Hermann Nitsch Biography
i was born in vienna in 1938 and grew up during the second world war. between 1943-45 i experienced bombing raids every day as a child. my father was killed in russia. the war turned me into a cosmopolite and opponent of all nationalisms and all politics while just a schoolboy. i refused to try at school and was forced to leave grammar school. my talent for drawing enabled me to enrol at the graphic arts college. i received a good basic training there. i moved on from studies of nature to abstract painting. i was also very interested in poetry, prose, theatre and classical music. the aim to produce a total work of art, beginning with greek tragedy and moving on to claudio monteverdi, richard wagner, richard strauss, claude debussy, alexander scriabin, wassily kandinsky and arnold schoenberg, fascinated me. philosophy, comparative religion and psychoanalysis, the mysticism practiced in all religions – this all interested me. at this time i also learnt to appreciate the beauty of the countryside in the weinviertel. i had profound experiences of nature. after completing my studies in 1958 i became a graphic artist at the technical museum (vienna). i moved into a large studio there and was able to work a lot on the scores of the o.m. theatre. i tried to write a primal drama lasting 6 days that condensed ancient tragedy, shakespeare, faust, kleist and wagner, and express a common denominator. reading freud and jung i wanted to integrate redemption myths, seen and interpreted from a depth psychology perspective. the primal drama used language. the actors were to speak their roles. the language was crammed with sensory images. the book die wortdichtung des o.m. theaters illustrates this stage in the development of my work. why should my audience be affected only by the verbally quoted recollections of sensory feelings and perceptions. i demand from my audience direct sensory experience. the play had directives telling them to taste, smell, look, listen and touch. flesh, innards and fruit were given to the audience to touch and feel. odours were spread, incense and other materials were burnt, liquids like blood, fuel, vinegar, milk, urine, petrol, turpentine, ammoniac, hot water were poured throughout the theatre venue. all this led to the theatre of orgies and mysteries, which surpassed language. from now on real events taking place in the present were to be staged.
in 1959 an exhibition in the vienna künstlerhaus showed works of informell tachism by sam francis, pollock, de koonig, tapies, mathieu, rainer and many others. i understood this painting immediately. these painters were attempting to do what i wanted to achieve in theatre. i joined this action painting. the first stage in realising the o.m. theatre actually took place on canvas. from 1960 to 1967 i held exhibitions, action performances, painting actions in vienna which provoked enormous protest and scandal, and earnt me three prison sentences and a court decision of half a year on probation. besides the opponents of my work there were also many who appreciated it and were very enthusiastic. eva krannich became my wife. she supported me selflessly, because i wasn’t earning any money with my art. peter kubelka and wolfgang tunner became my lifelong friends.
from 1964 i carried out important body actions with schwarzkogler and cibulka, who took on the roles of passive participants, which today may be seen as the beginnings of body art. cibulka became a friend and supported my work for decades as a passive actor and photographer of the actions.
in 1961 i got to know muehl, brus and schwarzkogler. the four of us were called the viennese actionists. performative art was our common basis. in 1966 brus, muehl, krenn, weibl and myself were invited by gustav metzger to london to take part in the ‘destruction in art’ festival. we faced an international forum and all of us enjoyed great success. my action was enthusiastically received by the audience, but cut short by the london police. once again the event organisers were brought before the courts. after my return from london eva nitsch filed for divorce. i was deeply sad, despairing, penniless and facing ruin. i left vienna in 1967, went to munich and found a warm, dear friend in beate könig. she took me in.
at Christmas 1967 peter kubelka wrote to me with the news that jonas mekas wanted to invite me to the US to stage my theatre. in january 1968 I flew to new York. beate visited her sister living in southwest africa. i performed two actions in new york, in the old cinematheque on wooster street. the actions were a huge success. all the happening and fluxus artists supported me, nam june paik, charlotte moorman, allan kaprow, jonas mekas, carolee schneemann. the echo in the press was overwhelming. a large action in cincinatti was first prohibited and then triumphantly carried out after all. the performance of my work in america was the first really large success i had. i returned to munich on good friday. beate picked me up from the airport. a few days later we knew that we wanted to marry. beate gave me the courage needed to realise my work. she supported me and my work. i performed a number of important actions in munich. most importantly the action immaculate conception with hanel koeck. at goethe platz in munich there was an art space that was devoted to the performing of actionist art. it was financed by a daughter of the bosch family, eva madelung. The art space was under the direction of alfred gulden and peter nemetschek. i performed the 7th abreaction play there. it was prohibited by the police. thanks to a ruse we were able to perform it the next morning. the performance became a major work in international performance art. brus also performed an action. in the same year i was able to perform two actions in the US, in new brunswick and binghamton. the latter in binghamton turned into a huge scandal. after returning, in the same year i was able to stage an action in cologne as part of the happening and fluxus exhibition.
in 1971 beate nitsch was able to acquire prinzendorf castle for my theatre. an association for supporting and promoting the theatre of orgies and mysteries was founded. down to the present day the association continues to stage events at prinzendorf over pentecost. it was at this time that wolfgang wunderlich became a good friend and my assistant for many years. at the recommendation of raimer jochims i was appointed guest lecturer at the frankfurt städelschule. i was a guest in frankfurt on several occasions until 1988 when i took over a class for interdisciplinary art the städelschule until my retirement as emeritus professor in 2001. teaching was a source of great joy for me. i’ve also taught at the hamburg lerchenfeld art academy, at the reykjavik art academy and the summer academy in Salzburg, where Kokoschka had set up and groomed his school of seeing. i was vedova’s successor. because of how my theatre was organised i actually had to teach and learn the whole time, down to the present day.
in 1972 harald szeemann invited me to take part in the documenta in kassel. i met francesco conz during this year. he loved my work and collected it until his death. his acquisitions gave me my first income as an artist. in december of the same year, with the help of jonas mekas and peter kubelka, i was able to perform 12 hours of the o.m. theatre in new york’s mercer center, for which kubelka himself did the cooking.
peppe morra invited me to naples in 1974 to stage an exhibition and perform an action. the action turned out to be a huge success. morra and the neapolitans were excited and impressed. the police had observed the action and the following day we were expelled from italy. morra became a loyal friend and enthusiastic supporter of my work. he published scores of books, had them translated into italian, organised many of my actions and laid the foundation for my success in italy.
to mark the opening of the first fiac in paris, galerie stadler staged the 48th action. the action triggered bedlam, became the talk of the day in paris. in 1975, with beate’s help, the first day and the first night of the 6-day play were held in prinzendorf. around 100 performers were involved, peter kubelka cooked and alfred gulden directed. the actions took place in all conceivable spaces, in the stalls, the wine cellars, the courtyard and the park of the castle. everything took place within the castle property itself, surrounded by a perimeter wall.
in 1977 my wife beate nitsch was killed in an accident. an unspeakable blow, the severest misfortune to befall me in my whole life. i went through the most profound grief. i called absolutely everything into question, but all my friends and my aging mother helped me get through. in the same year an action was performed in santa lucia church in bologna. this action was the requiem for beate. she helped once again because during this action i recognised that my music needed to go beyond just drawn-out blocks of sound. during this performance i found the future direction my music had to take. i moved from diessen on lake ammer back to prinzendorf. in 1978 morra succeeded in performing a 12-hour action in the roman theatre in trieste with my team. an action took place in arnheim in the same year. francesco conz was able to organise a large action in florence in the monastero della oblate. in the autumn of this year an action was held in new york to mark the opening of the new york art fair. in 1982 rudi fuchs and johannes gachang invited me to the documenta in kassel. i was well represented. in 1983 rudi fuchs showed an exhibition of my works at the stedelijk museum in eindhoven. an action was performed in the same year. a lifelong friendship with erni and herbert gadenstätter was forged. their friend christine könig lived with me from 1984-86. she helped me greatly in the organisation of my work.
in 1987 i was able to perform a painting action in the vienna secession. it was a proud moment to show my works where klimt, schiele and hodler had shown theirs. in 1988 i represented austria at the sydney biennale. i staged a large painting action. it triggered enormous fuss and public interest. in the same year i married rita leitenbor. ever since she has encouraged and supported my work, she became my manager. rita has taken part in all the actions that followed and has made sure that prinzendorf was restored expertly and in line with heritage preservation.
in 1992 I had to represent austria at the wold expo in seville. peter weiermair curated the exhibition. another scandal ensued, triggered by austria. in spain the exhibition was a great success. federal president klestil refused to open the exhibition because of the bloodied priest vestments. my friend wolfgang denk was director of the krems kunsthalle at the time. in 1993 he staged a large exhibition of my work in the national gallery in prague, at the location in hradčany and in 1994 at the minoritenkirche in krems-stein. he later became the founding director of the nitsch museum in mistelbach.
at the opening of my exhibition in seville director holender offered me the chance to create the stage setting and décor for the opera herodiade by jules massenet at the vienna state opera. premiere was in 1995, the performance became one of the greatest successes i ever had. the vienna public made its peace with me. later i also created the décor for philip glass’s opera satyagraha in 2001. at the zurich opera house i took on the décor and co-direction of the stage performance of robert schumann’s musical version of goethe’s faust, with franz welser-möst as conductor. in 2011 i was again responsible for décor and co-direction for st. francis of assisi by messian at the bavarian state opera in munich. i have tried to translate the possibilities of my own theatre concept to the staging of works by other composers. for now though i wish to focus on my own work.
in 1998 the 6-day play was performed in the o.m. theatre in prinzendorf. this was the (hitherto) largest realisation of my work. around 500 contributors produced the action out of nothing. three orchestras, a chamber music group, a choral school, a large mixed choir, a kitchen, a carpentry, a butcher, doctors and even lawyers were needed. the music was conducted by clemens gadenstätter and two co-conductors. the score, for both the actions and music, was precisely composed for all 6 days. the action took place in all the spaces and stalls, the unground cellars, in the courtyard and park and the orchard of the castle. this time the surrounds, the landscape of the weinviertel, was also included. the wine cellars in the fields and lanes were visited. processions led through meadows, fields and vineyards. the whole area around prinzendorf was turned into a holy folk festival. the play gave those involved the atmosphere and space for orgiastic excessive and tragic experiences, meditative enlightening moments of fathoming the cosmic whole, of being. we were wrongly targeted by hostile animal rights activists. right-wing politicians wanted to have the event shut down. they didn’t succeed. we could carry it out until the end. as always, a great success was tied to unnecessary protests and scandals. the echo in the press and media was extraordinary.
the life-affirming festival of the o.m. theatre explores the thinking body and the sensory experiencing of our reality. the anatomical inspection of our carnal corporeality is represented by the slaughtered animals, the opening and disembowelling of their carcases. the inners and entrails swelling out are smeared with blood and mucus. the sensual pageantry of the sacrificial acts pushes towards the resurrection of the flesh. the naked human body experiences, existentially, being, completely passive and active. the synesthetic clustering of the sensual experiences allows the body to penetrate deeper into being. the 6-day play of the o.m. theatre is a concentrated existential attempt to experience being intensely. what participants go through in the six days, the synesthetic condensation of experience through form, is to be transposed to normal everyday life. there are three drafts of rules of observance which shall enable adherents to bring the dense experience of the play into normal forms of living.
in 2003 a large retrospective was shown in the essl museum in klosterneuburg. all of the material was then purchased by karl heinz essl. the 115th action was then staged in the essl museum in the same year. a warm friendship between essl and myself developed.
in 2006 a large retrospective of my work was held in the martin gropius bau in berlin. in 2007 the nitsch museum was opened in mistelbach. wolfgang denk, governor pröll and mayor resch are to be thanked for contributing vitally to the building and realising of the nitsch museum. 4000 people from literally around the world came to the opening. in 2008 giusepee morra opened the museo nitsch in naples. morra shows my activities in italy and here too thousands of people came along. it was a great success. my work is much loved in italy and above all in naples. my most faithful suppoters are there.
one of the highlights of my life was the performance of the 122nd action in the vienna burgtheater, initiated by director bachler. in this theatre the music was compelling. the performance was a triumph. the music of my theatre was becoming increasingly important. i was able to perform it in concert form in europe and the united states. symphonies by me were performed in vienna, graz, basel, reykjavik, munich, rome, mistelbach, mexico and verona. organ concerts took place in vienna, linz, salzburg, berlin, brussels, frankfurt, luxemburg, bern, glasgow, new york and toronto.
in 2009 the nitsch foundation was set up by michael karrer and rudolf kratochwill. later my wife rita nitsch took over the directorship. the foundation is to promote and support my work, organise events, while selling my works is also important.
in 2012 michael karrer was appointed artistic director of the nitsch museum in mistelbach. together with me he has realised a number of wonderful exhibitions and events. his most tremendous achievement was a nitsch monography, almost 1000 pages in total. it is a standard and reference work.
in 2012 peppe morra organised the 135th action in cuba. everything was pleasing and joyful in this wonderful country. the actors and the students taking part were enthusiastic, gave everything they had, were gripped by the (pagan) sensual rituals, which allowed for an excessive experience. once again the music conducted by andrea cusumano was a stirring event. the university of havana gave me an honorary doctorate after the performance. in 2013 the centraltheater in leipzig was able to perform a 3-day play, the 138th action. it was a forceful performance. it was attacked by animal rights activists, but the performance went ahead undisturbed.
in 2017 our team was invited to hobart in tasmania to perform the 150th action. after a long and difficult trip we finally reached our destination. all my actors, foremost my son leo kopp, but also my personal assistant josef smutny gave their best. our guests were also very well prepared and gave us wonderful support. the echo in the press and media was extremely positive and, besides australia, interested the whole anglo-saxon world.
to mark my 80th birthday exhibitions were held in berlin, frankfurt, london, paris, vienna, prinzendorf, hagen and the two nitsch museums in naples and mistelbach. the action symphony, the 155th action, was premiered in mistelbach. in 2019 the albertina is hosting a large exhibition of my paintings, spanning my entire working life.
in 2020 my new painting turned more and more towards resurrection and hence back to the orgies mysteries theatre. giant paintings bursting with floral colours, the paint applied lusciously in frenzied rapture, were shown in the exhibitions.
in 2021 the bayreuth festival had to stage the valkyrie concertante because of the corona crisis, and i was invited as action artist to perform an actionist happening on the stage while the music of all three acts was played. i chose to put on a painting action. the poured and smeared paint, the colours spanning the whole spectrum of the rainbow, competed with the blazing coloration of wagner’s music in a positive sense. the various acts of painting were like music. sounds turned into colours.
in 2022 i‘d like to once again perform an elaborated version of the 6-day play in prinzendorf. here too the music will be more crucial. the o.m. theatre is smelted into a 6-day play. set in the surrounding countryside, in the vineyards, in the corn fields, in the cellar lanes of the weinviertel, joy will abound. sounds never heard before, resonating out to touch the universe, will lead our ecstatic upsurges to the essential. taking place again and again, resurrection and enlightening epiphany determines all being. all the gardens are to begin to bloom and drown in the lavish abundance of floral splendour. my job will to be create a festival celebrating life. prinzendorf castle, the o.m. theatre, is to be the centre of the festivities. from here the festivities shall spread to embrace all of nature, the whole of creation, creation revealing itself to be a celebration of life and this despite the tragic, despite the axial point of death, out of which all recurrence arises eternally. the tragic of demise and the renewal ever developing out of it will be appreciated as the turning point in the cycle of the eternal recurrence.
the dionysian excess corresponds to the mentioned facts. it is creation and destruction simultaneously. it can be seen as identical with the big bang, the fundamental excess. besides the dramatic understanding of the event that is being through the o.m. theatre, this can also be attained by the synthesising meditative fathoming of the whole. countless solar systems, galaxies, cosmoses residing next to one another in infinity make up the universe in space. we descend to the point of tranquillity and see that the endlessly occurring event of being circles around us in solemnly wide orbits, inclosing us. (2019/2021)
† Hermann Nitsch passed away on April 18, 2022 after a serious illness at the age of 83.