Gottfried Helnwein Goes to the Opera

A scene from the Hanoch Levin opera The Child Dreams, for which artist Gottfried Helnwein designed the sets and costumes. (Courtesy First Run Features)

Austrian-born Gottfried Helnwein is the rare artist who can give Gerhard Richter a run for his money when it comes to hazy-haunting figuration that evokes–beautifully, repulsively, beautifully again–unspeakable atrocities. But while Richter has tackled everything from Düsenjägers to deckchairs, Helnwein, now 64, continues to focus on children. It’s a central theme he discovered during his student days in Vienna when he began to paint small watercolors of bandaged and wounded children, based on World War II forensic photos. People were shocked by the work, and Helnwein was just as stunned by their reaction. “The strange thing for me was always that the horrible stuff that was going on, the violence against children that couldn’t defend themselves, was not a problem for people,” he says in Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child, a documentary that opens today at New York’s Quad Cinema. “War was not a problem for them. The Holocaust was not a problem. But an innocent image–a watercolor! a tiny watercolor!–would upset them.”

Filmmaker Lisa Kirk Colburn follows Helnwein, a charismatic cross between Alice Cooper and Christopher Walken (with an Austrian accent), as he takes on the role of production designer for the Israeli Opera’s world premiere of The Child Dreams, by the late Hanoch Levin. Peopled by nameless characters such as “The Bleeding Man,” the opera tells a universal story about the tragedy of a child. Helnwein arrives in Tel Aviv with a grand vision that he fights to preserve amidst logistical limitations, opera star egos, Israeli labor laws that soon put the kibosh on child actors, and a stubborn yet brilliant lighting designer named Bambi. It’s fascinating to watch Helnwein, unaccustomed to creative compromise, navigate the details and politics of a large-scale theatrical production, whether by rolling up his sleeves to daub cobalt onto a foam boulder so that it matches a craggy Caspar David Friedrich scene or micromanaging the stage makeup (“Give him something to make him more the face of evil,” he directs a makeup artist). In the end, Helnwein is pleased. “It brought all of the children I have painted before together,” he says of the opera’s fourth act (pictured above). “I treat the staging like a canvas, but it’s three-dimensional and everything moves.”