessary
to help make a clean sweep, to meet again and identify. Our child lies forgotten
under a heap of coloured cloth and trinkets, symbolising our habits and duties.
At times he laughs, cries, or screams. He does not want to be alone. But we
move too fast and do not pay attention, we are not aware. The implicit invitation
of an artist like Ryden, is to have the courage to hold one’s own naked
child. Hold him close to our chest. Body to body. Feel his warmth. Look at the
world through his eyes. Accept whatever image he may present us with without
looking away through an inextricable exchange of glances.
Yet, our society prefers “child-worship”, the branch of childhood sacredness I mentioned above, which incorporates both the need to represent infinitely cheerful and appealing illusionary worlds relieved of their sense of responsibility and to persuade the spectator to delve into them, but not without a secondary aim (just think of the glittering childishness of the aesthetics of certain advertising campaigns).
By the term social infantilism we mean the progressive feeble-mindedness presented by the media, politic’s partner in crime, through the administration of an endlessly chewed up and depressingly dull bolus.
But childhood can also be seen (and its imagery used) as a territory for resistance from which one can declare one’s own opposition to an always more insipid and barbarous “adult world”. A few social scientists have used this opposing vision to describe the aesthetics of the Kawaii. “The Kawaii is a style, an aesthetics, a youth trend. But also a way of thinking, of being, of talking, of acting […] the term has a very particular meaning which is hard to translate into Italian. It could be translated as “cuuute!!!!”. Kawai is all that ends in a diminutive “y”, that is childish, a-sexual, sweet, defenceless, to be cuddled” (Alessandro Gomarasca). “The use of Kawaii, which in no way expresses or distinguishes gender […], originally constituted a sort of underground teen manifesto and deliberately tended towards reversing the role of adults being mature and children immature imposed by culture. The aim was to become sexually attractive even by using childish ways” (Miyadai). During the 1990s Kawaii also spread throughout the Western world. “[…] since the position of an adult was becoming more and more undesirable […] many tried to go back to the enduring existence of childhood by adopting a child’s perspective, or better, what an adult believed a child’s perspective was, in an attempt to return to and become part of that exclusive and celestial realm of immediacy […]”(Andew Calcutt)
One way of protesting against the culture of our forefathers, the sever system
of norms we are subjected to, and to crushing pressure is suicide (it is worth
remembering that it is a well accepted escape route in Japanese culture). In
Japan, 1977 is remembered as the year of youth, and particularly child, suicide
attempts. Seven hundred and eighty four youngsters, thirteen of which still
at elementary school, committed suicide as a reaction to a very tight school
system aimed to create hyper-productive workers which in future were to contribute
to the economic build up of the country. Education by Trevor Brown perfectly
represents this condition. A young girl hangs in a in classroom among endless
rows of deserted and empty desks, empty and deserted like her eyes from which
pens and a pencil, portraying a very Kawaii animal-shaped pink rubber on its
end, stand out.
"Beautiful Victim I", 1974, 53 cm x 73 cm, watercolor on cardboard
article by massimiliano geraci for cyberzone magazine in italy - issue 17, 2003 - translated from italian