Hermann Nitsch is a leading figure of the controversial Viennese Actionism movement. Together with Otto Muehl, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Günther Brus, Nitsch struggled to challenge postwar Austrian society—with its religious taboos, political conservatism, and bureaucratic immovability—through the use of the human body as working material in a dramaturgy of the organic.
Educated as a painter of religious imagery, Nitsch first established the premises of a radical form of theater, the Orgien-Mysterien Theater (Orgies-Mysteries Theater), in 1957. The form was inspired by the rituals of the Catholic church, the Wagnerian model of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), Dionysian orgies, and Freudian psychology. In 1959, he visited the exhibition Young Painters Today at the Künstlerhaus, Vienna, which introduced him to Abstract Expressionism and its French equivalent, Tachism. The show included works by Sam Francis, Georges Mathieu, Pierre Soulages, and Yves Klein, while documenting in the catalogue works by Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. His encounter with these movements encouraged Nitsch to incorporate painting into his concept of the Orgien-Mysterien Theater.
In November 1960, he began performing “painting actions,” during which he transposed the basic ritual components of his theater onto the pictorial field, pouring red paint onto canvas and documenting the entire process through film and photography. Soon the actions grew more spontaneous. Nitsch would spread a canvas on the floor, splash paint on it, roll and step on it, involving his entire body in actions that often lasted only a few minutes and resulted in what he called Schüttbilder (poured paintings). Schüttbild (1963), in the Walker Art Center’s collection, was realized during a painting action that took place on March 6, 1963,1 a few months before Nitsch left Austria for Germany in order to avoid prosecution for alleged blasphemy and inflammatory activity.
Apparently dissatisfied with the limitations of painting, Nitsch decided in late 1963 to focus on and expand the range of his theater. Challenging and provocative, his new performances lasted several days; animal carcasses, entrails, blood, excrement, and stained religious garments were used in ritualistic ways to trigger every sense, push every limit. The steadfast importance of Viennese Actionism is attributable to the fact that its participants identified an alternative modern practice that questioned the limits of artistic freedom and broadened the connections between myriad disciplines: music, theater, literature, painting, sculpture, photography, and film.
Nitsch, correspondence with the author, April 27, 2004 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩