Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch, who put blood, entrails, flesh, scream choruses, and gasoline in the service of works bristling with a primal, electric energy 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, set design, and musical composition, Nitsch was the creator of Das Orgien Mysterien Theater (The Orgiastic Mystery Theater), or O.M.T., a long-running series of ritualistic performances which he saw as liberating art from the bonds of depiction and elevating it to a plane equivalent to that of life, with which it melded. Though his work often shocked audiences and resulted in the artist being arrested multiple times, Nitsch’s goal was not to horrify people but to offer them the experience of pure catharsis. “I try to educate the audience with my theater,” he told Artforum’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 sustained by the city in the course of World War II would have a profound effect upon him, as would the death of his father, who was killed in Russia: The artist later wrote that the war “turned me into a cosmopolite and opponent of all nationalisms and all politics while just a schoolboy.” Forced out of grammar school owing to his lack of effort there at the age of fifteen, he enrolled in Vienna’s Higher Federal Institution for Graphic Education and Research, where he developed an interest in religious art that would prove to be abiding, as would his interest in philosophy and nature, the latter fostered by trips to the Weinvertel, home to many of Austria’s vineyards. Upon his graduation, he took a job as a graphic artist at the Vienna Technical Museum. He was given a studio there, which he promptly put in the service of his own investigations, working in his free time on what would eventually become Das Orgien Mysterien Theater.
By 1961, Nitsch had met Günter Brus, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Otto Mühl, with whom he would cofound the Viennese Actionist movement, predicated on the concept of pushing the human body, imagined as a material for art making, to extremes. The members of the loosely affiliated group often found themselves in trouble with the law, owing to the visceral nature of their works, which frequently involved blood, nudity, and agitated or destructive performance. Nitsch was thrice imprisoned, on one occasion spending two weeks in jail for his participation in the group’s “Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism.” (The violence of the performance, held in a basement and involving a disemboweled lamb, would have a terrific effect on a sixteen-year-old Franz West, who left school after witnessing it and subsequently fashioned his entire career as a response to Viennese Actionism.)
Nitsch began staging his Das Orgien Mysterien Theater works in 1962. He would present more than one hundred of these performances, variously involving slaughter, religious sacrifices, crucifixion, music, dancing, and, notably, audience participation, around the world over the ensuing decades. In 1971, he purchased from the Catholic Church the Prinzendorf Castle along the Zaya River, in Lower Austria, which became a regular site of these performances. This was where Nitsch in 1998 staged his “6-Day Play,” a six-day, six-night action on which he had begun working 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 more than 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 one hundred art students, with the resulting blood to be used in paintings by Nitsch, the “6-Day-Play” generated a tremendous amount of controversy, particularly among animal rights activists, prominent among which was Brigitte Bardot, who denounced it as a “satanic spectacle.”
Apart from his works of this nature, Nitsch was an accomplished set and costume designer, creating the sets and costumes for Jules Massenet’sHérodiade (which he codirected) at the Vienna Staatsopera in 1995; the Festspielhaus St. Pölten’s staging of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha in 2001; and Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in 2011.
Nitsch exhibited widely in his lifetime, participating in several Documentas and enjoying solo shows at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Moderna Museet, 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 was held at Austria’s Museum Mistelbach in 2020, and at his death, he was preparing to show at the Fifty-Ninth Venice Biennale, where his 20th Painting Action will remain on view through July 20 at Oficine 800 on the island of Giudecca.
“There are no limits in art. In my opinion, everything can be art,” he told Vice in 2010. “Although at some point you might have to face the penal code and your own conscience.”