REUTERS City, 20. May 2000

THE SHOCK OF THE REAL
John Hendry


A year or so back, an exhibition called Sensations caused a few upsets, first in London and then in New York. Central to the reaction was a large-scale portrait of a child-killer assembled from, if I remember correctly, the palm prints of children. So far, so bland. The shock element in art has been much talked about in the last five years but art that actually shocks has been thin on the ground during the same period.

Step forward then, Gottfried Helnwein.

By and large, if art is going to shock, it better have something shocking to say,and it's clear that Helnwein has found that.

The images on display at the Robert Sandelson Gallery (5a Cork Street, London W1) are eye-poppingly horrific. Several of Helnwein's big canvases depict officers in Nazi uniforms. On one scene, confident, well-groomed men gaze serenely and approvingly at what appears to be a naked infant Hitler, balanced on his mother's knee. In another, facially scarred war veterans are grouped round the limp figure of a child lying on a table with her legs dangling down lifelessly from the knees.

There's more. Of the remaining images, the majority depicts the remains of pickled foetuses from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, stored in Viennese museums. At about ten times life size (or, more accurately, death size) and rendered in a greenly yellow glow, these looks disturbingly alien. Their unstressed poses and closed eyelids suggest sleep rather than death.

 

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