hermann nitsch' orgien mysterien theater

the artist as a high priest?
about the relation between art, religion, ritual and reality


Alongside Otto Mühl, Günther Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Hermann Nitsch (°1938) is a prominent member of the Austrian ‘Aktionismus’, a Viennese version of the happening from New York. In 1972, the ‘Aktionismus’ laid two eggs. Out of the first hatches the large-scale commune experiment of Otto Mühl in Friedrichshof, out of the second a veritable sanctuary for a new cult in Schloss Prinzendorf. Where Hermann Nitsch is brooding on a six-day cult: the ‘Orgien Mysterien Theater’ – of which he hopes it will be performed every year, even after his death. In the meantime, the man’s fame spread far beyond the confines of Austria. On his website:http://www.nitsch.org/ien/ the reader will find the required photographic material and videos.


How could the transient happening develop into a large-scale cult destined for eternity?

In the sixties, it was widely held that painting amounted to no more than a sublimation of the smearing with excrements – or, as the Germans word it so smoothly: ‘Kotschmieren’. That was grist to the mill of all those to whom painting came not so easily. Why bothering with the derivative, when the original thing was there for the taking? Already the tachists ‘pressed’ the paint from their tubes and smeared it on the canvas as if it were shit (p. 195)*. Nitsch’ sworn comrade Mühl no longer squeezed tubes, but his bowels and proceeded to smearing sheer shit on the canvas. Nitsch was rather out at other excrements: menstrual blood and afterbirths pouring out of the nearby opening. And – bearing in mind the ‘inter urinas et faeces nascimur’, we are born between piss and shit – he deliberately replaced paint with blood and intestines (p. 195). From shit to blood: it takes only one step. After all, when blood dries up, it equally becomes brown.

Also the canvas is sucked in the whirlpool of ‘desublimation’. Already in the early fifties Yves Klein was replacing painting on the canvas with smearing paint on female bodies – even when afterwards these were decently pressed against the canvas, as if they felt somewhat naked, so brutally detached from the womb. But also that umbilical chord is resolutely cut when the artist no longer attacks the canvas, but his own body. Like Nitsch, who – hanged with his arms spread, as if he were Christ himself – had his body splashed with blood (Aktion, 1962). He soon replaces his crucified body with the slaughtered, skinned and disembowelled carcass of a lamb (Aktion II, 1963).

When paint turns into intestines and painting into slaughtering, also the painter must be drawn into such vortex. Whereas formerly he used to disappear in the canvas, he now places himself in the forefront as an actor staging the act of painting. The canvas is literally turned into a mere backdrop. Already action painting introduced ‘das Schaumalen’ - ‘painting as a performance’, as Nitsch has it (p. 49). In the footsteps of Pollock he begins to ‘paint and splash huge planes, jumping around on the canvas and to let himself go’ (p. 61). The trend is accomplished when the product is wholly replaced by the process: from painting to ‘Aktion’ – the German word for ‘happening’.


From the shadowy regions of art we have landed up in a real world of flesh and blood, even when this time we are not dealing with the real objects of Beuys, Kounellis or Mario Merz, but with real ‘happenings’ and real ‘actions’.

But these happenings are not as profane as the reality wherein art has dissolved. Already on a painting from 1960 Nitsch is moving in the spheres of ‘Bread and Wine’: the sacrifice of Jezus’ blood and body. Still on the canvas, the mass is soon replaced by the underlying sacrifice: ‘the stations of the Cross’ (1964 ff.). But it is only when the canvas develops into the full ‘Aktion’, where first Nitsch and then a lamb is smeared with blood, that the sacralisation comes to its apogee. For Nitsch the ‘Lammszerfleishung’ (the fleshing out of the lamb) is no less than the ‘Totemtierzerreissung’ (the ripping up of the totemic animal): the murder of the primeval father of which Freud held that it lays at the roots of the mass (p. 63). Nitsch’ ‘Aktion’ is not a mere happening, rather a ritual. The painter turns out to be not so much an actor as a high priest performing a ritual.

More precisely: the primeval ritual! Nitsch not only reduces the crucifixion of Christ to the murder of the primeval father, he also equals it with the murder of Dionysos, Orpheus, Osiris, the emasculation of Attis, the blinding of Oedipoes, in short… ‘the theme of death and resurrection’ (p. 60)! Whereby, for the sake of convenience, he overlooks the fact that in the case of Jezus, Attis and Oedipoes, we are not dealing with the murder of the father, but, on the contrary, with the murder of the son… Whereas Freud did justice to such important shift, Nitsch, in a veritable Jungian ‘amplificatory’ élan, declares: ‘My drama should give dramatic shape to every myth, every religion of the world’ (p. 38). And what is more: ‘I want to display the whole development of human consciousness’ (p. 196)…

Rather than the transition from art to life, we are witnessing the metamorphosis of art into ritual. The artist throwing his palette into the waste-basket takes the place of many a priest that in the days after Vaticanum II laid off his habit.


It was the mission of this new high priest to release the drives from their repression through ‘consciousness’ and ‘intellect’ (p. 48). Nitsch conceives his ‘primeval ritual’ as a discharge of suppressed energy – an ‘Abreaktionsspiel’. He is out at provoking ‘Enthemmungsextasen’: the release of the disbanded energy that is unleashed when the drive is freed from its fetters.

The ‘Abreaktion’ (discharge) of the younger Freud is smoothly linked with the late Freud’s feast of the totem: the yearly lifting of the taboo on parricide and incest. Such amalgam is further mixed up with the Aristotelian tragedy and its catharsis: the ‘Aktion’ as a tragedy provokes a breakthrough of ‘unconscious, disbanded, chaotic drives’ (p. 63). And as if this did not suffice, also Nietzsche joins the club of Aristotle and Freud. Did he not write the ‘Geburt der Tragödie’? His ‘Grosses Ja zum Leben’ is echoed in words like ‘Ecstasy’ ‘Excess’, not to mention phrases such as ‘absolute jubilation of existence’, ‘experience of the primeval excess’ , ‘descent into the fundamental excess’. And the ranks are closed with Antonin Artaud and his ‘Theatre of Cruelty’. Whereupon we come back later.


Nitsch’ synthetic zeal is unstoppable: his primeval drama is also a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’! Already Kaprow, the father of the happening in New York – Pollock was his prophet – understood the happening as a form of ‘integration of the arts’. Nitsch links up with this idea. ‘In the fifties the most diverse artists from all over the world were confronted with the insufficiency of their respective media. They proceeded to ‘Aktionen’ and happenings with real events, that may be tasted, smelt, seen, heard and touched. This was the breakthrough to reality’ (p. 39).

After Nitsch first dissolved art into reality, that turned out to be a ritual, he now wants to sell us this ritual for art - even for: the ‘primeval drama’! He rather resembles the monk that, after having laid off his habit, wants to sell us the proceedings in his marital bed for the Holy communion.

But, apart from the fact that the performance of the priests around the altar has nothing to do with theatre, it is apparent that Nitsch did not at all create a Gesamtkunstwerk: there is nothing left to integrate when all the arts have dissolved into undifferentiated reality, be it ritual or not. Rather are we confronted with a ‘Gesamtmensch’. ‘The spectators in my theatre should really taste, smell, hear, see and touch’ (p. 39). For man to be ‘total’, he must resign to art – since it appeals only to the eye and the ear – and embed himself in the totality of the real world. Only real events can be ‘tasted, smelt, seen, heard and touched’.

Apart from the fact that we had not to await Kaprow or Nitsch to find ourselves in the real world – we are already there since Heidegger, and even thrown in it! – the question is whether we are dealing with this real world with all our senses, as a ‘Gesamtmensch’. For, even when you might smell Pollock’s sweat when he is in action, you only can touch or taste him when you are making indecent proposals. Also in the real world do the senses relieve one another. Which does not prevent the eye and the ear from running the show. For it is not as licking and tasting, sniffing and touching beings that we are moving around in the world: we are seeing – or when someone speaks: hearing. And it remains to be seen whether the eye really sees. In fact, most of the time the eye only reads, and hence merely looks beyond the visible. On a closer look, the entire visible world turns out to be one huge pile of signs referring to something else: a non-perceived world referring to what is imperceptible here and now. Only when working are we touching reality, but not to enjoy ourselves, rather to manipulate things. Furthermore, a meanwhile impressive network of instruments, machines and computers has been interposed between us and reality reduced to raw material. Hence, in the real world there is no ‘totality’, let alone ‘plenitude’, rather an endless labyrinth of shadowy signs referring to one another wherein we haste ourselves along a capricious route. We only enjoy perceptions as such when eating - sometimes - and - in principle - when making love. Even when there is plenitude here, there is no trace of totality: also as organs of pleasure do the senses relieve and exclude one another. Even when also the eye of the gourmet wants something to enjoy, so little does he care about this sight that he does not hesitate to attack it with fork and knife and to crush it with his teeth – enjoying the taste with the eyes closed. Also the lover is feasting his eyes on the body beautiful, but cannot help closing them when the genitalia take over. Only in art is warranted enduring plenitude, precisely because its specialisation for eye and ear saves it from its dissolution in other senses (All this is dealt with in a broader context in ‘The unspeakable and the invisible’, forthcoming)

In spite of such rhetoric and theoretical frill, also in Nitsch’ ‘Orgien Mysterien Theater’, not otherwise than with Wagner, do we only see and hear. That, because of all that blood and all those intestines, there may also be something to be smelt, and that the show is now and then suspended by the eating of the chopped up carcasses, does not make the difference. Also Kounellis’s objects are not transformed in a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ because of the mere fact that now and then the scent of coffee, if not – again – of rotting carcasses may be smelt.


Whoever wants art to dissolve into reality, will equally make short of words, since these merely evoke a world. ‘I abused the word in an effort to express what is lying behind the words, what cannot be grasped by words. That is how I began to create with reality itself’ says Nitsch in ‘Vorwort der Wortdichtung des Orgien Mysterien Theaters’ (p. 38). Nitsch gives the example of a sentence contrived by himself: ‘The mescaline-sick priest stays in a tea-rose-coloured, lemon-perfumed vestment in a blood-wet birth-chamber’. He prefers to provide ‘direct sensory perceptions’ to his audience in stead (p. 39).

That is why he resolutely replaces the ‘Darstellungstheater (the ‘theatre of representation’), where events are merely staged’ with the ‘Aktion, where things happen really and are no longer played’ (p. 38). Here, Nitsch makes the widespread mistake to sweep novel, poetry and theatre into one pile. Certainly, these are all arts of the word. But an important distinction has to be made. In a novel or in poetry words evoke a representation of a world. Whoever wants to convert such represented world into ‘direct sensory perceptions’ might rewrite the novel as a script for a film or for the theatre. But after such transformation the words did not disappear: there is quite a lot of talk in a film! And this is especially true of the theatre, where the word is a conditio sine qua non. It is apparent then, that the words spoken by an actor differ widely from the words written by the novelist or the poet: the former are part of the staged world and, just like the actors themselves, no longer mere representations in the mind, but sense data on the scene.On the other hand, whoever would like to convert ‘Darstellungstheater’ into reality, would have to replace dialoguing actors with equally dialoguing people of flesh and blood – or he would have to replace a staged murder with a real one. And then we are still saddled with the word – or with the murder. The transition from art (or theatre) to reality does not replace the word with the real thing, but the evocation of the world with a real thing or event or dialogue that is pointed at or shown: much like a bouquet or the body of the stripper (see: 0n the difference between reality and art)
In such mistaken conception are condensed Nitsch’ aversion to the word with his aversion to painting. Nitsch’ aversion to the world is apparent from his reduction of language to the ‘primeval scream’, out of which the later ‘Lärmmusik’ (noise-music) will develop: the incessant turning around of rattles, the producing of sustained tones on wind instruments through continuous blowing, and the ringing of bells as an accompaniment to the ‘primeval ritual’.

Nitsch’ crusade against language is not limited to language in the strict sense of the word, it involves the realm of the symbolic as such. ‘I have to reverse the development of language and symbol formation in order to obtain an pure, unburdened contemplation of the substance’ (p. 195).

Such pursuit of ‘unburdened contemplation’ has inevitably to run up against Nitsch’ vocation as a priest. However much his lamb may be of flesh and blood rather than merely represented or painted, it continues to function as a symbol – and thus to refer to something else. And that goes not only for his lamb, but equally for his blood, and for all the other paraphernalia of his ceremony.

Still, Nitsch stubbornly refuses a symbolic lecture of his paraphernalia. He therefore even concocts a theory of ‘desymbolisation’ or ‘demythologisation’. When Abraham replaces his son with a lamb, the lamb comes to symbolise the son (p. 197). But with Nitsch ‘a lamb is merely a slaughtered, skinned and disembowelled lamb, nothing else’ (p. 190). Whoever might associate the cross with Jesus Christ, has got it all wrong: ‘the cross may also be read otherwise: as a Roman device of execution’ (196). And whoever would read the crushing of the male organs (their ‘Zerquetschung’ as eggs) as an emasculation, is promptly reminded of the fact that there is merely to be seen a crushed egg… (p. 197).

Because the theory of ‘desymbolisation’ is not precisely convincing, Nitsch keeps another theory in reserve. According to this second theory there is a difference between univocal symbols – such as the ones Wolf Vostell uses in his happenings, which Nitsch compares with a crossword – and unfathomable symbols, such as the ones used by Beuys. Only the latter deserve the name of symbols. The former are merely a ‘factor of deciphering’. A genuine symbol ‘cannot be deciphered in the last resort’ (p. 196). Thus, Nitsch hides behind the inexhaustible meanings of the symbol: the Freudian ‘overdetermination’ or - in the honoured tradition of the Symbolists - the Jungian ‘unfathomable depth’ of the symbol, that utterly escapes consciousness. There always is left a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’… (to be pronounced with the eyes lifted upwards and the nose in the sky!).

Both theories are combined in another Nitschian synthesis: ‘desymbolisation’ leaves room for an ‘overload of meaning’. And, what is more: ‘the back and forth between reality and the symbolic overload is part of the game, of the dramatic effect of my theatre’ (p. 195)…

But there is no escape: whether overloaded or univocal, a symbol remains a symbol. It continues to refer to something which is not given here and now. And thus is quite the opposite of the very ‘unburdened contemplation’ Nitsch is striving for! We have not landed up in the perceptible reality, but in the trapezes of the symbolic world, not otherwise than with Beuys or Kounellis. However much Nitsch’ lamb may be of flesh and blood, it is a mere substitute for an absent human being of flesh and blood: be it father or son.

The advent of the symbols inevitably heralds the dawn of the perceptible world. All that tangible and smellable smearing with blood and dragging around with intestines cannot conceal how in the ‘Orgien Mysterien Theater’ every presence is sucked up in the symbol, just like stars in a black hole. And this holds above all of the parricide, which in the ‘Orgien Mysterien Theater’ is only prominent through its absence: it is replaced by the slaughter of a lamb. And what is more: not only the father is absent, but his murder as well. As a rule, Nitsch’ carcasses are delivered by the slaughterhouse. Rather than with a parricide, we are dealing with the violation of a corpse. Nitsch’ transformation of art into reality turns out to be a mere fall in the shadowy world of the symbols. It is an utter defence against precisely the presence – the ‘immanence’ – that has from way back been the hallmark of genuine art. That is precisely the reason why genuine art has always been allergic for precisely the rituals and the religion to which Nitsch wants it to subdue. (See: 'Are Buddha and Wagner colleagues?', in preparation).

Such approach at the same time lays bare how little the whole reduction of drama to its supposed essence – the primeval murder – has to do with art. Imagine the theatre that would present us the slaughter of a bull instead of Hamlet or King Lear! The symbol as the black hole of art…

The incessant emphasis on the ‘overload’ – on the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of the symbol rather seems a device to divert the attention from something that rather oozes from Nitsch’ whole proceedings …


The reality wherein art has dissolved, disappears in its turn in the black hole of the symbols. And such evaporating of reality finds its counterpart in the devaluation of the ‘appearance’, the breakthrough to the supposed deeper kernel behind it: to the ‘Körperwelten’, as the ‘Hinterwelt’ of Nitsch’ quasi-namesake Nietzsche.

For the lamb not only lost its life in the slaughterhouse, but its skin as well. The skin of the nude and the canvas of the painter: are they really distinguishable? That is why Fontana’s cut in the canvas is in line with the self-mutilation of Schwarzkogler and his meanwhile impressive horde of disciples. And that is also why it speaks volumes that after Nitsch’ abduction of painting we are saddled with a skinned lamb.

The canvas of the painter: on such cherished skin preferably the body beautiful used to appear. And also this paradigm of beauty utterly depends on the surface: the skin over the gentle curves of the body. Even when blood shining through the skin lends it an additional lure, too much of it breaks the spell. It suffices to get a glance between the thighs or the jaws to convince oneself of that truth. It is just as well that lips, pubic hair and foreskin hide them from view. Even when the erotic excitement eventually leads to the union of tongues and genitalia, only the beautiful surface covering the whole proceedings ignites the erotic desire in the eye. And that goes not only for men. Also the pheasant does not display his tail for the hen to peep at his arse…

No more efficient way of breaking the erotic spell of the beautiful surface, then, than through skinning to lay bare what it so eagerly conceals: gory flesh and slimy – stinking – intestines! The age-old trick of the church-fathers, who described woman as a sack filled with shit. The smothering of erotic arousal is only sealed when the sight of the amorphous mass stirs precisely those drives which normally are silenced through the same erotic arousal: the predator’s hunger and thirst for vaporous flesh, not to mention the destructive impulse to spill the blood of the enemy – embodied as he lies there in the rampant intestines, those nearly concealed substitutes for uterus, placenta and foetus: the truth of the vagina. In short: Baudelaire’s ‘hideurs de la fécondité’ (ugliness of fertility). Only against this background do we come to understand the image of the naked woman in the procession during Nitsch’ six-day cult: before her beautiful body looms up the carcass of a beef, skinned, opened with a chain-saw and disembowelled – is it only one 'ultimate' taboo that prevented the artist from ripping the body beautiful itself?

What presented itself as the primeval parricide, turns out to be a threefold murder of beauty. The skinned and opened lamb from which its intestines protrude is not only the sheer negation of the canvas – the art of painting and its masters – but in the first place of what so eagerly used to display itself on it: the body beautiful. And hence also of what is of such unparalleled beauty when brought on the world by its beautiful mother: the divine child!

That is why Nitsch’ substitute slaughter cannot possibly be understood in terms of Freud’s totem meal. During such feast are temporarily lifted the two fundamental taboos of culture – according to Freud: the taboo on parricide and the taboo on incest. Whereas the real parricide was set up by the excluded sons to gain access to the primeval father’s wives, in Nitsch’ ‘Orgien Myserien Theater’, on the contrary, precisely those women at which Freud’s sons were out are skinned and emptied. If there is a parricide at all, than certainly the murder on the masters of the canvas. And even then there is no question of a parricide: rather are we dealing with impotent sons that, like in Freud’s story, are busying themselves, far from the proceedings in the temple, with boyish pranks in the bushes around the temenos – the holy ground.

If it is not primeval love that breaks through – Freud's love for the mother and the sister claimed by the primeval father – what else might be cropping up here?


‘The sacrifice is another, reversed form of the rut’ says Nitsch, as if he had anticipated our interpretation (p. 64). To him - did he read Wilhelm Reich? - the reversal of ‘the rut in sado-masochism as a form of discharge’ is a consequence of the increase in intensity due to the shaking off of inhibitions in the orgy (p. 62): the released – as we suppose: initially sexual – energy is ‘intensified to ecstasy, to indulging in cruelty, to sado-masochistic reactions’ (p. 48). The paradigm of such reversal is the fate fallen on Dionysos ‘who indulged in the excess and was rent’ (p. 48). The ascent to orgasm is replaced with the sadistic discharge. Nitsch describes the attack on the lamb as an orgiastic-sadistic ‘jubilatory ecstasy‘ (p. 63).

Meanwhile we have understood that the sadistic project is not at all a question of an ‘increase in intensity’ through the lifting of inhibitions – let alone of the supposed affinity between Eros and Thanatos. The sadistic undertaking is rather a most efficient means of nipping in the bud the very spark that sets alight the erotic stake – and ever since Plato this spark has been the beauty of the body. And the zeal of this undertaking is only in proportion with the contempt for the very love that has to be destroyed.

Hence, no parricide, but sadistic destruction of beauty. Only against this background can we understand the presence of other themes circling around Nitsch’ ‘Lammszerfleishung’. To begin with: the theme of defloration. This is already implicit in the replacement of paint with blood: blood on the canvas cannot but remind of the blood on the sheets of the wedding night. Defloration: from the beautiful surface over the holy opening to the bleeding wound. And the debasement is accomplished when the blood of the defloration is replaced with the blood of the menstruation: which step is taken in the ‘Menstruationsbilder’ (from 1984 onwards). In ‘First Communion’ (1966) defloration, menstruation and crucifixion are condensed in one and the same image : Nitsch is not the first to let Christ menstruate through the wound in his right side. It suffices to await the change of colour through drying and we have finally arrived at our destination: in the shit.

But the advent of the menstruation has not come to a halt. In the ‘Aktion’ ‘Fest des psycho-physischen Naturalismus’ (1963), Nitsch envelopes his penis in bloodstained sanitary towels. The subsequent ‘Aktionen’ stage related manipulations with the content of crushed eggs. Thus, the destruction of female beauty is accomplished with its complement: auto-castration.

It immediately dawns on us why Nitsch so eagerly compares the artist with the surgeon: not only are they fond of wearing white smocks and do they have free access to the naked body (p. 198), some of them - think of da Vinci - like to violate corpses; ‘I do not see the difference between the use of a slaughtered animal and a human corpse. When a student in medicine may dissect a corpse, why should not an artist be allowed to chop it in the service of art?’ (p. 188). A prelude to such replacement of the carcass of a lamb with the human corpse is the ‘Aktion’ from 1970, where Hanel Köck is crucified and treated with medical instruments by a bunch of males – lest anyone should still think that Nitsch is staging the murder of the primeval father…

No wonder that Nitsch comes to poach on the territory of Artaud ('The theatre of cruelty’) and Sade.Things comes to their apogee in the ‘fantastic drama’ ‘Die Eroberung von Jeruzalem’, conceived for real corpses (p. 188), which Nitsch sarcastically calls 'the favourite of his opponents'.

But all this heavy artillery hardly conceals the fact that the cellars in Prinzendorf turn out to be not such much the caves where since primeval times the primeval parricide is ritually commemorated, as rather artistically elevated and legitimated sm-chambers, where something wholly different is staged, the very opposite of a parricide: the resurrection of the consumed primeval father in the body of the son, where he henceforth imposes from within the taboo on the most desirable women – mother, sister and daughter. No measure better suited for obeying such paternal commandment than destroying the beauty of the female body – the stoning of the fruit included – and sealing the whole procedure by cutting off the male organ.

From parricide to the auto-castration of the son and the corollary mutilation and disembowelling of the female… Such raging of the internalised father in Nitsch’ Orgien Mysterien Theater’ is nothing more than the artistically embellished background-music accompanying the dark sado-masochistic rage of the eighties and its late echoes in our times. As far as this aspect is concerned, we can compare Nitsch with Bergman or Fellini in the early sixties, who were the mere artistic foam on the waves of the flood of nudes that would wash the white screen from the middle of the sixties on.

All this sheds the proper light on the ritual setting of the whole thing: also a common sm-performance cannot do without.


Nitsch’ endeavour to initiate the ritual of rituals must be seen against the broader background of the idea that art is the successor of religion. To phrase it in his own words: ‘To me, art is a kind of priesthood, since traditional religions have lost their spell’ (p. 39). In a manifesto he says of the ‘existential-sacral’ painting: ‘We strive for a consequent sacralisation of art and for a thorough spiritualization of existence whereby man becomes the priest of Being’ (p. 46). And ‘man’, such is of course Nitsch himself: ‘I am the very expression of the whole creation’ (p. 64). Like Wagner Bayreuth, so Nitsch has destined Prinzendorf to be the sanctuary where on a regular base the six-day Orgien Mysterien cult has to be performed. In view of this mission, he even founded a private ‘Stiftung’.

The return of art to the sacral is – not otherwise than its dissolution in philosophy – nothing else than a stride outside the realm of art, and a regressive dream at that. The latter is always belied by historic reality. In his inaugural speech Nitsch describes the cult in Prinzendorf as follows: ‘I saw the growing horde of participants to the feast, rapt in trance, romping down the alley of chestnut trees, shouting and jubilant’ (p. 124). The reality was slightly different: a handful of actors performs the ‘orgiastic ecstasy’, gaped at by a handful of passive spectators, drinking, discussing, laughing and smoking… And no more different are the highlights from the six-day ritual, condensed into proportions appropriate for their performance in a gallery, that Nitsch has staged hither and thither. In the unshakable conviction that they are witnessing the (umpteenth) excess of excesses, the (umpteenth) transgression of transgressions, the conspiring spectators feel utterly united in the secret brotherhood of genuine art lovers, the spearhead of mankind. It is only a pity that the formerly obligatory raid of the police – the cherry on the cake, if not the proof of the pudding - tends nowadays to remain forthcoming …

Whatever Nitsch' intention may have been, his ‘primeval ritual’ is no more than a spectacle - sheer ‘Darstellungstheater’ – not at all a real ritual, merely a mere performance of it. What is performed here on the borderline between ‘faking’ and ‘playing’ – not otherwise than in a striptease or an sm-session - is in no way the ‘primeval drama’, suppose such a thing would be interesting at all. The alleged primal ritual staged in the ‘Orgien Mysterien Theater’ rather reminds of children playing priest, which, just like playing school, used to be the favourite business of children obliged to attend the church. And with playing doctor or blowing up frogs it has in common that such ‘playing ritual’ is the dreamt of alibi to indulge in the scorned sado-masochistic pleasures, mistakenly interpreted as sexual, as analysed above.


The alleged commemoration of the primeval parricide turns out to be a mere artistically and religiously legitimated sm-peepshow. The same fate falls on the other aspects of Nitsch' ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’.

As already mentioned: however much the eye might greedily peep, in the real world also the tongue wants a slice of the cake. Already from the first ‘Aktionen’ onwards, Nitsch carcasses are chopped and prepared by his sworn comrade Kubelka. And bread and wine are accordingly ‘desymbolised’: flesh and blood of the primeval father are re-substantiated into lamb chops and ‘Most’ from the local vineyards and the accompanying ‘dionysian’ – or Bavarian – drinking bout.

And the same fate falls on the ear. The ‘primeval scream’ that used to resound as an accompaniment to the ‘cathartic’ release of energy in the initial ‘Aktionen’, develops to veritable ‘Lärmmusik’ (noise music) with rattles, bull-roarers, a ‘Stierhorn’ and entire choirs that have to provide the becoming amount of ‘Ur’. But eventually, some Heurigen-Musik performed by the local ‘Blaskapelle’ from the local ‘Weinkeller’ is added, and even Gregorian chant under the direction of cook Kubelka. We only miss the ‘Lederhosen’ to see the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ encompass fashion as well.

Nitsch, finally, does not hesitate to complain that not he, but the press is constantly blowing up the proceedings in Prinzendorf to the proportions of the ‘Excess’. According to him, there is more in Prinzendorf than mere messing around with blood and intestines: ‘When people are sitting in the garden with a glass of wine and are just eating and looking at the stars, while a string quartet is playing some meditative music – that cannot be fixed. Nor does the fragrance. Or simply the joyous festive spirit of people sitting together, drinking and listening to Heurigen-Musik or enjoying the sunset’ (Interview with Straebel).

Nitsch fares not otherwise than Wagner, even when the latter did leave us real ‘Gesamtkunstwerke’: with him the orgastic trance of Tristan and Isolde ended up in the Shopenhauerian resignation of Parsifal. Such is the silent irony behind the planned staging of Wagner’s Parsifal through Nitsch in 2003…

And then we still are saddled with …


The future will decide wether Nitsch’ six-day spectacle in Prinzendorf will survive him, like his ‘Gesamtkunstwerke’ Wagner. But already now we can surmise that it will prove far more easier to turn Prinzendorf in a mere museum for the relics of Nitsch’ ‘Orgien Mysterien Theater’. Even when it will only be a museum of the folklore of the generation of the baby-boom and the foregoing ‘lost generation’, section Austria. And not so much a museum of Fine Art…

And that brings us to our last point. Not only does Nitsch swallow his ‘Primeval Excess’, also the ‘Aktion’ that initially detached itself from the canvas with great fanfare, eventually sneaks back in the womb, surreptitiously. As a matter of fact, the performance of an orgy calls for all kinds of attributes such as white smocks, chasubles, stretchers, cloth. And the carcasses or naked bodies are often deliberately hanged or displayed before white backdrops. And when floors and walls are smeared with blood, this is preferentially done on cloth.

And we have already understood why: when finally the sadistic fury has abated, it has left its marks on the attributes and the cloth. Somewhat like the videos of the happenings and the photographs of land art, that fix the transient moment for eternity. On the understanding that Nitsch can in addition let them pass for works of art: smocks stained with blood arranged like chasubles on T-shaped hangers, stretchers mounted against the wall, or just cloth hanged or framed: that cannot fail to look nice! And hence, business can go on when the receipts of the performance are cashed… After all, has art not something to do with cloth?

With some goodwill we might regard the orgy sneaked back into the canvas as an art work, in so far as it, not unlike Pollock’s painting, evokes an absent event through the traces left. But, unlike Pollock’s paintings, Nitsch’ actions are not precisely conceived in view of their eventual existence as an independent work of art. And also an ‘art of traces’ à la Pollock is a rather primitive form of art when detached from a ‘figurative’ context’ (see: 'Visual music'). But granted: also garden gnomes cannot be denied the status of works of art.

The interesting thing about Nitsch’ return in the womb of the canvas is that it is actually a response to the success of the ‘Neue Wilden’ in the eighties. Nitsch called these opponents to the decline of art caused by conceptual art and the happenings/Aktionen ‘neither wild nor new' (p. 139). Had he not been far more radical already in the sixties? But precisely because the paintings he made until 1964 were rediscovered and began to sell, he no longer objected to painting. Which did not do him any harm! (p. 140). Nitsch continues to use blood – albeit re-sublimated to red paint. But the form it takes on the canvas is no longer a trace of an orgiastic ‘Aktion’, but from an action that is intended to produce a specific effect: think of the paintings where Nitsch’ assistants, staying on ladders, let the paint ‘drip’. Nitsch also discovers that there are other colours than red, which finally cuts the ombilical chord with the sadistic orgy. What does not prevent these canvasses from looking good as the décor of an opera, foremost when it is Massenet’s ‘Hérodiade’ in which Joan is decapitated by Salomé. The painting as wallpaper, in the honoured tradition of the Wiener Secession. Cloth stained with red paint was equally a becoming décor for Nitzsch’s grand wedding party in Prinzendorf: a red backdrop for the white and the black of bride and bridegroom!

Also relicts which cannot so easily pass for paintings, partake in the success of Nitsch’ cloths and chasubles. Especially when the wave of the ‘Neue Wilden’ had passed by. Apart form the cloths, the stretchers and the smocks, there are also the chasubles smeared with blood, even calyxes, diverse medical instruments and flacons filled with diverse fluids. Here we have equally to deal with a rather primitive from of art: the relic (see ‘Are la Gioconda and the Mona Lisa sisters?’).

In any case, Nitsch’ Bayreuth will be a museum for objects that unjustifiably or only with some goodwill may be regarded as works of art, as opposed to the ritual to which they owe their existence. Anyway, Prinzendorf will rather look like the other churches in old Europe: an empty space where diverse attributes are mourning the priests and the flock who once used to celebrate a feast in it.

And so we have come full circle. Even when the starting point hardly resembles the place we once had left…

© Stefan Beyst, September 2002.


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GOLDBERG, R.: 'Performance Art From Futurism to the Present'. London:
Thames and Hudson, 1990, p.163-4.
GORNY, Eugene: 'Bloody Man: The Ritual Art of Hermann Nitsch' http://www.zhurnal.ru/staff/gorny/english/nitsch.htm
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NITSCH: Orgien, Mysterien, Theater, Darmstadt, 1969
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RAMIREZ, Juan Antonio: Hermann Nitsch: Obra de arte total en tiempos posmodernos. http://rizomas.blogspot.com/2005/01/hermann-nitsch-obra-de-arte-total-en.html
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STRAEBEL, Volker: "Lieben Sie Blut, Herr Nitsch?" in: Interview in Tagesspiegel (Berlin), 1. Dezember 1999.

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