Not many artists have the reputation of receiving several court trials and three prison terms for their work. At age seventy-two, Austrian born artist, writer, and composer Hermann Nitsch reigns king of blood-drenched, ritualistic art performance, and has been awing/shocking crowds with his religious, pornographic, and grotesque work since the early 1960s. He has a knack for incorporating slaughtered animals, red fruits, music, dance, and active participants to satirize religious rites. “He is only holding up a mirror to his detractors’ own hang-ups with religion and the weird, antiquated ceremonies inherent to their beliefs.” (Vice) Do not confuse his views on religion, however. In his interview with Vice Magazine he states, “I am fascinated with religion of every era and every culture. I respect them all, without belonging to any of them. I only have religious feelings for life, nature, the cosmos, and eternity.” Provocation has never been his intention, he says. He is simply fascinated with the intensity of it all; the aesthetic process alone gives him an artistic high. Today, it is often discussed that his work may also exemplify cultures’ fascination with violence, as Nitsch is known to have grown up during World War II. Because of this, he despises politics.
Marking the beginning of his career, roughly around 1960, Nitsch created the Orgien Mysterien Theater (which roughly translates as “Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries” or “The Orgiastic Mystery Theater”). Here, he creates “performances wherein spectators are encouraged to take leave of their senses and become participants themselves, as the beautiful, young actors, smiling and decked out all in white, butcher animals and handle entrails, blood and semen, eviscerating pigs, lambs and oxen just as swans drink out of pools of blood, creating aesthetic tableaux beautifying the horror of death, before the whole ordeal celebrates life with the eating of the animals at a feast towards the end.” (TG)
Forerunner of the Viennese Aktionists, he has helped to define a new genre of art. “Hermann Nitsch’s work draws parallels between religion and the ritualistic spiritualism of creativity. Heavily entrenched in ancient philosophy and a dissident, questioning Christian theology, he actively seeks catharsis through pain and compassion, a rigorously disciplined quest for ethereal release and enlightenment through an embracing of primal instinct and ancient sacrament.” (Saatchi)
With 100+ performances and exhibitions, and features in galleries, museums, magazines, and universities all around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, Museum University of Yale, Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University, and countless others internationally, Hermann Nitsch has certainly earned his title of world-renowned artist.
With church bells ringing, naked bodies staging crucifixions, the disembowelment of animals, Hermann proclaims his 100th performance, the Six-Day Play, to be his pinnacle piece. It is his take on the story of creation. Go here, under ‘Show Selected Media’ to view clips of Day Six’s ritual, along with his many other Aktionen projects.
Check out these links to view interviews, media, and more information on Hermann Nitsch:
- Herman Nitsch website.
- Herman Nitsch’s music.
- Herman Nitsch – Requiem fur Meine Frau Beate.
- Hermann Nitsch interview with Vice Magazine
- Herman Nitsch Bio & Work at Saatchi Gallery.
- Herman Nitsch in America Interview at Austrian Cultural Forum.
- Herman Nitsch in America Book.
Credit: Portrait photo by Sven Eisermann
Header photo Die erste heilige Kommunion (The First Holy Communion) by Hermann Nitsch.