Hermann Nitsch, Austrian avant-garde artist, dies at 83

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Hermann Nitsch, a leading Austrian avant-garde artist whose blood-splattered canvases and ritual performances involving the slaughter and crucifixion of animals sparked scandal and sensation in the art world for more than half a century, died April 18 in a hospital in Mistelbach, Austria. He was 83 years old.

He had contracted meningitis and died of pneumonia, wrote Martha M. Schildorfer, representative of the Nitsch Foundation in Vienna, in an email.

Mr. Nitsch grew up during the destruction and deprivation of World War II and early developed a transgressive concept of art – one that went beyond even the most experimental visual experience to include sensory stimulation. such as the moans of a howling choir, the scent of burning incense and the slippery feel of animal entrails.

“I am everything: painter, poet, director, musician, lyricist and sculptor,” he once told the Associated Press. “I think art as such is absolutely free, especially in terms of how the artist chooses to make it. … The splendor and color of death correspond to the color of life.

Mr. Nitsch became a leading exponent of Viennese Actionism, an art movement that emerged in the 1960s from the traditions of Surrealism and Dada and captured worldwide attention for his often graphic presentations of the performance art.

Mr. Nitsch staged events known as “actions” that relied on pagan and Christian rites in an effort, he said, to lay “bare the origins of the creation of sadomasochistic myths”.

In a single action, Mr. Nitsch disembowelled and dismembered a lamb. In another, an actor re-enacting the crucifixion was drenched in the blood of a slaughtered bull. Another mock castration.

“Overcoming the barrier of revulsion”, the London Daily Mail quoted him as saying, “is a task of art.”

In his paintings, Mr. Nitsch used materials such as blood and pig entrails in addition to acrylic. During public performances in which he sprayed his “pouring paintings” with bloody red paint, the public “experienced an artist-priest or a priest-artist who celebrated the production process of art claimed as an unholy mass,” a writer for the German newspaper Die Welt wrote after Mr Nitsch’s death.

Mr. Nitsch saw his life’s work, beginning in the late 1950s and continuing until his death, as combining to form what he called the Orgies Mysteries Theatre. Every part of his actions was meticulously scripted, with Mr. Nitsch composing the sound elements, which included Gregorian chants and noise orchestras.

“Mr. Nitsch is an artist for whom excess is not a dirty word, and the idea of ​​the total work of art, in which the walls between disciplines, response categories and everything else are attacked, is very much alive,” art critic Michael Brenson wrote in The New York Times in 1988.

The most dramatic episode of his opus was a 1998 staging of a six-day play involving 500 attendees and, according to the Associated Press, “13,000 liters (over 3,400 gallons) of wine, hundreds liters of blood, [kilograms] of grapes and tomatoes, several animal carcasses and musical accompaniment.

It “aims to be the biggest and most important celebration of the peoples,” Nitsch said. “It is an aesthetic ritual glorifying existence.”

Mr Nitsch’s actions have drawn protests from animal rights activists, including French actress Brigitte Bardot, who has denounced him as a ‘barbaric master of horror’ and the Six Days play as a “satanic spectacle”. Mr. Nitsch was arrested several times and was expelled from Italy at one point.

“I was a bit proud of that,” he told publication ARTnews. “My work stirred people, and I saw myself in the same league as other great misunderstood artists.”

In the art world, Mr. Nitsch’s detractors viewed him as a gratuitous provocation.

“You don’t have to be particularly religious or love animals to be offended by the carnage in Mr. Nitsch’s art,” art critic Roberta Smith wrote in The Times in 1989. whose violence barely conceals the work’s basic sweetness and laziness. Despite the often powerful beauty of his art, there is ultimately a sense of extreme wastefulness—of animal lives as well as artistry—that challenges Mr. Nitsch’s enterprise.

Proponents of Viennese Actionism saw its bloody brazenness as an implicit reference to the suppressed memory of Austria’s role in World War II and the support of much of the Austrian population for Hitler when Germany annexed the country in 1938.

Referring to the animals used in his actions, Mr Nitsch remarked that “the meat I use is not eaten but used for a theatrical performance, a higher purpose”.

Mr. Nitsch was born in Vienna on August 29, 1938, the year of the Nazi annexation of Austria, known as the Anschluss.

During the Second World War, “I lived through bombardments every day when I was a child”, he recalls. “My father was killed in Russia. The war made me a cosmopolitan and an opponent of all nationalisms and all policies when he was only a schoolboy.

According to his account, he had little motivation to succeed academically and was forced to drop out of high school. However, he showed an early talent for drawing and trained in graphic design before working as a commercial artist in what is now the Museum of Science and Technology in Vienna.

He began to develop the concept of the Orgies Mysteries Theater in 1957. By the end of his career, Mr. Nitsch’s works had been exhibited in institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Center Pompidou in Paris and the Tate in London.

Mr. Nitsch’s marriage to Eva Krannich ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Beate König, whom he married in 1968, died in 1977.

Survivors include his wife of 33 years, Rita Leitenbor Nitsch of Prinzendorf, Austria, and his wife Beate’s adopted son, Leonhard Kopp of Kassel, Germany.

Since 1971, Mr. Nitsch had performed his actions at Prinzendorf Castle in Lower Austria, which he owned and resided in. The latest episode of the Orgies Mysteries Theater is set to stage this summer, according to Schildorfer.

“There are no limits in art,” Mr. Nitsch told Vice in 2010. “In my opinion, anything can be art. Although at some point you might have to be faced with the penal code and your own conscience.


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