Turtle Bunbury

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Helnwein's Castle, County Tipperary, Ireland - The Austrian Firestarter

Photographs by James Fennell.

Gurteen le Poer is a magnificent granite neo-Gothic castle situated on the south bank of the River Suir, about 5 miles north of Clonmel in County Tipperary. For more than 800 years, this estate belonged to the de la Poer's, an Anglo-Norman family whose staunch devotion to the Roman Catholic Church led to their eventual expulsion from the Protestant English establishment. Count Edmund de la Poer, Private Chamberlain to Pope Pius X, commenced the building of the present castle in 1866. The design was by Samuel Roberts, a scion of the illustrious family that produced Waterford City's greatest architect, John Roberts, and Field Marshall Lord Roberts of Boer War fame.

In 1998 Gurteen la Poer was purchased by an Austrian couple, Gottfried and Renata Helnwein. There was nothing particularly unusual about this. Europeans had been coming to Ireland and snapping up castles at rock bottom prices for decades. Not many people in County Tipperary had heard of him before, but Gottfried Helnwein was apparently an artist of considerable repute in his Austrian homeland. What sort of an artist? Nobody was quite sure. Some said he painted children's portraits. Others insisted he worked as an animator for Walt Disney. Some maintained that he had something to do with the Nazis but whether he was for them or against them, they couldn't be quite sure. The one thing everyone agreed upon was that Gottfried Helnwein was an enigma.

Ireland got its first real glimpse into the mind of Gottfried Helnwein in August of this year when he headlined the increasingly high profile Kilkenny Arts Festival. Across the medieval city, familiar landmarks were draped in gigantic posters bearing the Helnwein trademark. Huge portraits of freckle-faced Kilkenny children - their eyes downcast and vulnerable, yet possessed of a curious wisdom - occupied the walls from St. Canice's Cathedral to the courtyard of Kilkenny Castle. Dominating the Castle entrance, a massive print entitled "Epiphany", depicting a voluptuous mother proudly displaying her naked young boy to a gathering of sharp-dressed officers. It is only when one registers the swastikas and iron crosses on the officer's uniforms that one looks again at this toddler and beholds the unmistakable mug of Adolf Hitler Junior. This was a bold statement by Gottfried in which he was effectively drawing a comparison between the iconoclastic and suppressive nature of the Nazi system and the more disturbing tenets of Roman Catholicism.

"Epiphany" proved too much for some Kilkenny citizens. The local radio station and newspaper were bombarded with complaints. One night a bag of liquid red paint was hurled at the work. The damage wasn't particularly impressive but the national media were nonetheless delighted. Anarchy in Kilkenny!

Born in Vienna in 1948, Gottfried Helnwein knows as much about anarchy as any man. For close on 35 years the highly acclaimed concept artist has been tiptoeing up behind the Establishment and making very loud and rude noises with his paintbrush.

"I tackle issues that have to do with human existence", he explains. "I think the same tragedies happen over and over again. People keep forgetting. It's always a fight for freedom, a struggle for survival".

It's hard to know which of Gottfried's anti-establishment bees buzzes loudest.

He's certainly had his rows with the Roman Catholic Church into which he was raised and reared as a child in post-war Vienna. However, with the decline of the Vatican's influence in the western world now well assured, Gottfried has turned his sights on Calvinism which he holds responsible for spawning such destructive hate groups as the Klu Klux Klan and Combat 18.

Politicians don't fare well in Gottfried's litany of pet hates either.

"I have no illusions about governments. 90% of all politicians are corrupt. They are safe because if they get in trouble they find a solution where they pay a bit more money and they are out of trouble. The real danger is when the government gets so disconnected from the people that they need more police and secret services to keep control".

If politicians merit a genuine get-out-of-jail-free card, it is because they merely pawns of the multi-nationals.

"Consumerism is the biggest danger to spiritualism. Everybody wants more things and more satisfaction. Yet they allow themselves to be distracted by cheap sensations and infantile games. They are entertained to death 24 hours a day. I think Western capitalism is the smartest suppressive system that ever existed".

That a man whose favourite bedside reads include "1984" and "Brave New World" should postulate such a sinister present might seem predictably paranoid. But there is something disconcertingly logical about the way in which Gottfried explains himself.

This is after all the man who assisted in the downfall of one of the highest-profile members of the post-war Austrian political elite. In 1979, a Viennese magazine published a painting by Gottfried entitled "Not Worth Living". The watercolour depicted a pretty young girl apparently dead in her bowl of soup. It was accompanied by a letter from Gottfried congratulating Dr. Heinrich Grosse on his appointment as head of Austrian State Psychiatry. The painting was inspired by an interview with Dr. Grosse in which the top psychiatrist bragged that he had taken part in fatal experiments performed on captive children during the war. Since the end of the war, Austrian society had been determined to portray themselves as guiltless victims of a German-inspired Nazi phenomenon. Gottfried's resolve to smash down this façade had driven him since long before he was expelled, in 1966, from Vienna's unjustly named Experimental Institute for Higher Graphic Instruction for painting a portrait of Hitler in his own blood. The controversy created by "Not Worth Living" proved so powerful that Dr. Grosse was forced to resign. In March 2001 Dr. Grosse appeared before a court in Vienna but was ruled too mentally unfit to be tried.

For Gottfried, the hype surrounding "Not Worth Living" propelled him to the forefront of the post-modern movement. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, his work graced the covers of Der Speigel, Time, L'Espresso and Rolling Stone. He counts William Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson among the numerous icons whom he has met and photographed. His exhibitions in Germany and America have drawn hundreds of thousands of admirers. Nearly anything that he touches now commands a buying price not dissimilar to that of a very nice Porsche.

Gottfried spends his summers in Ireland and his winters at a studio in downtown Los Angeles, a city he describes as "so commercial that it is already a sort of anarchy". He moved to Ireland in 1998 partly because he loved the place and partly because the German paparazzi were hounding him and his family every time they stepped outside of their previous home, a splendid Baroque castle near Cologne. He maintains that living here has been among the happiest experiences of his life. It would seem that we as a nation have so far fended off the worst excesses of consumerism and its brain-numbing influences. He also points out that the Irish landscape itself escaped the unimaginable horrors that befell mainland Europe during the war.

"Ireland is still very untouched and innocent. There is a magic here that was lost in Europe. I see people sitting in the pubs listening and playing music and it is a simple and spiritual experience".

Gottfried believes that "fresh blood" is good for Ireland because newcomers invariably appreciate the qualities of living here as much, if not more, than the Irish themselves. The Helnwein's have certainly thrown themselves into the swing of things. Gotttfried's fascination with the complexities of Irish history is well-matched by Renata's evolving prowess as an Irish dancer. In medieval times the couple would have been prime targets of the Statutes of Kilkenny implemented by the English to put a halt to the rapid and unexpected Gaelicisation of original Anglo-Norman settler families, like the de la Poers, whose memory lives on in the fading tapestries, ancient swords and full length portraits that share the inner walls of the castle with some of Gottfried's own works.

The Helnwein's seem to like nothing better than sharing the magic of Gurteen le Poer with others. "When we first arrived this castle was musty and dusty from not having been lived in. We opened up the windows and let fresh air in and swept the floor. This castle was made for a tribe! It needed to be filled with life!".

And so the castle has become a sort of creative powerhouse to which sculptors, musicians, writers and other artistic souls can come for inspiration. Guest book signatories to date include hip-hop maestro Beck who stayed before Creamfields 2001, and Dr. Antje Volimer, vice-president of the German Parliament, whom Gottfried proudly deems to be one of the 10% of politicians that are honest. In more recent times, it served as the venue for the wedding of eccentric rocker Marilyn Manson.

"The great thing is that most of the people who come here have never been to Ireland before … many of them say this is the best place they have ever seen in their life. These are people who are always travelling and entertaining and … suddenly there is this peace and quiet and they are utterly enchanted".

The distinguished guests seat themselves around the dining room table and "the room is filled with people and music and wine and we talk for hours and hours [because] … these people never have an opportunity to talk like this. There is always somebody waiting or telephone ringing but here they can escape from it all".

In the meantime, Gottfried is preparing for his next major project, a public exhibition in Beijing. Although keen to raise issues such as Tibet and Tiannemen Square, he is aware that caution will be required or the government of the People's Republic of China will ask him to leave. He is planning a series of 1000 gigantic portraits of Chinese children in a style not dissimilar to those arresting images of the freckle-faced Kilkenny youngsters. His motive is as charming and straight-forward as the man himself.

"Children are very small. Society doesn't look at them much. They are put aside as unimportant. I find that blowing a kid up big, you change all the proportions. It makes adults stop and think and hopefully remember that they too were children once".

This article appeared in Irish Tatler in 2002.

In March 2005, Helnwein plans to host three simultaneous exhibitions in Tel Aviv, Vienna and Houston, Texas. For a complete look at Henwein's life and works, visit www.helnwein.com