Summary of Viennese Actionism
The term Viennese Actionism refers to a violent, radical, and explicit form of performance art that developed in the Austrian capital during the 1960s. Mainly consisting of four members, the group collaboratively staged, filmed, and photographed graphic performances - or aktions as they called them. They used their work to make taboo-breaking, often illegal, and sometimes repellent statements that expressed violent dissatisfaction with what they saw as the uptight, bourgeois government and society of post-World War II Austria. The Actionists thought Austrians were suppressing memories of the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis in their country, and were trying to force people to face these traumas head-on through their art.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Actionists were frustrated by what they saw as the limits and conventionality of abstract painting. Instead of paint they used organic materials such as blood, urine, milk, and entrails; instead of canvas they used naked bodies as 'sites' or 'surfaces' in their carefully controlled performances.
- Memories of life under the Nazis had a huge psychological impact on members of the group. They thought Austrians - especially the Viennese - were trying to suppress the role they had played in the crimes committed under the regime, and wanted to use their practices to force society to confront itself.
- Sigmund Freud was a touchstone for the group. It was in Vienna that psychoanalysis was born, and the Actionists echoed this symbolically by using their performances to exorcise their own traumatic experiences of WWII.
- The group were prepared to act illegally in pursuit of their art: Hermann Nitsch, for example, was arrested and imprisoned numerous times for breaking Austrian indecency laws by masturbating and enacting violent sexual scenes in his performances. It was through pushing their aktions beyond legal limits that they cemented their reputation as the most extreme of 20th century Performance artists.
Artworks and Artists of Viennese Actionism
This 3-minute silent film is the first Aktion by Brus, in collaboration with his wife Anni, and filmed by Kurt Kren. Completed four years after he dropped out of his formal education at a time when he had become more interested in the act of the painting than in the finished product. In choppy, disorienting scenes, the viewer sees various shots of a female nude (his wife) and the face of a male figure (himself), scenes of an interior (possibly studio or house) that include a cluttered table and a bicycle. Paint is smeared and thrown in such a way as to suggest blood (though the film is black and white, so this is an impression as the color of the paint cannot be confirmed) and violence. Compared to some of their later work, this Aktion is fairly benign though the affect on the viewer would have been one of disorientation and shock because of the filming technique and the implied violence/chaos.
Muehl first performed his Piss Aktion, in which he stood naked and urinated into fellow actionist Gunter Brus's mouth live on stage, at the Hamburg Film Festival in 1969, and it is remembered for its intentional and extreme violation of society's norms. Piss Aktion is one of the most notorious demonstrations of art merging with life and breaking free of the walls of the art museum - a definition that was advocated by the Actionists and the other performance movements of the '60s and '70s (such as Happenings and Fluxus). In the obscene daring of Piss Aktion, Muehl was moving beyond what he referred to as the more 'bourgeois' Happenings into what he labeled 'direct art', in which he used bodily functions (such as urination) as tools for expressions of intense, pent-up energy and taboo-breaking.
Action Number Six: Vienna Walk
Vienna Walk was one of Brus's best-known aktions and his first completely public performance. It consisted of the artist walking through the center of Vienna dressed as what he called a 'living painting' with his body painted entirely white with crude black 'stitching' dividing it and his suit into two halves lengthways. It is particularly important to the history of performance art because the photographs that document it - taken by the artist's friends and collaborators - have created such a strong myth around what really happened on the day, and are considered some of the first records of performance art to have become artworks in their own right. Revealing the work to unsuspecting passers-by rather than to viewers who came intentionally to a gallery or performance space for a pre-advertised event also continued the Actionist ethic of liberating art from the traditional gallery or museum, as well as forcing ordinary members of the Austrian public to come face-to-face with highly controversial art they might otherwise have made an effort to avoid. The work paved the way for future artists to perform to an unsuspecting public on the street.
Black and white photographs - Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna
In the sixty eight images that make up Rudolf Schwarzkogler's 3rd Action, the viewer sees a bandaged, possibly dead figure in highly contorted positions lying on a creased white sheet. As with the rest of his work, viewers finds themselves inventing sinister narratives that could explain the disturbing scene. There are strong forms in the images such as white balls and rectangular mirrors that are very simple but have a huge aesthetic impact. The artist is also presenting us with an enigmatic depiction that involves both healing and pain: bandages look suffocating, fluids being injected look poisonous, and it seems the figure is being mutilated rather than treated.
Unlike the other Actionists, whose principal interest was in the experience of live performance, Schwarzkogler's aktions were all carefully staged purely for the camera, and he created just six of them before committing suicide in 1969. The castration theme in some of Schwarzkogler's other work inspired a myth that he had accidentally killed himself by cutting open his own penis in a performance-to-camera gone wrong whereas he actually died by falling or jumping from his third-story Vienna apartment.
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Kunst und Revolution (Art and Revolution)
The actionists' performances finally tipped into illegality on the night of June 7th, 1968, when Gunter Brus, Muehl, Peter Weibel and Oswald Wiener staged a violent and multiple taboo-breaking takeover of a student gathering at the University of Vienna. The participants broke into a lecture hall before whipping and mutilating themselves, urinating, covering themselves in their own excrement, masturbating, and making themselves vomit - all while singing the Austrian national anthem. The night is remembered by art historians as one of the most important of the Actionists' joint works; by acting so outrageously and flouting the law so rebelliously, they summed up everything that they had been expressing in previous performances in one intense artistic event. It marked the beginning of the end of Actionism, as key members left Vienna to avoid prosecution. Many Austrians still remember the event, called Uni-Ferkelei (university obscenity) by their national press, with revulsion. A few photographs and a two-minute film are the only surviving pieces of documentation of the seminal evening.
Poured Painting is just one of a series of two-dimensional works Hermann Nitsch created alongside his graphic and often violent performances. It was made by throwing and pouring red paint directly onto sacking material - the final framed piece is reminiscent of the aftermath of a bloody killing or crazed attack. Before, during, and after the Actionist era, Nitsch in particular has continued to be inspired by the energy of action painting in every aspect of his practice. He employs its techniques in his own unique way, using blood, milk, entrails, and other organic materials in his paintings to evoke the same themes of ritual, sacrifice, and redemption that he tackles in his performances. Nitsch's desire to use his art as a kind of catharsis, and to incorporate Christian symbols (crucifixion, communion) with pagan ones (drunken excess, the drinking of blood) have earned him a reputation as one of the most provocative and influential of all Actionists.
Oil paint on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Action Pants: Genital Panic
Action Pants: Genital Panic was a 1968 performance by feminist performance artist, Valie Export memorialized as a series of six identical posters. It took place in a Munich art cinema; Export walked among the audience wearing pants from which the crotch had been cut out, exposing her genitals to them. The artist was seeking to challenge existing notions of women in films as passive and without control of their own sexuality. Though she isn't generally considered a full-blown member of the Viennese Actionists, the Austrian performance artist is often associated with the movement because she was based in Vienna at the same time and her performances had a similarly brazen, anarchic tone. Like the Actionists, her work often involved using her body as a site; she regularly subjected herself to pain and potential humiliation in the name of art and to make strong, feminist statements against the conservative Austrian politics of the time.
6 screenprints on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Blood Organ was the group's first performance together, and it's said to mark the movement's beginning - containing many of the hallmarks that would become associated with Nitsch's and Muehl's performance practices in particular, both materially and conceptually (the photo shown here is of a later performance, not the original 1962 piece). The original performance took place over the course of three days in Muehl's basement studio, and culminated in the bloody crucifixion and disembowelment of a dead lamb, whose innards were then nailed down and drenched with hot water and more blood. It subverted the Christian (most pointedly Catholic) symbol of the Lamb of God by hanging the dead creature upside down, lending the piece an intense potency and signaling the group's desire to cause controversy among conservative, religious Austrians. It also explored what Actionist Adolf Frohner called 'the aesthetic of the ugly', which prioritized true representation over beauty in works of art. "I don't attempt to create a beautiful, aesthetic image of people," Frohner said, "I accept reality, which is still beautiful and true even when it is ugly." This action was especially influential for Nitsch, who wrote a 1964 manifesto based on it.
In early works by Brus, much of the violence was only implied. In this late work, Brus urinated into a vessel and drank, began frenzied action, then slashed his own shaven skull with a knife. Art historians have argued that in subjecting his own body to such brutality, Brus is symbolically reclaiming the body tortured and killed by the Nazis; he is investigating the body's tolerance for pain. The performance, like others by the group, was meant to shock the Viennese bourgeois out of their complacency. This was Brus's last Aktion (one year before the official end of the group); he realized that there was no further boundaries to push except with his own death.
Note: this image is not from this performance - just a rough representation of what transpired.
Beginnings of Viennese Actionism
At the dawn of the 1960s, Vienna was in a broken state after being ravaged by two world wars, and the city's art scene was not a very large one. Its heyday as a center for the artistic avant-garde before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was long over, and artists who had been active during that period such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and the artists and designers of the Wiener Werkstatte were long dead. Some of the Actionists, however, would later cite these early-20th-century artists as direct influences in part because they had also rebelled against the status quo and were not afraid to offend. Rudolf Schwarzkogler, for example, was inspired by Schiele's distorted paintings of figures to make his morbid, staged photographs featuring corpse-like bodies.
Education and War Experiences
There were four main Actionists involved in the movement: Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Guenter Brus. They had all received a formal art education at various schools in Vienna, giving them a thorough knowledge of the traditional art forms that they would later rebel against. Muehl gained a teaching degree in German and History in 1952 and taught for a year before studying at Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts in 1953. Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler met while both were studying painting at the Graphic Training and Research Institute, while Gunter Brus studied graphic art at the Akademie fur Angewandte Kunst between 1957 and 1960 in Vienna before dropping out.
Muehl was the oldest of the group and the only one to have fought in the Second World War. The three younger Actionists had been too young to join the armed forces, but nevertheless felt traumatized by their experiences of living through the Nazi regime and desperately wanted to put this across in their work.
Informal Meetings and the First Aktions
The Actionists intentionally and explicitly made art outside traditional gallery contexts. Their aktions could variously be encountered in one of their studios, in cinemas, lecture rooms, theatres, and student clubs, but rarely in anything resembling a conventional white cube gallery space. Their resistance to traditional spaces and exhibits makes it difficult to plot the development of their movement because they had no seminal group exhibitions in the traditional sense, and were more like a loosely affiliated gang than a tightly defined art movement. Instead, art historians track the movement's evolution by looking at the dates of their most recognized aktions and events. Many of these were quite poorly attended at the time and only reached art-myth status years later as the Actionists' importance to the art historical canon began to be recognized.
Muehl and Nitsch's first recorded, three-day-long Blutorgel Aktion took place in Muehl's basement studio in 1962. With Muehl's encouragement, Gunter Brus co-created his first aktion with his wife Anni in 1964. The first piece in his iconic Self Painting series - in which he coated his head and a wall behind with exuberant strokes of paint using a large brush - followed in 1965. Schwarzkogler performed his first, live aktion - Wedding - in 1965, using the clinical backdrop and themes of binding and mutilation that would come to typify his later, staged photographs.
Actionism and Other Performance Movements
Art historians strongly associate Viennese Actionism with other pioneering performance and conceptual art movements of the 1960s - especially Happenings and Fluxus. While they were not directly affiliated with these other groups, the Actionists shared their desire to break free from the confines of traditional art production (especially painting) and explore new theoretical and physical territory in their art.
Living as poor artists in broken post-war Vienna, most of the Actionists were actually quite isolated for much of the 60s and had relatively little direct contact with other European and American practitioners of the time - simply because they could barely afford to travel. A notable turning point was Muehl and Brus's participation in the Destruction In Art Symposium, held in London in 1966 that was led by the German artist Gustav Metzger. The event brought together Fluxus artists such as Yoko Ono and Al Hansen as well as other performance practitioners from around the world for a series of staged happenings and discussions. The event received a good deal of international press and brought the Actionists' activities to a much wider audience.
Viennese Actionism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Recorded and Live Performance
Actionism paralleled other artistic movements of the time that were moving away from traditional mediums and materials towards performance such as Fluxus, Happenings, the Japanese Gutai, and French Situationism. All these groups had their own preferences as to how their work should be documented and remembered - the Actionists usually preferred films and photographs, though written plans and accounts of aktions also survive and are often shown alongside them. The press photographer Ludwig Hoffenreich and avant-garde filmmaker Kurt Kren were the main documenters.
While every member of the group documented their live aktions photographically, Rudolf Schwarzkogler was the only one of them to stage performances specifically for the camera, in private. After putting on his first aktion in front of a live audience, he claimed their presence was too distracting, and developed his own, influential style of staged photography. Every element in each of his subsequent five works was carefully selected - he used recurring themes and props to create black and white compositions with strong, formal qualities that set them apart from the messy, random images that characterized performances by the other Actionists.
Painting and Drawing
Despite their stated rebellion against particular types of abstract painting, the group was very much inspired by paint as a material. As well as using organic liquids such as blood, milk, and urine in their aktions, most of them continued to create their own canvasses and drawings as well as performances throughout the heyday of Actionism. Hermann Nitsch, for example, used blood poured from a cloth to create his Blood Pictures from the early 1960s onwards - works that very much reflected the themes of ritual, redemption, and sacrifice that he was exploring in his aktions.
Later Developments - After Viennese Actionism
Within a decade of Brus and Muehl announcing the official 'end' of Viennese Actionism in 1971, the movement started to be recognized as one of Austria's most important and influential contributions to 20th-century art. There have been a number of major survey exhibitions at museums worldwide over the last few years, firmly (and ironically) placing the group in the canon they originally sought to overturn.
The group has had a marked influence on later artists. U.S. conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim, for example, was one of a number of conceptualists to self-harm his naked body in performances that were strongly influenced by Actionism. The group is also considered to have had a considerable impact on Serbian-born, New York-based performance artist Marina Abramovic, the 'grandmother of performance art' who has also used her body as a 'site' for violent expression in front of a live audience from the 1970s to the present day.
Useful Resources on Viennese Actionism
- Vienna Actionism: Art and Upheaval in 1960s ViennaOur PickBy Eva Badura-Triska, Kerstin Barnick-Braun, Herbert Klocker
- Amor Psyche Aktion: The Feminine in Viennese ActionismBy Karl Goldblatt, Pilar Parcerisas, Reinhard Priessnitz, August Ruhs
- Rite of Passage: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism 1960-1966Our PickBy Hubert Klocker
- Viennese Actionism: Gunther Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf SchwarzkoglerBy Pilar Parcerisas