Viennese actionist Hermann Nitsch, who poured blood, entrails, flesh, howling choirs and gasoline into works bristling with a primal energy, electric and often targeting religion or fascism, died April 18 in Mistelbach, Austria, at the age of eighty. -three following a long illness. Widely renowned for an oeuvre encompassing crucifixions, large-scale splatter works, scenery and musical compositions, Nitsch was the creator of Das Orgien Mysterian Theater (The Orgiastic Mystery Theatre), or UNWTO, a long series of ritual performances which he saw as liberating art from the bonds of representation and raising it to a level equivalent to that of life, with which it merged. Although his work often shocked the public and led to the artist’s arrest on several occasions, Nitsch’s aim was not to horrify people but to give them the experience of pure catharsis. “I try to educate the public with my theater,” he said. art forum‘s Alex Jovanovich in 2018, “to help them find their own existence, their own being.”
Nitsch was born in 1938 in Vienna. The fifty-two bombings suffered by the city during the Second World War will affect him deeply, as will the death of his father, killed in Russia: The later artist wrote that the war “made me a cosmopolitan and an adversary of all nationalisms and all policies when he was only a schoolboy”. Forced to leave high school due to his lack of effort there at the age of fifteen, he enrolled at the Federal Higher Institute for Graphic Education and Research in Vienna, where he developed an interest in religious art that would prove enduring, as would his interest in philosophy and nature, the latter fostered by trips to the Weinvertel, home to many Austrian vineyards. After graduating, he took a job as a graphic designer at the Technical Museum in Vienna. He received a studio there which he quickly put to use for his own investigations, working in his spare time on what would become Das Orgien Mysterian Theater.
By 1961, Nitsch had met Günter Brus, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Otto Mühl, with whom he would co-found the Viennese Actionist movement, based on the concept of pushing the human body, imagined as material for artistic creation, to extremes. Members of the loosely affiliated group often got into trouble with the law, due to the visceral nature of their works, which frequently involved blood, nudity, and choppy or destructive performances. Nitsch was imprisoned three times, once spending two weeks in prison for his participation in the band’s “Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism”. (The violence of the performance, held in a basement and involving a disemboweled lamb, would have a great effectt on a sixteen-year-old Franz West, who left school after witnessing it and then shaped his entire career in response to Viennese Actionism.)
Nitsch began staging his Das Orgien Mysterian Theater works in 1962. He would present over a hundred of these performances, variously involving slaughter, religious sacrifice, crucifixion, music, dance and, most notably, audience participation, around the world over the decades following. In 1971 he purchased Prinzendorf Castle along the Zaya River in Lower Austria from the Catholic Church, which became a regular site for these performances. It was there that Nitsch staged his “6-Day Play” in 1998, a six-day, six-night action he had started working on while still a student in Vienna. Considered by the artist to be his crowning achievement, the event represented his take on the creation myth and involved over 3,400 gallons of wine, piles of grapes and tomatoes, and a number of animal carcasses. Promising, among other vignettes, the trampling of bull and pig entrails by a hundred art students, with the resulting blood to be used in Nitsch’s paintings, the “6-Day-Play” generated huge controversy , especially among animal rights activists. activists, including Brigitte Bardot, who denounced him as a “satanic spectacle”.
Besides his works of this nature, Nitsch was an accomplished set designer and costume designer, creating the sets and costumes for Jules Massenet.Herodias (which he co-directed) at the Vienna Staatsopera in 1995; the staging of the Festspielhaus St. Pölten by Philip Glass Satyagraha in 2001; and Olivier Messiaen Saint Francis of Assisi at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in 2011.
Nitsch exhibited widely during his lifetime, participating in several Documentas and enjoying solo exhibitions at the Center Pompidou, Paris; Moderna Museum, Stockholm; the Leopold Museum, Vienna; and the Albertina Museum, Vienna, among other institutions. In 2009, the Nitsch Foundation was established in Vienna in 2009 to preserve the artist’s legacy. A major exhibition of his work took place at the Austrian Mistelbach Museum in 2020, and when he died he was preparing to show at the fifty-ninth Venice Biennale, where his 20th painting action will remain on view until July 20 at Oficine 800 on the island of Giudecca.
“There are no limits in art. In my opinion, anything can be art,” he said. Vice in 2010. “Although at some point you may have to deal with the criminal code and your own conscience.”