Hermann Nitsch

2nd Action

1963

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Not on display

Artist
Hermann Nitsch born 1938
Medium
Photograph, C-print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 598 × 411 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the artist 2013
Reference
P20388

Summary

2nd Action 1963 is a colour photograph which depicts the artist Hermann Nitsch, with his back to the camera, performing an action of the same name in Vienna, Austria in 1963. It was the second of what would become an ongoing series of actions that moved away from the realm of easel painting and towards a theatrical and ritualistic understanding of what paint, and other materials, could do. By this time Nitsch, one of the four founding members of the group known as the Viennese Actionists, had created seven ‘painting actions’ that explored the limits of painting within a studio setting, and performed his 1st Action, which had taken place on 19 December 1962 in fellow Viennese Actionist Otto Muehl’s (1925–2013) apartment. However 2nd Action was the first public presentation of this type of work. Although Nitsch wrote that the action took place on 16 March 1963, a newspaper article by Christian Sotriffer and a letter written by Muehl confirm that the performance took place on 8 March, on the occasion of the opening of Galerie Josef Dvorak at Lagergasse 2, Vienna.

The gallery was converted from a former youth club in a basement storage area. For the exhibition Nitsch covered the main room with jute cloth, primed with white, onto which he dripped, injected and poured red paint and red colour diluted with water to create a large-scale abstract installation. Like his previous actions, 2nd Action was conceived as an integral part of Nitsch’s artistic practice, and not an appendage to the exhibition. Although many of the Actionist performances appeared on the surface to be chaotic, they often were based upon specific instructions or scores.

In 2nd Action the bloody carcass of a lamb, with the head still attached, was hung against one of the canvas-covered walls, upside-down from a butcher’s hook and rope that were attached to the ceiling. The innards of the lamb were placed directly underneath on a white cloth. Through part of the performance, the carcass was rocked around the space, splattering the spectators with blood, creating an antagonistic and tense atmosphere. During the action Nitsch threw raw eggs against the canvas-covered walls and floor and chewed a tea rose. This photograph depicts the moment in which Nitsch, dressed in dark clothing, poured blood over the flayed carcass of the lamb. As the image shows, the space was covered with multiple drips and splashes of varying tones of red pigment and blood. The audience (including Otto Muehl) can be seen in other images of the performance that depict moments with the carcass hanging in the middle of the room. Throughout the performance there was music by Anestis Logothetis, a Greek composer living in Vienna, which consisted of loud grunt-like noises created by palm rubbing and other means. The performance lasted for thirty minutes.

Although the event was well attended, the response was muted with some describing it as ‘bland’ and the press heavily criticising the show. As a result of this action, and the conservative environment in which it was performed, approximately a week after the action Nitsch was arrested and interrogated by the police in connection with the murder of a ballet dancer, though he was released without charge. However, it was to be the first of many arrests and harassments from the authorities.

The title of the work refers to the recurring nature of the actions and the concept that they were an active part of an artistic programme. The Viennese Actionists wanted to create work that moved away from the traditional conservative domain of the canvas and art academies, towards an art that expressed suppressed desires and the violence of twentieth-century life. The work was in part a protest at bourgeois post-war Viennese society’s repression of the recent horrors of the Second World War. Nitsch described himself as being distressed while creating his paintings, but explained that the actions provided him with the same arousal and subsequent catharsis that he also attained from his action painting (see, for example, Poured Painting 1963 [Tate T03334]). This is connected with the formation of his ongoing project the Orgies Mysteries Theatre, of which 2nd Action is a very early, small-scale incarnation.

The Orgies Mysteries Theatre is an ongoing project that was first conceived in a text of 1957, written while Nitsch was still a student, which has since developed into a mass-orchestrated theatrical art event. Nitsch had originally trained in religious painting and was influenced by Ancient Greek tragedy, the concept of the gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) and psychoanalytic ideas. The Orgies Mysteries Theatre drew heavily on this history, involving poured paint, blood, animal matter and human bodies in order to alleviate ‘pent-up psychic energies … thereby obtaining catharsis’ (Eva Badura-Triska, ‘The Expansion of Painting: From Panel Painting to Action’, in Eva Badura-Triska, Hubert Klocker (eds.), Vienna Actionism: Art and Upheaval in 1960s’ Vienna, exhibition catalogue, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna 2012, p.32). Nitsch was deeply affected by the sensorial experience of seeing the intense colours and textures of animal carcasses and blood when he visited a slaughterhouse, stating:

When a carcass was split open, it was as if one was dipping into a full, soft heap of roses … in future I wanted to realise my work in this direction only. All informal painting appeared pale, my own painting seemed to be merely a vehicle only inadequately expressing all this vivacity here turning towards the tragic and blending with death.
(Hermann Nitsch, ‘6. Malaktion’, in Nitsch 1979, p.40.)

Nitsch was also influenced by the expressive gestures of abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), and the desire by artists of the post-war period to move beyond the canvas into new forms of media. This can be seen in Nitsch’s Poured Painting 1963 (Tate T03334), where red oil paint evokes dripping blood and anticipates the use of animal blood in his actions.

The photographer of 2nd Action has been attributed by Nitsch to a ‘Stangl’. However there is no other information associated with this name, and it may refer to Josef Tandl, a Viennese photographer for the Kurier newspaper. The image appears grainy which reflects the documentary nature of the work. A different version of the image was exhibited at the Hermann Nitsch Museum in Mistelbach, Austria. This print is an enlargement from the original negative of a smaller scale vintage print, suggestive of the fact that Nitsch accords this work a status similar to that of his paintings. The photographs and paintings have often been arranged alongside each other in displays approved by the artist. There are five authorised prints in the edition, of which this is number one, in addition to two artist’s proofs. On the back of the print are the artist’s signature and embossing seal.

Further reading
Herman Nitsch, Das Orgien Mysterien Theater. Die Partituren aller aufgeführten Aktionem 1960–1979. Band 1, 1.–32. Aktion, Naples 1979, pp.49–51.
Marianne Hussl-Hoermann, Monika Mauk, Sonja Traar (eds.), Nitsch: A Retrospective – Works from the Essl Collection 1960–2000, exhibition catalogue, Essl Museum, Vienna 2003.
Pilar Parcerisas, Hubert Klocker , Danièle Roussel et al., Viennese Actionism: Günther Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, exhibition catalogue, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Seville 2008.

Fiontán Moran
May 2013

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