Reconstructing Donald

Gottfried Helnwein Talks With Michael Freund About the Role of Disney in Post-War Austria

Gottfried Helnwein

Artist and collector Gottfried Helnwein and his childhood friend, the Disney character Donald Duck | Photo: Michael Freund

In Austria, Gottfried Helnwein is mostly known as the 1980s “shock artist” of posters, magazine and album covers depicting scenes of pain and anxiety, often involving children and always with photorealistic perfection.

Helnwein, however, has since moved on. Born in 1948 in Vienna, his later work has included photography, extra-large canvasses and mixed media addressing a variety of themes, though the triangle of childhood–pain–sex remains central to his portfolio.

Now recognized internationally, Helnwein remains controversial because of his art, exhibited most recently last year at the Lentos in Linz. For some people he has not advanced enough, for other he has lost touch with much of modern art (with which he would happily agree). Others still are suspicious of his alleged contacts with scientology.

But then there is one feature in his biography that is appreciated by all the cognoscenti: No one has done so much so efficiently to bring recognition to the work of Carl Barks (1901-2000), the man responsible for most of the classic Duck family comics. Helnwein has edited a beautiful homage in book form: Wer ist Carl Barks?. And he has curated an exhibition that has toured through Europe over the past years. Its updated version is currently shown at the Caricature Museum in Krems. Michael Freund spoke with him about his motivation.

VR: Gottfried Helnwein, you’ve been a fan of Carl Barks forever. Why?

Helnwein: The answer is partly biographical. Our generation, born and raised (in Austria) after the war, was faced with a big nothing. There was only the reconstruction spirit of the war survivors, everything was grey and claustrophobic.

In this context, the Disney comics were a godsend, in several respects. For one thing, they were more carefully colored and printed here than in the States where the comic books were more like uninteresting by-products for the Disney company. Also, they were magnificently translated by Erika Fuchs – these translations have long been recognized as works of art in their own right. But above all it was Barks’ merit.

VR: In which respect?

Helnwein: Your have to see that Carl Barks created entire worlds just with his black pen strokes. He added a universal meaning to these animals in a way very few artists ever managed. With one touch he created the subtlest nuances of emotional changes. You can show his drawings to people in the most diverse cultures, and they will recognize these emotions. In my mind, this makes Barks one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

VR: I guess part of the particular fascination of the Duck stories for us in post-War Europe was also the fact that these characters were no superheroes.

Helnwein: Yes, unlike in victorious America that enjoyed the Superman variety of comics we could more easily identify with Donald who hardly ever wins anything and has a lot to be angry about.

VR: Barks has been called “the good Duck artist” but also the anonymous one. People say he was exploited by the Disney Company that banked on his art without giving him credit.

Helnwein: I don’t agree with this. German Barks fans especially like to say this. But when I first visited Barks in Oregon in 1984, he told me he had had a very good time at Disney. He described Walt as someone who nourished, motivated and managed people well. He also paid them above average and promoted talent when he liked their gags. Barks himself quickly rose to become member of a creative team at the animation studio. Disney wanted perfection.

VR: Until the big strike in 1941.

Helnwein: Well, yes, that strike must have hit him hard personally. That’s what Barks said too. Walt Disney felt betrayed by his own staff.

Speaking of the Disney family: Unlike with the company today, it is quite possible to speak with the family members about issues such as the status of Barks as an artist. I told Walt’s daughter Diane exactly this, and she was receptive. They plan to integrate such features of the legacy in the Disney Family Museum that is currently being set up in San Francisco.

VR: You left Vienna in 1985, first for Germany, and since the late nineties you live partly in Ireland, partly in Los Angeles, not far from the Disney headquarters. Coincidence, I suppose.

Helnwein: Yes. We moved to L.A. because one can work well there as an artist. We live in Downtown L.A. that has had a bad reputation as a gangland. Artists were the only ones who ventured there. Then the same thing happened as in Soho, New York and other such places: The real estate people discovered the area.

They turned the beautiful art deco buildings into shells with lots of tiny expensive apartments. We still pay 5,000 dollars a month – which is considered cheap. But it also rains through the roof.

VR: I thought it never rains in Southern California.

Helnwein: It once rained for two weeks, and the heating didn’t work either. It was then that Governor Schwarzenegger showed up unannounced. My wife and I were in Ireland at the time, but two of our children were there. So the governor comes in, looks around and says, “Are you guys living in a fucking freezer?!”

VR: By the way, you know many people in show business and the arts. How much recognition is there for Carl Barks?

Helnwein: Not as much in the U.S. as in Europe. There are faithful fans like Bruce Hamilton who edited the complete works (Carl Barks Library in 30 volumes. Scottsdale, AR: Another Rainbow Company), but not too many.

VR: And what about your children?

Helnwein: Oh, they grew up with Duck stories.

VR: Same in our home, and it didn’t even trigger adverse reactions. What about you?

Helnwein: Same here. Our kids still remember with joy the stories they read way back. Recently, our oldest son Cyrill called me and said that their daughter Croí had uttered her first word. She pointed to a drawing and said, “Duck!” So now I know that my seed fell on fertile ground.


Donald Duck … Und die Ente ist Mensch geworden. Das zeichnerische und poetische Werk von Carl Barks. 

Karikaturmuseum Krems
Through Nov. 4.

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