Hermann NITSCH: “My work should be a school of life, of perception and feeling”

Magazine issue: 
#3 2007 (16)

The Editorial Board of the Tretyakov Gallery Magazine express their sincere gratitude to the Hermann Nitsch Museum, MZM Museumszentrum Mistelbach, and Liesbeth Wächter-Böhm personally, for co-operation in the preparation of this article.

The MZM Museumszentrum Mistelbach opened on 24 May 2007 with the presentation of the Hermann Nitsch Museum, the largest museum in Austria dedicated to a single artist. The premiere show presented a comprehensive overview of the work of Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch in an exhibition space measuring 2,600 square meters, with a gallery complex with a total length of 61 meters.

My work should be a school of life, of perception and feeling. This fundamental belief has characterized the work of Hermann Nitsch over five decades of continuous artistic creation. Beginning on 25 May 2007, the new Hermann Nitsch Museum will honour this life's work with the largest public exhibition of the artist's work ever. The museum's opening celebrated the completion of the first construction phase of the MZM Museumszentrum Mistelbach, which is being built within the former industrial park of the Heger plough factory.

In addition to exhibiting the works of Hermann Nitsch, the museum will be devoted to researching and documenting the artist's work. An effort will be made to demonstrate the interdisciplinary connections and influences that have emanated from the complex and all-encompassing artistic endeavour known as the Orgy Mystery Theatre (OMT). Experts from the humanities, including specialists in theology, mythology, psychology, philosophy, cultural studies and the arts, as well as those with backgrounds in theatre, performance, actionism, painting, photography, film, music and literature will reflect on Nitsch's work in lectures, symposia and publications. Nitsch's music, which plays a key role in the Orgy Mystery Theatre, will be a focus of special attention and developed in cooperation with local music schools and brass bands.

The first presentation will include the following works by Hermann Nitsch: around 150 paintings and splatter paintings dating from between 1956 and 2007, around 75 graphic works from between 1983 and 2007, around 80 vestments and around 80 shrines, as well as 500 photographs and selected videos documenting Hermann Nitsch's numerous action performances. A space of its own will be reserved for the Asolo Room - relics and tools of the Orgy Mystery Theatre - from 1973 (on loan from Francesco Conz, Verona) and Hermann Nitsch's smelling and tasting laboratory.

Hermann Nitsch's work is closely linked to Viennese Actionism. In 1957 the artist was already developing the idea of the Orgy Mystery Theatre, in which Nitsch realized his conception of a "Gesamtkunstwerk”, a synthesis of the arts including painting, architecture and music. Taking the Greek mystery cults as its point of departure, this total work of art is aimed at a catharsis that in the end is intended to bring about a recognition of the individual's own self. This fundamental aesthetic position can be traced through Nitsch's entire oeuvre: in all of his work, there is a focus on animating the five senses of both the viewer and the active participant.

Inspired by Tachisme and Abstract Expressionism, Hermann Nitsch in the late 1950s and early 1960s devoted himself to painting. He also performed "Theatrical Painting Actions”, in which his so-called splatter paintings were developed. Although in 1961 the artist was still letting red paint run down his large canvases, he gradually began to replace it with blood. "Red is the colour that most intensively arouses attention, because it is simultaneously the colour of both life and death.” (Hermann Nitsch)

Since 1971 most of the performances of the Orgy Mystery Theatre have taken place in the Lower Austrian Prinzendorf Palace, where the artist lives and works. Nitsch is at the same time an actor, composer and author. In addition to performance directions and texts, these scores also include graphically notated musical pieces. Potentially, the artist's action performances know no bounds. With the invitation to realize his "122nd Action” in 2005 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the reopening of the Vienna Burgtheater after World War II, Hermann Nitsch for the first time enjoyed the public recognition of the official theatre world.

Into the 1980s, Hermann Nitsch devoted his energies exclusively to the realization of his idea of the Orgy Mystery Theatre, and it was only in the middle of the last decade that he again turned his attention to separate painting. Here the exploration of the phenomenon colour is paramount for Nitsch. In contrast to the years during which the artist used the colour red exclusively on account of its symbolic content, he now uses all of the colours of the spectrum in creating his paintings. Key aspects of his theory of colour are "synaesthetic relations to other sensory impressions” and "colour harmony” (Hermann Nitsch). In selected works and colour objects (colour scales) as well as in special texts on the theory of colour, the artist's cosmos is made visible in an exceptionally sensuous manner.

From 1989 through 2003 Nitsch taught at the Stadelschule State Academy of Fine Arts in Frankfurt and also at numerous summer academies. He held guest professorships in 1984/1985 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg and in 2004 at the Institute for Theatre Studies of the University of Vienna. His work has been shown in numerous important exhibitions, including the 1972 Documenta 5 and the 1982 Documenta 7 in Kassel.

Hermann Nitsch, the most prominent Austrian artist in terms of international reputation, and Christian Resch, Mistel- bach's mayor, were congenial partners in launching a museum project that represents a sort of thematic polyphony. Firstly, it is the revitalization of old industrial premises - those of an old plough factory; secondly, it is the site of a contemporary architectural intervention that is going to maintain its ground; thirdly, the Hermann Nitsch Museum highlights the oeuvre of an artist of international renown; and fourth - last, not least - this work will be put into an adequate cultural and historical context through displays at the Weinviertel Life World museum and the International Altar Wine Archive.

The museum centre itself offers a moment of contemplation and concentration. It is not by chance that the architects refer to it as "monastic grounds”. The fact that it is an "industrial monastery” because of its history fits this metaphor well. Large halls doing with a minimum of design - thus not forcing themselves upon the view er - have frequently turned out to be more suitable for displaying art than any other stylish museum building.

The premises reveal themselves at a glance. The way up from the railway station below runs between two head buildings (retained in their original form) to a structure that seems almost like a chapel. It used to be a forge, and for the time being the character of its interior, blackened with soot, will be preserved.

Behind it, the museum centre's new central piazza stretches out - including an expanse of water, a solitary maple tree, and a staircase with steps to sit on at the right-hand side and a large concrete wall at the left. The latter is destined to be used in various ways - as a projection and display surface. Although it may not suffice for Nitsch's truly large-scale action performances, it is perfectly suitable for smaller concerted events, and certainly also for other open-air activities, ranging from film screenings to theatrical and concert performances.

From the left-hand side of the entrance hall one can reach the two large exhibition halls - protected by roofing when it rains, while in beautiful weather the more attractive way to get there is across the piazza. Both the long and side halls - the architects consistently rely on "classical” vocabulary - were used in their entirety by Nitsch for the opening of the museum. The Weinviertel Life World will only be moving in during the second phase (from Autumn 2007).

The incredibly minimized and slender skeleton construction of the steel girders in the long hall is particularly beautiful. Nitsch has rightly pointed out that the appropriate environment for his works would first and foremost be an abundance of quiet wall space.

The long hall deserves its name: nine meters high at its centre and seven meters high at the sides, it is approximately 70 meters long. The display surface is five and a half meters high and has been lowered by one meter in the upper section of the hall, because of the sloping ground. This characteristic feature of the terrain has resulted in a spatial peculiarity: there is a kind of crypt, an underground exhibition hall, in the long hall, which will provide an ideal framework for certain works by Nitsch.

Hermann Nitsch's work, which has not least proved its room-filling qualities in the Vienna State Opera and the Burgtheater, as well as in Hradcany Castle in Prague, will function as a "drapery” that will be able to unfold itself in all its solemnity and magnificence against this backdrop as well.

Entrance to the Museum
Entrance to the Museum
Photo: MZM/Gerhard Koller
Exhibition view
Exhibition view
Exhibition view
Exhibition view
Exhibition view
Exhibition view
Photo: MZM/Gerhard Koller





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