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The Bloody Past – and Hermann Nitsch’s Ecstasy

In 1962, Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch crucified the carcass of a slaughtered lamb while an assistant poured the animals blood over him, staining the white fabric tunic he wore, producing what the artist called a relic. The event was called Blood Organ, a precursor to Nitschs blood paintings currently on display at MCA Denver and the genesis for Nitschs extravagantly staged and choreographed ritual performances –  Aktionen, performed by his Orgien Mysterien Theater. Directed by Nitsch who serves as shaman, priest, and master of ceremonies, the Aktionen engage all five senses in an orgy of intoxication, spontaneity and impulsive frenzy to create an all encompassing, all embracing, total work of art””a gesamtkunstwerk””in which all forms are synthesized and subsumed. The events are filled with nude bodies, blood, wine, dancing, music, intoxicating scents, and tastes. Its a feast of existence, the goal of which is to restore the participants to an authentic state of being by overwhelming the buttoned-up repression that dominates the contemporary psyche. Image above: Schüttbild mit Hemd, 1990. Oil on linen, 78 3/4 x 118 1/8 inches. Courtesy Wayne F. J. Yakes

It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that Bloodlines is such a buttoned-up exhibition. It features no Aktionen, instead presents four relics of  a “6-Day Play” that took place in August 1998,  a monumental six-day-long performance wherein the artist ceremonially re-enacted the creation story, in a decadent event he declared his pinnacle. Also shown are “Schüttbild mit Hemd (Splatter Painting with Shirt),” (above) and “Ãœberarbeitetes Schüttbild (Revised Splatter Painting),” 2007. The  exhibition on the surface appears reverential and religious. The paintings on the walls are vivid in their redness or greenness. Centered in the larger of the two galleries are six liturgical cassocks lying on wooden rack- like altars in a plumb alignment that would do Donald Judd proud.

The average viewer to MCA will not realize that the red paint on these canvases is actual blood, until they read the accompanying wall text. The linen tunic hanging from the painting was worn by a performer or participant during an Aktionen as animal blood was poured and spattered, the thickness of the color is where hands wiped to remove not only blood, but entrails. What a viewer will sense is something sublime to the works, an element of violence and extremism emanating from the canvas, that contrasts with the ecumenical display. Curator Simon Zalkind has included music in the smaller gallery, a composition by Nitsch, who often orchestrates his performances beyond a crescendo.

“Action painting is a key element of my theater,” Nitsch said of his work in the accompanying catalog. “It is the first stage of realizing action on a surface, it is already a theatrical event.”

Nitschs paintings recall Abstract Expressionism, but transgress two dimensions as a record of a dramatic live event prolonged over days,  caught on canvases. Nitsch considers the the action of his painting to be theatrical, whereas I see an element of Gutaism to the work.  In Gutai art, the attempt was not to change or falsify the material but bring it to life. The opening of the Gutai manifesto states: “Under the cloak of an intellectual aim, the materials have been completely murdered and can no longer speak to us. …If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice. Keeping the life of the material alive also means bringing the spirit alive, and lifting up the spirit means leading the material up to the height of the spirit.”

Hermann Nitsch at MCA Denver

Schüttbild (6-Day-Play), 1998. Acrylic and blood on linen. 78 3/4 x 118 1/8 inches. Courtesy Wayne F. J. Yakes

The ritual sacrifice, blood as paint, provides Nitschs paintings with a life of their own – an infusion of spiritual dynamics. The tableaux pulse with a primal power and mystical energy of life, death and revival. Nitsch insists the paintings not be regarded as independent from the performances. That they not be aestheticized or turned into objects of art. Some of this intention might get lost given the enshrinement that finds them exhibited with candles, flowers, and vestments. Presented as  holy relics of  a catharses the viewer  likely has not experienced””there was sacrifice, there was blood, there was wine. Dionysian revelry and transgressions. Which contrast with how curator Zalkind presents the work (the relics) – in a tight Appollonian frame. He uses the repetition of the cassock-draped frames to exemplify the real-ness of the rituals. Employs what Nitsch has called the ritual of form to convey the concreteness of the art. The use of repetition seems to have focused Zalkind on the Christian and particularly Catholic elements in Nitschs works, but its a shame the chance was not taken also to investigate non-Christian myths. What about the dismemberment of Dionysus by the Titans; the blinding of Oedipus with his own hand ; Attis, who cut off his own genitals; and the will to power espoused by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche? as a few. The curator in limiting this too strictly misses that for Nitsch, neither his action painting nor gesamkunstwerk are limited to an orthodoxy, but present a complex history of consciousness and the physicality of cruelty and ecstasy.

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  1. Janina says:

    Very Interesting: I went to a lecture by Pierre Huyghe here at the UofC…he has been staging orgies as well. Do suppose it is a trend?

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