Wounds of Memory


The girl battered me through the Internet window. On my computer screen, beside the picture that had made a cybernetic leap to Israel from a London gallery, shivered the text I was working on. I saw her and my heart skipped a beat.

For two years I had been immersed in writing And the Rat Laughed, a novel whose core is remembrance of the Holocaust and how it is conveyed down the generations to the year 2009.

My protagonist - a little girl who was hidden in a potato pit during those dark days, who was badly abused and survived - was suddenly there before me. A visual fantasy that mysteriously connected with my small words. Her closed and

delicate features, perhaps in prayer, maybe in despair, and the bead of a tear, almost imaginary, gathered in the hollow of her eye. A little girl, her eyelids closed, memory burrowing into the warrens of her mind, suddenly and mysteriously burst into my life. The name of the man who had painted my little pit girl - Gottfried Helnwein - emerged through my fingers clicking the mouse

The first thought which flashed through my mind was how could it be that a person I didn't know had managed to penetrate the soul of the text; had it been the arbitrariness of fate or pure coincidence that had joined the girl in the painting and the Hebrew letters burned onto the paper?
An ordinary day in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. The palm tree I had planted on the day I moved into this house on the banks of the Yarkon River rustled outside the window. I found it hard to believe that the nameless girl created within me in torment and dread had finally found a face.
I frantically gathered the data: Gottfried Helnwein, Austrian artist; a son of the perpetrators of the crime who devotes his work to scarred, wounded children bearing the mark of cruelty and death. Helnwein bandages the little victims, dresses their wounds, embraces them with brush and paint.
In a 1974 watercolor stands a little girl in a short skirt. Her head, face and fists are tightly bandaged, like a living mummy. The dressings simultaneously create a defensive shield, while the pain is tightly bound within her, and it is only the viewer's gaze that provides an opportunity for her seared soul to break out of the cocoon and turn into a butterfly.
The eyes of "my little pit girl" - which is what I had already named her - that human window open to the world, are also closed because the world she has encountered is sinister and violent. Adults, who on the face of it were entrusted with her well-being and welfare, had betrayed her, abandoned her, trampled her fragile body underfoot and even negated her existence as an entity with equal rights in the act of The Creation.
The painted girls withdraw into an inner citadel, and their way of surviving is to curl themselves up into the shell of bandages and perhaps hope for a miracle that will save their sanity from the indescribable horror meted out to them through no fault of their own.
In a 1995 triptych the girl has brought her hands to her chest in silent prayer. Despite her white, festive dress alluding to the Communion ceremony, the painting is not necessarily about a prayer linked to a defined belief, but rather to a personal psalm muttered by a despairing human with the last vestiges of his strength.
Helnwein leaves nothing out. Some might say he is a "hyper-realist" who dwells on all the horrific details. But this is his way of throwing the consequences of the brutal experience in our faces. And yet in his descriptive works - always troubling and disturbing - the true portrait becomes a "super portrait", something that has ceased to represent only itself, one channeled into a condensed symbol of humanity in all its nakedness.
In the 1970s, when he embarked on his artistic career as an installation artist on the streets of Vienna, Helnwein did not spare himself the agony suffered by his little heroes. He stabbed his own flesh with various instruments and bled before the very eyes of shocked passers-by, and even caused a great scandal when he demanded the trial of an Austrian psychiatrist who, during the Nazi period, murdered hundreds of children with poison, claiming it was a "humane death".
In the "Selektion" series (Neunter November Nacht, 1988) that Helnwein created in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, seventeen huge portraits were hung facing Köln Cathedral, along the Ludwig Museum wall, as ghosts from the past. The scope of anguish was intensified by the German street and Helnwein compelled the passers-by to observe, through a magnifying glass, the reality that so many tend to ignore, repress, and even completely erase from their consciousness.
For him, the Nazi past is not an ephemeral page in a history book but a real danger, venom that has not ceased bubbling below the surface; racism, xenophobia and hatred of the other, ethic cleansing, the execution of cripples, the helpless and the mentally handicapped have not ceased to exist.
Horrifically, even in their artistic incarnation, the children underwent a "selektion", a malicious act of violence in which brutal hands slashed the innocent faces one night with a sharp blade. See how human evil is always seeking a chance of hatching from the dragon's egg.
In Helnwein's "Epiphany" (1996) a beautiful Aryan Madonna is showing the infant Adolf Hitler to a crowd of admirers in the form of S.S. officers. The use of Christian iconography, and particularly "The Adoration of the Magi" motif is macabre, and Helnwein exposes the hypocrisy of a society that took the name of Jesus in vain and denied the values he preached.
The sweet infant in the Madonna's arms - an echo of Wislawa Szymborska's famous poem, "Hitler's First Photograph" - grew into a monstrous adult in whose name, and under whose aegis, millions of children were tortured and slaughtered.
The fact that "the pit girl" was originally hung in an Austrian church is a subversive criticism of religions that sanctified the preaching of grace and compassion, which remained empty words for the believers - decent European citizens all - who abandoned their human semblance.
At the same time, Helnwein exalts the power of survival in his works. The tormented soul always remains pure and unblemished, for even in the darkness of the pit a human being can enlist his inner forces and hear the laugher of the rat.
Helnwein is a great believer in the ability of art to pass emotional memory on, as a reminder of the past or mainly as a warning of what the future might hold, for humanity, as far as he is concerned, has not learnt its lesson. Is there atonement in his artistic endeavors? I prefer the Jewish concept of "Tikkun", purification of the soul. It has a deeper meaning than the physical healing of scars, for it elevates us to the highest sphere of the spirit. The wounded girls close their eyes, but they are not blind. Behind their closed lids their gaze is clear and penetrating.
I would like to believe that artists are destined to be the bearers of memory, be the price what it may. We are committed to be gatekeepers, pointing out injustices. Helnwein has paid the price. He is still the enfant terrible who breaks all the rules of the artistic game, a controversial artist whose early, youthful works were boycotted by a sanctimonious establishment because he painted a portrait of Hitler in his own blood, after slashing his wrists with a razor. He skillfully shifts between the different media according to his needs and continues to take risks, but his status as a "lone wolf" with no obligations to an artistic establishment is also what grants him the freedom to adhere to his social and artistic positions and demand from the world, and himself, to be a moral compass.
That same day in Tel Aviv I quickly sent a fax to the Robert Sandelson Gallery in London. Barely twenty-four hours passed before Gottfried Helnwein acceded to my request, and he most generously granted me the rights to turn "The Pit Girl" into the cover of my book. Now he, too, is part of the journey to my Israeli readers who are enjoined to observe the ancient Jewish commandment, "Thou Shalt Remember". I am happy that in Israel, too, people have recently become aware of his work.
One of my favorite pictures is not a painting, but a photograph of the artist resting from his work on "The Pit Girl".
Of the gigantic portrait spread on the floor, all that can be seen are her closed eyes, like two arches supporting a globe. Helnwein, in stained jeans, is sprawled silently along the line between the girl's hair and forehead, his face is upturned, perhaps sleeping, perhaps unconscious, as if there is an Athena waiting to burst from the head of Zeus.
To the right kneels his little son, a shock of golden hair spread over his face, and he is reaching for a bowl spattered with red paint. I recalled the Jewish tale of the child Moses who reached out for a bowl of embers and burnt his tongue. He consequently stammered, but this disability did not impair his facility to shout at a tyrannical ruler, "Let my people go", and lead the Hebrews from bondage to freedom.
Even in his sleep, Papa Gottfried's fingers are tightly grasping the child's other hand, for danger is always lurking for the young and weak among us. Lest we forget - they are always in need of protection.
And in his free fingers the father is holding a paintbrush - the artist's only weapon.

December 2005

The Wounds of Memory, an article in: Gottfried Helnwein - "Face it", published by Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz, Austria 2006.

Translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris
Anthony Berris was born and educated in the UK and has lived in Israel for more than 50 years. He is a freelance translator who has translated numerous works by Israeli authors and playwrights, and for many years taught translation at an Israeli college. He is a member of Kibbutz Beit Haemek in Western Galilee.


Gottfried Helenwein painting head of girl

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