Hermann Nitsch Design of an Underground Town, after the Picture of the Last Supper for the Action-Drama ‘The Destruction and Rebirth of our Universe’ 1983, 1985

Artwork details

Artist
Hermann Nitsch born 1938
Title
Design of an Underground Town, after the Picture of the Last Supper for the Action-Drama ‘The Destruction and Rebirth of our Universe’
entwurf einer unterirdischen stadt nach dem bild des letzen abendmahles für das aktionsdrama 'die zerstörung und wiederentstehung unseres weltalls'
Date 1983, 1985
Medium Pastel and screenprint on fabric
Dimensions Image: 1460 x 3570 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Purchased 1986
Reference
P77169
Not on display

Catalogue entry

P77169 Design of an Underground Town, after the Picture of the Last Supper for the Action-Drama ‘The Destruction and Rebirth of our Universe’ 1983 and 1985 entwurf einer unterirdischen stadt nach dem bild des letzten abendmahles für das aktionsdrama ‘die zerstörung und wiederentstehung unseres weltalls’

Screenprint and oilstick 1460 × 3570 (57 × 140 5/8) on cloth 1630 × 3962 (64 1/4 × 156); printed and published by Francesco Conz, Asolo, Italy
Inscribed ‘handüberzeichnetes sonderexemplar | Hermann Nitsch | 1985’ b.r.; printed inscription ‘diese zeichnung wurde in den jahren 1976–1979 hergesstellt | fast immer wenn ich in asolo war habe ich daran gearbeitet | die zeichnung war fast fertig als 1977 meine frau tödlich verunglückte | ich wollte die arbeit nicht mehr fertigstellen und sie als fragment belassen | 1978 beschlossen francesco conz und ich die zeichnung durch siebdruck zu vervielfältigen | zu diesem zweck habe ich das abendmahl vollendet’ b.r.; printed inscriptions ‘entwurf einer unterirdischen stadt | nach dem bild des letzten abendmahles für das | aktionsdrama die zerstörung und wiederentstehung | unseres weltalls’ and ‘die welt mit ihren tödlichen [...] an [...] im gemeinsamen mahlesamt’ t.r.
Purchased from David Nolan, New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Lit: Austrian Drawings: Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer, exh. cat., The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago, Chicago 1986, p.15, repr., as ‘Architecture of the O.M. Theatre (After the “Last Supper” of Leonardo da Vinci)’ and dated 1976–83, 1985; The 1980s: Prints from the Collection of Joshua P. Smith, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington 1989, repr. p.90 in col., as ‘Das letzte Abendmahl (The Last Supper)’, 1983

P77169 depicts thirteen figures who may be seen as representing Jesus Christ and the twelve Apostles. They are drawn upon a pattern of shapes which can be read as internal organs of the body or as interconnecting chambers of an architectural plan. Some sections of the architecture and many body parts are individually numbered. The figures are drawn as skeletal outlines, with their musculature, veins, sinews and organs showing. They are grouped either side of the centrally placed figure of Christ, whose face is printed in red. Parallel lines from the head of Christ, extending through the heads of the four figures to his left are also printed in red. Otherwise the figures and the architectural plan are printed in black.

Christ has four arms extending diagonally from the neck to make an ‘x’, and a ballooning web of lines expands upwards from his head. The figures standing at the outer edges of P77169 are in profile. Those in the centre are seen either frontally or from behind. The three figures to the left of Christ and two figures to the right of him are depicted in full. Other figures on the left and right-hand edges are depicted without their lower limbs. Beneath the torso of the third figure from the right is a diagrammatic representation of a wide open mouth. At the lower right-hand corner is a head in three-quarter profile with open mouth. The figures are all male, with the exception of a pregnant woman on the extreme right who is discussed below.

Two years after P77169 was printed the artist reworked certain areas using red, blue, yellow, purple, green, orange, pink and brown oilsticks. He drew further chambers and organs, and traced sinuous lines immediately to the left of Christ and over the hands and abominal areas of the frontally depicted figures either side of him. There is also a light brown, uneven staining across the entire length of the cloth. According to conservators at the Tate Gallery, this staining is the result of body fluid, probably diluted animal blood, being applied directly with a sponge and being dripped from above.

The architectural design consists of shapes which are organic rather than geometric in outline and which cover the entire surface of the image. Described by the artist in the title as a ‘design for an underground town’, the architectural plan may be seen as a correlative of the normally unseen internal organs in the human body. The integration of anatomy and architecture can be seen in the two figures to the right of Christ. Their vertebrae are depicted as a sequence of interlocking, inter-connecting chambers. Like all of Nitsch's work, P77169 is related to his O.M. Theatre (‘Orgies Mysteries Theatre’), an elaborate ritual lasting several days which Nitsch has been developing since the late 1950s and which is discussed below.

P77169 belongs to an edition of screenprints made in 1983, which are based on a drawing made between 1976 and 1979. Nitsch later worked on several screenprints individually, including P77169. There are variations of title and dating in the Nitsch literature. For this work, however, the compiler has followed the printed title and used two dates, the first being the year the print was made, the second the year the artist worked on the image again. The source of the print is a drawing of similar dimensions entitled ‘The Last Supper’, 1976–9 (Oskar Schmidt, repr. Hermann Nitsch, exh. cat., Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich 1988, p.94 no.89), for which an important source was Leonardo da Vinci's ‘Last Supper’ fresco. This was painted in 1494–8 in Sta Maria delle Grazie, Milan, and depicts Christ and his twelve Apostles seated behind a long table in a perspectivally constructed interior. In a letter to the compiler dated 14 December 1992, Nitsch wrote that he shared da Vinci's broader artistic and scientific interests in the ‘internal aspects of our bodies and in the functioning organs that we carry around with us invisibly or whose functions we notice’. Nitsch's ‘The Last Supper’ is also related to another large drawing, ‘The Invasion of Jerusalem’, 1971 (repr. ibid., p.94 no.90), which depicts an architectural design without any figures.

Nitsch made the original drawing for P77169 in Asolo, Italy, where he has had a second home and studio since 1973. The printed inscription at the lower right-hand corner of P77169 describes the personal bereavement that affected Nitsch's progress on the drawing and his temptation to leave it as an unfinished fragment. In translation, the inscription states that ‘this drawing was made in the years 1976–1979. I worked on it whenever I was in Asolo. The drawing was almost ready in 1977 when my wife was fatally injured. I wanted to leave it unfinished as a fragment. In 1978 I decided with Francesco Conz to make it into a screenprint. For this purpose I completed it’. In his letter Nitsch wrote that Francesco Conz, who has published several of his prints and who has collected his work since the 1970s, urged him to publish an edition of silkscreen prints in order to disseminate the image to a wider circle of collectors. Nitsch also intended the drawing to become the basis for an action, although he never made a score for it. He made the print on paper and on a type of white cotton cloth, which he often employs in his actions and paintings. The cloth was used in the painting action ‘16a’ that took place on 18 August 1983 in Padua, at the time he was making P77169. Initially, no printer could be found in Germany, Austria or Italy with large enough presses to accommodate the work. A fabric printing firm in Vicenza was eventually found which was able to undertake the printing. He transferred the drawing and made an edition of eighty prints on paper and nine on cloth.

Nitsch signed some of them, including P77169, between May and June 1985 in Munich, after working on them further. He could not remember how many prints he reworked, nor who owned them, but wrote in his letter that he had reworked very few. One is in the collection of Udo and Anette Brandhorst, Cologne (repr. Chicago exh. cat., 1986, p.15, dated 1976–83, 1985). Another, formerly in the collection of Joshua P. Smith, is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (repr. Washington exh. cat., 1989, p.90 in col., dated 1983). Nitsch said he reworked the prints ‘because it was a great pleasure to extend and improve them, drawing with coloured oilsticks’.

Nitsch further developed the subject of an idealised architectural structure based on vegetal forms in a series of thirty-six lithographs made between 1984 and 1987, entitled ‘The Architecture of the Orgies Mysteries Theatre’ (repr. Johannes Gachnang, Hermann Nitsch and Wolfgang Wunderlich, Die Architektur des Orgien Mysterien Theaters Band 1. The Architecture of the O.M. Theatre Volume 1, Munich 1987, pp.43–113). In his letter to the compiler he wrote, ‘strictly speaking the drawing for the “Last Supper” [and P77169] belongs to this graphic cycle “The Architecture of the O.M. Theatre”’. He continued, ‘almost all my graphic production concerns itself with the architecture of the O.M. Theatre. I am always drawing underground passages and rooms, municipal and theatrical structures. My architecture is not one composed of right angles. It is inspired by organic forms. The apparently figurative anatomical images of the “Last Supper” drawing depict passages and rooms’.

Nitsch conceives of his ‘O.M. Theatre’ as a large-scale dramatic festival involving many participants, in which all the arts are united in a sequence of carefully orchestrated events. The O.M. Theatre can be described as a mystical, orgiastic and ecstatic experience based on the cycle of sacrifice and resurrection which is present in many different religions and myths. It is a form of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (‘total work of art’) involving active participation and Nitsch's role may be likened to that of a celebrant priest.

In 1960, during a theatre project in Vienna that included blood and entrails from the butchered carcasses of animals, Nitsch made the first works of what he termed the painting of the O.M. Theatre. The paintings used relics of these actions, and stained pieces of cloth and liturgical clothing which had been covered by spattered, poured and dripped paint, blood and other liquids. ‘Poured Painting’, 1963 (T03334, repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980 – 2, 1984, pp.191–2) and ‘Blood Picture’, 1962 (T03412, repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984 – 6, p.291) are examples of early works of this type. The highly theatrical, physical nature of his actions led Nitsch, along with Günter Brus, Otto Mühl and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, to found the Viennese Actionist movement in 1964. Their ritualistic actions were influential in the development of the O.M. Theatre. Nitsch's actions frequently included symbolic references to Christian iconography, such as the Crucifixion, or included actual liturgical garments. The theme of sacrifice, symbolically of humans and in reality of animals such as lambs and cattle, has been a central and recurring feature of Nitsch's O.M. Theatre performances since the early 1960s.

Its principal co-ordinates are the poles of ascetic spirituality, seen as part of the Christian tradition, and the sensuality of Dionysian excess. Wolfgang Wunderlich suggested that Christ and Dionysos, the principal figures of the O.M. Theatre, personify contrasting qualities: ‘on the one hand [Dionysos] the destructive bringer of fertility, the orgiastic god of frenzy, the bloody dismemberment of animals, together with the life-giving vine. On the other, the god [sic] offering his person up in love, how he voluntarily makes himself the target for all human aggression and the related desire to destroy’ (Wolfgang Wunderlich, ‘The Iconography and Aesthetics of Nitsch's Lithographs’ in Gachnang, Nitsch and Wunderlich 1987, pp.29–30).

The pregnant woman at the extreme right in P77169 embodies Nitsch's idea of regeneration and rebirth. She is depicted with a foetus in her womb. In his letter, the artist wrote that she represented a Judas figure, opposed to the ascetic, anti-erotic Christian ideal. Judas, he wrote, has ‘a life-affirming, redemptive function’. A second foetus is depicted to the left of the Christ figure, in the angle between his outstetched arms.

Nitsch plans to enact the O.M. Theatre in its final form over a period of six days and nights. He has worked towards its completion by staging a series of shorter actions. In 1975 he led a twenty-four hour performance and in 1984 there was a performance that lasted three days and nights. Nitsch has been developing the score for the O.M. Theatre since 1957 and first published an incomplete draft in 1962. A complete draft appeared in 1976 (Hermann Nitsch, das orgien mysterien theater 2, Naples 1976, pp.383–696). In another text he explained the purpose of the O.M. Theatre and his own role as follows:

I am the expression of all creation. I have merged into it and identified myself with it. All torment and lust, combined in a single state of unburdened intoxication, will pervade me and therefore YOU. The play-acting will be a means of gaining access to the most ‘profound’ and ‘holy’ symbols through blasphemy and desecration... It is a matter of attaining an anthropologically determined view of existence in which grail and phallus appear as two mutually necessary extremes. A philosophy of intoxication, ecstasy and delight finally shows that the innermost element of the intensely vital is intoxicated agitation, debauchery which represents a form of existence of the orgiastic in which joy, torment, death and procreation approach and merge with each other. The consequence of this point of view is that one must recognise the sacrifice as a matter of ecstasy, of the inspiration of life. Sacrifice is another form of passion in reverse which develops differently out of the confusion of the subconscious. Sexual forces change and are translated into the cruelty of the sacrificial act. I affirm the absolute joy of existence, which must develop into pain. Through a complete ‘living-out’ and experience, the feast of the resurrection is reached.

(Hermann Nitsch, Orgien Mysterien Theater. Orgies
Mysteries Theatre, Darmstadt 1969, pp.36–7)

In his letter to the compiler dated 14 December 1992, Nitsch added:

I want to gain insight from later cult forms of Christian Transubstantiation and Communion into the earliest, archaic cult forms. Christianity has sublimated and spiritualised - drained the blood from - these forms. Voluptuousness has become the symbolic language of the liturgy. The flesh and blood of Christ are communicated through the physical form of bread and wine. The analytical dramaturgy of the O.M. Theatre operates through intensely sensual rituals. It should be more sensually experienced than our civilisation allows. Excessive release in the O.M Theatre should make us aware of the the underlying physical levels which they liberate. An archaic sensibility should be reinvigorated through it. Flesh and blood should not be allowed to fall victim to the aridity of symbolism, nor to the pale impotence of speech. The O.M. Theatre, guided by the archaic, represents facts such as flesh and blood, that have been rendered incorporeal through language. The authentic use of the substances flesh and blood is at the core of the actions of the O.M. Theatre. The psychological roots of sado-masochistic sacrificial myths are brought to the surface; that which is repressed is, excoriated.

The sacral meal is one of the leitmotifs in the structure of the O.M. Theatre. The opening three events in the sequence, which include the Last Supper, enact the Passion of Christ.

1. Transubstantiation, Last Supper (this is my flesh and blood).

2. Mount of Olives.

3. Crucifixion.

4. Debauchery and Sacrifice of Dionysius, his tearing-up.

5. Killing of Orpheus.

6. Adonis torn to pieces by the boar.

7. Isis and Osiris.

8. Attis and Agdistis.

9. Blinding of Oedipus (castration symbol).

10. The ritual castration.

11. The sacrifice of animals in general (the sacrifice of animals as a substitute for personal sacrifice).

12. The ‘Totem’ meals (the tearing-up of the dead animal).

13. The basic excess (the break through of urges as the end-point of abreaction, the attainment of the situation of the tearing-up of the lamb).

(Nitsch 1969, p.43)

In his letter Nitsch wrote, ‘the sacral meal plays a large role in the O.M. Theatre. Cultic, communal meals from the totem-animal meal [involving animal sacrifices; described above] to the Eucharist have always facinated me as can be seen in my theory of the O.M. Theatre. Cult eating and drinking take place in the O.M. Theatre’. Christ is the principal participant in the iconography of the Last Supper and the central figure in P77169. However, as Nitsch explained in his letter, the iconography of the O.M. Theatre fuses many sources:

The person sitting in the middle, understood initially as Christ, has many levels. First of all as the cadaver of the slaughtered lamb, which can be understood as the totemic animal sacrifice as well as a symbol of Christ. The actual face of Christ bears features, reduced unambiguously to nothingness, of the world-renouncer and redeemer Buddha. The multi-armed figure refers to Vishnus and Shiva, to destruction and reconstruction. My belief in the eternal, in eternal return, in destruction and rebirth, in the cosmos, is expressed in this (as the title suggests) architectural drawing.

The pattern of organic shapes and outlines around the figures in P77169 relates to Nitsch's long-term pre-occupation with the architecture of his O.M. Theatre. In 1971 he bought Prinzendorf Castle, on the Zaya in Austria, near where he was born, and made it the permanent centre for his O.M. Theatre. In a text of 1969 he described the district: ‘the vinyards [sic], orchards, pastures and fields and the cellar passages surrounding Prinzendorf, heavy with the smell of wine, are well suited to the processions and happenings of the O.M. Theater. The landscape of the Weinviertel [wine growing area] has had a decisive influence on my work and the countryside for many miles around is the setting of the O.M. Theatre festival. The environs of Prinzendorf shall not be altered through the building of the theatre’ (quoted in Gachnang, Nitsch and Wunderlich 1987, p.25).

His plans included the use of existing stables, yards and castle buildings, and a six storey underground complex he intended to build. Nitsch elaborated this concept in drawings and prints of the late 1960s onwards, including the monumental print P77169. In his letter to the compiler, Nitsch admitted the underground spaces were unlikely to be built, but continued, ‘the six day event will take place in a few years time, initially without my underground theatre’. Nitsch described his dissatisfaction with modern architecture because of its depressing ugliness. Not wishing to disfigure Prinzendorf by new buildings, he concluded, ‘under the earth there is enough room. Mole passage-ways, dug into the earth, present a creative turning away from the poverty of human experience. That these passages are symbolic imitations of the plant-like and vegetative, should remind us that the world we live in is biologically dependent’ (ibid., p.25).

Rudi Fuchs described the organic characteristics of the underground architectural spaces, which will ‘descend, like an inverted cathedral, into the warm, moist interior of the earth: an incredible labyrinth of passages, twisting and turning like intestines and arteries, will interconnect halls and chambers and rooms which are embedded in that harmonious network like human organs’ (‘Van Hier naar Daar, Prinzendorf 1983’, Hermann Nitsch: Das Orgien Mysterien Theater 1960–1983, exh. cat., van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 1983, p.17).

Nitsch's own capitalisation has been retained when quoting titles and texts.

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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