maandag 1 mei 1989

Hermann Nitsch (May 1989 / Sept 2009)

Text published in Mondain Den Haag* magazine (1990), originally written in Dutch, translated and slightly revised in 2007. Photographs taken at Incubate Festival*, Tilburg 2009, except the very first one, a small 'Blutbild', once a gift from a friend, now taken care of by Jan-Maarten Luursema.



I became interested in the Viennese Actionists, especially in the work of Hermann Nitsch, after finding out the following artists referred to them as important sources of inspiration: besides British filmmaker John Maybury (main figure in the Romantic Aesthetics film school lead by Derek Jarman), there were the musicians of the (post-) Industrial school; Psychic TV, Coil, The Anti Group/Clock DVA. The name Viennese Actionists also appeared in the publications of American subcultural magazine Re/Search, and I also found it in Force Mental, the magazine of Belgian artists Danny Devos and Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, working under the moniker Club Moral.


I’m naming two main figures from the psychoanalytic movement; Sigmund Freud, in this century the first important explorer of the human (western) mind, and Carl Gustav Jung, who studied the same mind in the light of the cosmos. Further on two painters, the symbolist Gustav Klimt and the expressionist Egon Schiele, and two composers, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg.

All of a sudden the clock strikes 1939 and the pointers appear to be stuck between Eros and Thanatos. In the street where I’m staying, in a house surrounded by brothels, the painter and future politician Adolf Hitler once used to live.


The journey from Vienna to castle/farm Prinzendorf, house and workspace of the artist Hermann Nitsch, lasts for several hours. In 1983 the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (NL) organized a Nitsch retrospective. In the preface of the catalogue, director at-the-time Rudi Fuchs describes his journey to Prinzendorf in passionate terms. But today there’s nothing that makes the train- and busride entertaining. I was promised that I would see the grapes, that I would smell the wine. But it rains on this day in May, and my nose can only smell moist and clumps of grass.


Nitsch has made his fame partly because of a group of artists who around the beginning of the sixties struck its first blow in the face of civil Austria. The group was soon called ‘The Viennese Actionists’ and their names were, besides Nitsch, Günther Brus, Otto Mühl and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. (The last one mentioned doesn’t live anymore. In 1969 he fell/jumped out of a window of his apartment, probably or possibly suicide). The style they use can be described in art terms as ‘performance art’ or ‘body art’. They use drink and food, blood, cadavers, excrement and other forms of waste as part of their art, and don’t fear to explain their work – in the psychoanalytic tradition – by using terms as ‘therapy’ and ‘sadomasochism’. Whether this is art or some sort of exhibitionistic tendency towards obscenity, is a discussion that lasted until a couple of years ago. For most Austrian politicians this discussion was never really relevant. Over the years, Nitsch, Brus and Mühl departed one by one to (West) Germany, to escape from imprisonment for disrupting public order. They would only return to their fatherland after they were pardoned by a new government. In the case of Brus this would take years.


Nitsch believes – according to psychoanalysis – that mankind hides aggressive instincts inside its self. Those instincts are looking for a way out and usually find one. With Nitsch, this occurs in the shape of a religious feast which is dedicated to the god Dionysos, the god of ecstasy, of animalism, of unbridled sex, booze and fodder parties. With Nitsch, this becomes drama, which is life (since death is inevitable), and next turned into a feast, as part of the Orgien Mysterien Theatre. Main target of the O.M. Theatre is the realization of the six-days-play, supposed to be held at one time at Nitsch’ castle. The village where Nitsch’ castle (in fact it’s a large farm) is located, called Prinzendorf an der Zaya, lies in the Wine district, northwest of Vienna, close to the border with Eastern Europe (Hungary). Nitsch as a child used to visit relatives from his mother there – his father died in world war two. There, as a teenager, he was able to drink all the wine he wanted. At those moments he felt completely happy. When he was nineteen he decided to start the O.M. Theatre, which was supposed to be a theatre which would express life itself, where no stages were allowed. And for some reason he knew castle Prinzendorf would be the ideal location, even though it wasn’t owned by his family. His ideas about theatre soon started to shape form. But the first reactions weren’t very encouraging. Nitsch’ actions (‘aktionen’) – which is how the performances are called – were soon spotted by the local police force. With the help of a handed down police report dated June 28 1963, I know exactly what the servants of the law witnessed:

“The Viennese artists Otto Mühl and Hermann Nitsch accompany about thirty guests to the basement of Mühl’s apartment. At that location, a cut open sheep hangs upside down on a hook in the ceiling. Nitsch, dressed in a white robe, takes out the bowels of the sheep, chews on white flowers and spits them into the wide open cadaver. Mühl spurts blood all over Nitsch. Both artists regularly make obscene sounding noises and appear to be drunk.”


“When I arrived at the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ this was no more than the sum of smell, taste, seeing, feeling, hearing – I had pushed through to the real act.” (Hermann Nitsch – Das Orgien Mysterien Theater 1960 – 1983, Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, 1983)

‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ is a term introduced by German composer Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). It’s being used in the arts as soon as one speaks of a strife for totality, a whole. According to Belgian art historian professor Wim van Mulders the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ is three headed: “1) thinking the whole 2) to embody this whole by one self 3) the desire to subject others to this total truth.”

I read this (again: in Dutch, and the translation is mine - AB) in art magazine Arte Factum, issue one, 1983.


A couple of pages further I read in ‘The Unfinished Project’, an article from Leo van Damme (a colleague of van Mulders) about Nitsch, that the aspirations/pretentions of the O.M. Theatre can be divided into three types: “1) The philosophical and philanthropic task (the restoration of the relationship between mankind and existence) 2) the artistic – aesthetic operation (the complete work out of the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ principles) 3) the psychotherapeutic effect (an ultimate catharsis will take place when participants become aware of the tension between life and death in order to obtain a unique insight of existence).”

In my opinion there has been only one other artist who just about cherished the same ambitions as Nitsch: Antonin Artaud.


Against the Western psychologizing language-theatre.

A theatre supposed to express life itself, without any stage, such a thing was already invented by Antonin Artaud (1896 – 1948). This French actor, author, occultist, opium addict, director, painter, etc. etc., published in 1938 a collection of writings entitled ‘The Theatre of Cruelty’. Even the title itself gives reason to a lot misunderstandings. Quote from a letter from Artaud to publisher Jean Paulhan: “I use the word ‘cruelty’ in a sense of starving for life, cosmic strictness, compassionate necessity, in the Gnostic meaning of a living whirlpool, which swallows darkness, in the meaning of the unavoidable suffering, without there would be no progress in life. The good should be wished for, it is the result of an act of will, while evil is present constantly. When a hidden god performs a deed of creation, he obeys a cruel urge to create which was dictated to him, an unavoidable urge, which brings a closed and extravagant core of evil within reach of the all-swallowing whirlpool of goodness. Theatre in the sense of a continuous creation, a complete magical act, answers this necessity.” Quote from a letter to the same publisher, written two months later: “So I have used the word ‘cruelty’, as I could have used the words ‘life’ or ‘necessity’. I actually wanted to point out that theatre to me equals a continuous acting and proceeding, and that above all there’s nothing static about it. I put it on the same level as a true act, thus living and magical because of this.”

Though Nitsch has stated that he hadn’t read Artaud while formulating his ideas about the O.M. Theatre, a lot of similarities exist between the theatre concepts of both. Both Nitsch as well as Artaud prefer to regard the spectator as ‘participant’. And both stimulate this change of roles by overloading the senses of the spectator. The spectator will not just view and listen, he will in fact BE the theatre. The cracking package of sweets belonging to your coughing neighbor is now as it were part of the show.

“… The theatre aims at man as a whole, not just the social man who is subjected to laws and deformed by religion and regulations.”

The two attempts that Artaud undertook to realize his ideas were doomed to fail. Media and audience didn’t have a clue what Artaud was talking about, and actors refused to follow up his stage directions. During a lecture on the future of theatre, a year before his death, Artaud dropped his notes on the floor. Next he ran, furiously, cursing, out of the room, leaving the audience behind in shock. Present at the lecture was writer André Gide, who wondered if at this moment Artaud had finally realized his theatre of cruelty.


If a ‘decent’ person has ever witnessed Nitsch’ work, he would probably describe it as ‘filthy’. People who have just seen photographs of his work will probably use the same label. Now, the photographs, often shot by Heinz Cibulka, only give an impression, because photographs are mere static data, they miss movement, sound and smell, and for Nitsch and his workers they miss touch and taste. One would almost conclude Nitsch himself is to blame for so many misinterpretations… Still he often exhibits these photographs, as well as the sheets stained with blood and wine, the ‘Christian’ regalia and robes, the videos, gramophone records, audio cassettes, books with sketches and theoretical texts. Only propaganda?

“What counts is building the score for the six-days-play. That’s why I’m displaying the part of the first day in a show-window. All my efforts are concentrated on this Great Dramatic Feast. The other things – paintings, relics and photographs – are only important as documents. There is a difference of level with the actual O.M. play. Of course the actions are of more importance. Just like the relic of a holy one means less compared to the holy one himself, but than there’s nothing more. Beuys also shows relics of his actions… Yes, of course there’s a lot of money necessary to realize the O.M. Theatre; the objects more or less guarantee that the costs can be dealt with.” (from Arte Factum, issue one, 1983)

I have to limit myself to an interpretation of a usually three hour lasting rehearsal of the six-day-play, Nitsch’ version of the Story of Creation. Imagine that the script (score) which Nitsch uses, has been worked out into the smallest detail, just like biblebook Genesis. One can speak of a very tight organization, where Nitsch functions as the predecessor / director. In the past he also conducted the orchestra, but nowadays he leaves this to others.

Nitsch needs a lot of people and materials for his actions. There used to be a lack of actors – those who play the parts of Christ, Maria, Dionysos and Oedipus, but also those who carry stretchers (Christ may lay down until he’s being ‘crucified’) – for some time now this isn’t the case any longer. Gallons of blood, milk, wine, water are ready in buckets to baptize or bless the actors and regalia with during the action. The orchestra, sometimes existing of about hundred members, uses Nitsch’ score to produce a lot of noise. Sometimes the orchestra is formed by two groups, for instance a band of farmers and a ‘beatgruppe’, who lead by their own conductor are fighting over who can produce the most noise. That’s how in 1978 Berlin punkband PVC collaborated with Nitsch, and recently Yugoslavian musical act Laibach negotiated with Nitsch about actions still to come.

Trademarks for Nitsch’ world of imagination are his crucified or hanging cadavers, often sheep, and the buckets filled with bowels. For the actions, now held for about eighty times, only two times animals have been slaughtered. Those who come to conclude that Nitsch’ actions turn themselves against animals, have misunderstood his intentions. He agrees on the fact that man is a hunter, but turns himself against those who kill for reasons of finance or status.

Let’s not forget we’re dealing with a happy event here! Nitsch takes care of his workers by giving them plenty of wine and bread. What happened when he organized a three-day-play years ago, I’d rather leave to the imagination of the reader. They might as well also wonder what the spectating, art loving audience was looking for.


Nitsch was able to buy Prinzendorf in 1971 because of a financial stroke of luck for his wife Beate, which he still considers a miracle. Several years after being able to buy the farm she died during a car accident. Now Nitsch lives at Prinzendorf with his second wife Rita, where they raise their son. In the meantime the villagers have come to respect Nitsch. It must have been the case that they regarded him for a long time as a kind of eccentric madman. But by now the village has become almost financially dependent on him. Nitsch is about the only tourist attraction. Muscled visitors of the local bar showed me the way to Prinzendorf in a highly mannered fashion. Within minutes my Viennese friend Kadmon and I stroll along the walls of the castle. Nitsch shouts something in German after Kadmon knocked on the door.

Confusion. That’s what I understand. And that there seem to be two appointments at the same time. There’s time for an interview until a group of photographers arrive. A glass of self-made Nitsch wine perhaps? And if the interview can be held in German? Nah gut, let’s versuch es mal.


Firstly I explain discovered his work through my interest in popculture, and that the information I have on him is rather limited.

Nitsch: I made two popbands famous. One of them is the punkband PVC from Berlin, the other is a group from Tjechoslovakia.

AB: The Plastic People?

Nitsch: Could be, I don’t remember anymore. If I’d really like to know I could find out.

AB: The biggest mistake journalists make when they interpret your work?

Nitsch: That would be the one where they don’t really study my work, but instead with their superficial interpretation project their personal wishes on it. But then, their profession isn’t intended to go into anything deep.

AB: But if that’s the case, are you at all interested in what they have to say about you?

Nitsch: Sure, they give me and my work publicity. I can use them to reveal the truth about my work.

(A few months ago a German TV reporter put a gun to Nitsch’ head after he concluded Nitsch’ work was concentrated around the theme of ‘agression’. This act was to be seen as a joke, a funny ending of the programme. The media’s attention on Nitsch was aroused since he had recently been promoted as a professor in ‘Gesamtkunst und malerei‘ (painting). A promotion a lot of people in circles of education protested against.)

Nitsch: Could people see that in Holland? Oh well, that man was a ‘drottel’… Most journalists are like that.

AB: Your work has also been associated with the so called apocalyptic culture. (‘Apocalypse Culture’ is a series of texts compiled by Adam Parfrey and Boyd Rice, Amok Press, New York, 1987)

Nitsch: I don’t think my work is a symptom of the end of time. I think my work is a glorification of creation. Let’s stand still at this very moment: people die, people are sick, they’re unfriendly towards each other, children are being born, animals butchered, there are happy people, people that read, masturbate, fly through the sky in an airplane. In this short period of time so unbelievably many things happen. It happens, it is true. Take for instance James Joyce who describes in ‘Ulysses’ what a couple of people experience within twenty four hours. I don’t regard my work as gloomy. What people actually are frightened of, is that both joyous and gruesome things happen at the same time. This requires a new kind of consciousness, a new way of looking. I’m not a social critic, I just show the divine comedy and the divine tragedy at the same time, and most people are not willing to open themselves up for this consciousness.

AB: What is your comment on the current U.S.A. versus Europe discussion?

Nitsch: Thank God there are differences between both cultures. The actions that we held here differ entirely from the happenings I’ve witnessed in the United States. The Americans were by the way extremely interested in our European approach. At the same time Americans as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning made a big impression on me. All and all, I think it’s a positive development that in a hundred or two hundred years something like a world-culture will exist.

AB: How are your connections with popculture?

Nitsch: Not very good, I know little about it and wish I had more time to study it all. But from the beginning on I incorporated popbands into my work. So I get a lot of complaints from the farmerbands that have to play my music. They can’t keep up with the long tones, they can’t show their virtuosity, etc. etc. This has to do with the scores that I write. They only take to account structure and intensity. But they can have any length one wishes for.

Nitsch: Did you visit any other artists in Vienna?

AB: Except for Kadmon no one else. By the way, I think Vienna is dreadful.

Nitsch: Yes, I agree on that.
Nitsch: To meet collectors is one of the most boring aspects of my work.


The photographers arrive. Rita Nitsch shows Kadmon and myself around, she lets us hear the music of Nitsch’ latest action. I’m reminded of Glenn Branca’s concert at Paradiso (Amsterdam, NL) that brought tears to my eyes. Supported by the wine I get into a kind of trance. My eyes spy on Nitsch’ bookcases. Besides Artaud and Jung I discover William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ and a big book called ‘Acid’. After more than an hour we say goodbye. Nitsch tells us we should have a look at the animals in the barn, but we have no time, our bus is about to leave. Outside the sun begins to shine.


“The sky over Vienna was a light, hard, china blue, and a cold spring wind whipped Martin’s loose gabardine topcoat around his thin body. He felt the ache of desire in his loins, like a toothache when the pain is light and different from any other pain. He turned a corner; the Danube stabbed his eyes with a thousand points of light, and he felt the full force of the wind and had to lean forward to maintain balance.”

(William S. Burroughs – Interzone; Viking Press, 1989)