Vienna showcases city’s shock art movement

As artists, they pushed the limits, bathing in blood, mud and urine. Vienna's famed "Actionists", whose avant garde movement may be the most radical in contemporary art, are the focus of a new exhibition in their home city.

Vienna showcases city's shock art movement
Hermann Nitsch, at a museum in Naples dedicated to his work. Photo: APA/HOCHMUTH

The movement emerged in the 1960s as part of the new performance-based art, which broke with the confines of traditional painting and used the body as both surface and site of art-making.

Vienna Actionism shied away from little – and sometimes landed the artists in jail.

"They sought a direct confrontation with reality, both physical and psychological, to limits that were very difficult to tolerate," said Eva Badura-Triska, curator of My Body is the Event at Vienna's Museum of Modern Art (Mumok).

The movement's main members were Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, who skinned animal carcasses, tied up human bodies or mixed them up with gore or mud.

Muehl, in particular, created a series of "still lifes" with body parts sticking out through planks, giving the impression of a dismembered corpse.

Brus once crisscrossed Vienna with his body painted white and bisected by a jagged black line before being arrested by the police. His other performances involved scatology or verged on pornography.

Artists also suffered

"Actionism broke away from traditional values. But it remains art. It is well-thought out, has a precise form and references," said Badura-Triska. "It's an extension of the field of painting, even though it is one of the most radical."

"They overturned the rules by considering as aesthetic things which were deemed ugly according to social norms," the curator added, conceding that the exhibition would be difficult to hold in certain countries.

The city of Sigmund Freud and other radical thinkers, Vienna already saw taboos broken in the early 20th century when artists like Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele shocked the world with sexually explicit artworks.

If the Vienna "Actionists" follow this spirit, a source for their non-conformity was also World War II, said Badura-Triska.

They lived "in a country where, unlike Germany, the Nazi past was pushed away, literally hidden in bourgeois normality, which helps explain their extreme reaction. 

"In this respect, 'Actionism' had a cathartic effect. It allowed suppressed drives to be released in controlled fashion, in the context of artistic experience," the curator said.

The exhibition compares the Vienna movement with other developments in performance-based and action art, featuring a wide range of international artists from Yoko Ono to Marina Abramovic.

The movement at times took a heavy toll. During a filmed performance which also featured her husband, a nude and bound Ana Brus had a nervous breakdown.

Günter Brus, who publicly urinated, defecated and cut himself with a razor blade, held his last live performance in 1970 in which he appeared nude and drank his own urine.

But Hermann Nitsch, 76, is still performing and has at least three museums devoted to his work in Austria and in Naples, Italy.

Otto Muehl died in 2013 at the age of 87 after being sentenced to seven years in jail on charges of sexual offences with minors and rapes committed in a commune he had founded.

The movement, which was little known in the 1960s, received a boost two decades later with a series of exhibitions in Cologne, Vienna, Paris and Los Angeles.

The exhibition at the Mumok runs until August 23rd.

By Philippe Schwab

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London Tube gets covered-up versions of Schiele nudes after it deems the originals too racy

As the art world plans to celebrate the centenary of Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele's death, some of his nudes have been dubbed too racy to show in their full glory, not least in the London underground.

London Tube gets covered-up versions of Schiele nudes after it deems the originals too racy
Photo: Christian Lendl/Vienna Tourist Board/AFP
Austrian museums will next year host a series of exhibitions and events to mark the centenary of his passing but time has apparently not dimmed some of the prudish attitudes prevalent in his lifetime regarding his rawest works, Vienna Tourist Board director Norbert Kettner told AFP.
Two of his works — “Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait),” from 1910, and his 1914 work “Girl With Orange Stockings,” appear with their genitals covered over after Transport for London found the uncensored originals beyond the pale.
Advertising hoardings in Germany have similarly covered the offending parts, even though the works were deliberately selected as “we wanted to raise a discussion and the theme of nudity seemed pertinent,” Kettner told AFP.
“The campaign was ready but when we came up with the first visuals we had several reactions of 'that won't do; regulations won't allow us to show genitalia,'” he explained after the London Tube and a German airport both complained.
“We had the green light for a very large format and, the day before they went up, agreement was withdrawn as an ethics committee felt (full nude versions) wouldn't be acceptable for an airport public” or patrons of London's underground trains.
The Viennese tourist office quickly revamped the pictures, covering up the offending organs and adding on the blotted out section the slogan, “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today.”
They have also added the hashtag #ToArtItsFreedom in London – a play on the “To every age its art. To every art its freedom” inscribed on the entrance of the Vienna Secession building housing the union of Austrian artists movement.
Kettner revealed that a Viennese display did not share the artistic-sexual qualms of the British or the Germans and had approved a “non-censored” version.
The prolific Schiele, born in 1890 and who died of Spanish flu aged 28, was not always popular in his homeland where some, notably in conservative circles, took a dim view of his vision of tortured eroticism.
Nonetheless, a retrospective of his work will see a number of exhibitions highlight his talents as well as those of his first mentor and Secession co-founder Gustav Klimt.