In some of Gottfried Helnwein's paintings, children are wrapped in bandages. Other pictures show children smeared with blood. Several girls and boys wield automatic weapons. Helnwein's images of children are imbued with violence that viscerally threatens to rupture the innocence of childhood. This "red harvest" – as Helnwein calls it – represents a pervasive condition of modern society in terms that are universally resonant.
"Throughout history blood always had a mystical meaning," says Helnwein, noting historical foundations ranging from human sacrifice rituals to the covenant of circumcision. The physical and emotional scars borne by Helnwein's children accentuate not only their vulnerability and suffering, but also their sacred place in the world. They embody both sacrifice and redemption.
As always with Helnwein, a multiplicity of sources inform these new and recent paintings, including the fiction of Dashiell Hammett referenced in the title of his exhibition. "There is a certain affinity between my visuals and Hammett's writing," Helnwein explains. "There's a relationship to Hammett's rhythm and pace, the pathos, the simplicity and the rawness of Noir. I always envisioned his stories in settings that look very much like my images, with bright, blinding lights and long dark shadows: the literary version of Chiaroscuro." Written by Hammett in 1923, Red Harvest is the novel that established the Noir genre.
Over the past four decades, Gottfried Helnwein has developed an extraordinarily powerful and idiosyncratic visual vocabulary reflected in his masterful use of multiple media: painting, drawing, photography, performance, and stage design. Building on artistic precedents including the work of Francesco Goya, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and Joseph Beuys, Helnwein addresses a broad range of social and political issues, resulting in challenging and provocative artworks. Although at times disturbing, these works are deeply humane, and seek spiritual beauty often approaching the transcendental.
Most recently the subject of a major retrospective at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Helnwein’s work has been exhibited extensively worldwide, and is featured in the collections of major museums in Europe, Asia and the United States. Red Harvest is his 17th one-person exhibition at Modernism.