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A HANGING MATTER?

Sean Keane
Kilkenny People
27. July 2001


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A major controversy has erupted over plans to hang huge paintings outside City Hall during the Kilkenny Arts Festival. Examples of the paintings to be displayed were shown to members of Kilkenny Corporation on Monday night and it sparked uproar in the chamber.
Cllr Paul Cuddihy rose to his feet and said that the city would be seen to be promoting the people responsible for the Second World War and the Holocaust if paintings like the one handed out at the meeting were allowed to be displayed outside City Hall.
He was referring to a controversial picture by Gottfried Helnwein, the internationally acclaimed Austrian artist who wants to display his work in the city during the Arts Festival. Arts Minister, Sile de Valera had already given the green light to hang some of his latest pieces from the front of Kilkenny Castle.


A major controversy has erupted over plans to hang huge paintings outside City Hall during the Kilkenny Arts Festival. Examples of the paintings to be displayed were shown to members of Kilkenny Corporation on Monday night and it sparked uproar in the chamber.


Cllr Paul Cuddihy rose to his feet and said that the city would be seen to be promoting the people responsible for the Second World War and the Holocaust if paintings like the one handed out at the meeting were allowed to be displayed outside City Hall.


He was referring to a controversial picture by Gottfried Helnwein, the internationally acclaimed Austrian artist who wants to display his work in the city during the Arts Festival. Arts Minister, Sile de Valera had already given the green light to hang some of his latest pieces from the front of Kilkenny Castle.


The original photograph at the centre of the row was a propaganda shot for the Nazis and showed Hitler being adored by a group of young Nazis. In Helnwein's painting, the image of Hitler is replaced by a mother and child, probably the Virgin Mary, holding the infant Jesus.


Cllr Cuddihy said he wanted to totally disassociate himself from the paintings and said that the Corporation should refuse to allow works similar to the Nazi one, to hang outside City Hall. He said the public would assume that members were giving solace to the Third Reich. He said that it was an attempt to court publicity and, if the request was allowed, would show that the Corporation was ambivalent to the people responsible for the deaths of over six million Jewish people during World War II.


"Just a few weeks ago, we held a fantastic reception here for asylum seekers while at the same time in Britain, the National Front anarchists were going through cities inciting radical violence and causing great harm," he told his fellow members.


He did say that Helnwein's work had highlighted the abuse and exploitation of children but said the Corporation should not be associated with something that was linked to the Nazi regime.


Ald Michael Lanigan said the photographer was trying to make a point on the link between religion and politics.


No Censor

"I would be against any attempt to censor art and we have to allow the debate on art and politics," he added.


He pointed out that Mr. Helnwein was a socialist and that the mother and child, based on the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus depicted the relationship between the Catholic church and the Nazis.


He said that it might be misinterpreted and added that the debate should centre on what the picture tried to convey. He proposed that the Corporation give permission for the pictures to be hung from the front of City Hall.


The Mayor, Ald Joe Cody said this was a "public hanging" issue, before allowing Cllr Tony Patterson enter the debate. He said that the Corporation had no role play in censoring art and he agreed with Ald Lanigan's stance on the matter.


"However, the issue we are being asked to decide on is whether or not we give a public building for this exhibition. We should have control over what people want to put on our walls," he argued.


It was decided that the matter should be left in the hands of the Mayor, Ald Joe Cody and the Town Clerk, Mr Donal O'Brien to make a decision after viewing the pieces proposed for the front of City Hall. It was pointed out that there will be no Corporation meetings planned between now and the Arts Festival which starts august 10 and continues until August 19, and that the Mayor and Town Clerk would have to act as judge and jury.


Helnwein

Gottfried Helnwein the internationally renowed artist whose proposed exhibition is causing problems, held a photographic shoot in the city a few weeks ago, in advance of the exhibition.


Currently resident in Tipperary, his paintings have featured on the cover of "Time" magazine. His work has drawn rave reviews on the international art scene.


He took photographs of young amateur models from Kilkenny aged between 7 and 14 yeas of age at the festival headquarters. The images will be used as part of his show. There is even a liklihood that the series of images produced locally for the Kilkenny exhibition will be exhibited internationally.


Helnwein has developed an international reputation for his enormous photo realist paintings. Reproduced, using digital technology the images are often up to 30 feet in height.


The artist has a deep commitment against prejudice, hatred and violence.



The Arts Festival issued the following statement after the decision of the Corporation to adjourn any decision on allowing the paintings to be hung from City Hall.


"Gottfried Helnwein is an internationally renowed [sic] artist who has exhibited in major galleries throughout the world. Next year he becomes the first foreign artist to be permitted to exhibit in the Chinese National Gallery in Beijing. His work has also been chosen for a major exhibition in the museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.


"Kilkenny Arts Festival is delighted to be able to bring the work of this important artist to the people of Kilkenny. This will be the first time that his work will have been shown in Ireland.


"The festival is delighted to have the opportunity to exhibit the work on the streets of Kilkenny where locals and visitors will have the chance to experience Helnwein's work.


"This universal access to art is an important principle of Kilkenny Arts Festival. In the past the festival has been the subject of accusations of elitism of confirming art to costly and exclusive venues and the festival has been working very hard to address this in recent years.


"The Festival is not trying to force the work down the throats of people in Kilkenny, but simply to promote democratic access to the arts for all.


"The subject matter of Helnwein's work are the often-difficult subjects of prejudice, hatred and violence. Despite their difficult nature it is important that these subjects are addressed and debate takes place regarding issues like Nazi-sim, fascism and feelings of hatred towards immigrants and minority groups.


"This is the subject matter of the work of Gottfried Helnwein and the purpose is to promote public debate. In some quarters it has been suggested that the work of Gottfried Helnwein is ambivalent towards nazism and fascism. This is completely inaccurate. Gottfried Helnwein has a long and acknowledged record of taking a firm stand against these ideologies.


"Dr. Antje Vollmer, vice president of the German Parliament, the Bundestag, has said his large paintings in the public spaces are imprinted with a deeply humanitarian commitment especially for the children and the defenceless. 'He is one of the great living artists,' Dr. Vollmer said.


"The work of Gottfried Helnwein has also been praised by noted anti Nazi campaigner Simon Wiesenthal. Helnwein uses nazism and fascism as subject matter for his work as a way of drawing attention to the uncomfortable reality that these ideologies which have caused so much human suffering throughout the world still have adherents who seek to minimise their evils and promote their so called benefits.


"In the Ireland of today where we are faced with increasing incidents of hostility towards immigrant and minority this is a legitimate subject for exploration through artistic work.


"It is our belief that it is appropriate and reasonable to use public buildings to exhibit art for general public display in a festival which is staged for the enjoyment of stimulation for the people of Kilkenny and visitors to the city.


"In preparing for the staging of this major exhibition we have at all stages sought to be open and frank about the subject matter of this work.


"We are confident that Kilkenny Corporation will support our ambitions to increase the democratic participation in art and to promote public debate about important iussues of our collective past which still have relevance for our society today."
Kilkenny Arts Festival






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