Monday, November 19, 2012

At the Tel Aviv Opera: Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child

Austrian born artist Gottfried Helnwein hosted the wedding ceremony of Marilyn Manson and Dita Von Teese, presided over by Alejandro Jodorowsky.  That fact alone sets off plenty of alarm bells.  Nonetheless, Helnwein has produced an impressive body of work, largely informed by the horrors of the Holocaust.  It was the themes and sensitivities of his oeuvre that inspired the Israeli Opera to commission Helnwein’s designs for an ambitious new production.  Lisa Kirk Colburn documents the visual artist’s sometime dramatic collaborative process in Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In a telling historical irony, Helnwein was accepted by the art academy that famously rejected Hitler.  Coming of age at a time the Holocaust simply was not discussed in Austria, Helnwein discovered the truth on his own.  The revelation profoundly influenced his work both as a student and a mature artist.  Images of children in various states of vulnerability reappear over and over in his photo-realist paintings.  Not surprisingly, Helnwein had a deep affinity for Hanoch Levin’s allegorical play, The Dreaming Child and its Helnweinesque title character.

When Helnwein designs a stage production, he does not dash off a few set decorations and call it a day.  Essentially, he takes over the show, at least to judge by the evidence of Dreaming Child.  Director and co-librettist Omri Nitzan comes across like an evenhanded mediator, but some of the Opera’s creative crew clash repeatedly with the celebrity artist.  That’s just what you get when you bring in a design auteur.

Leading up to the premiere of Dreaming Child, Helnwein also mounts a new showing of his large scale public installation piece, Selektion.  Frankly, the story behind that piece (and its rather rocky debut in Cologne) might be even more documentary worthy than the Dreaming Child production.

Fortunately, Colburn’s film shows us more than Helnwein puttering about his studio.  In fact, he is an artist with something to say and he takes advantage of the opportunity to do so.  To her credit, Colburn does not leave any obvious questions unaddressed, showing her subject’s high-handedness as well as his passion and empathy.  Viewers should note, there is also a brief but humanizing post-credits stinger.  It looks like a cool shot Colburn fell in love with, but could not figure out any other place to put it.

An engaging art documentary comparable to recent releases like Bel Borba Aqui and Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, Dreaming Child also offers additional social-historical significance by forthrightly exploring the themes of Helnwein and Levin’s work.  Recommended for Helnwein’s fans and patrons of Israeli culture, Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child opens this Friday (11/23) in New York at the Quad Cinema.