Hermann Nitsch

53rd Action


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Not on display

Hermann Nitsch born 1938
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 660 × 447 mm
Presented by the artist 2013


This is one of two black and white photographs entitled 53rd Action 1976 that depict simultaneous moments within a performance staged by the Viennese Actionist artist Hermann Nitsch (Tate P20389 and P20390). As suggested by the title, they document what was the fifty-third in 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 (see also 2nd Action 1963 [Tate P20388]). By the time that this work was created Nitsch and the other Viennese Actionists had performed a number of actions, which had often been closed by the authorities or led to the artists being arrested. These experiments with ideas of painting, art-making and theatricality originally took place in studio environments, before moving to gallery and public settings.

For 53rd Action Giuseppe Morra of the Fondazione Morra in Naples and Rosanna Chiessi of Archivio Pari & Dispari in Reggio Emilia, Italy arranged for Nitsch to perform at the opening of the OUT OFF gallery and theatre space in Milan. In an interview in 2007, the founder of the gallery, Mino Bertoldo, reminisced about the evening: ‘The official opening took place on 30 November 1976 with a shocking action of Hermann Nitsch, the prophet of the orgies mysteries theatre. A very strong experience. I did not sleep for three nights.’ (Quoted in Franco Battiado, interview with Mino Bertoldo, ‘Thirty Years in the Avant-garde’, SuperEva, 2007, http://guide.supereva.it/franco_battiato/interventi/2007/10/311888.shtml, accessed April 2013.) The poster for the event mistakenly announced that this was the 56th Action, an error which was corrected in 1979 when Nitsch made an account of all of his past actions.

The OUT OFF gallery was located in a catacomb cellar in Milan, which led the artist to use torchlight for part of the performance. 53rd Action consisted of two figures which Nitsch described as ‘passive actors’, five ‘actors’ that included the artist and photographer Heinz Cibulka who had appeared in a number of Actionist works, and one extra participant. The piece included a full-scale orchestra from the Milanese conservatoire, playing a fast and intense piece of music. During the action two freshly slaughtered sheep were gutted above two nude figures lying on the ground. This photograph and its companion piece (Tate P20389) depict the moment when the carcass is being pulled apart by two actors. This occurs while a man dressed in dark clothing pours a substance over the carcass and onto two nude figures lying on top of one another on the ground, covered with blood and apparently tied at the wrists and ankles with rope. In the background of the image, male and female figures look on with varying facial expressions. A comprehensive description of the action can be found in Nitsch’s Das Orgien Mysterien Theater. Die Partituren aller aufgeführten Aktionem 1960–1979. Band 1, 1.–32. Aktion, published in 1979. The performance lasted for three hours and was greeted with an enthusiastic response, with Nitsch describing it as a successful experience. It was the last action that the artist’s wife Beate Nitsch worked on before her death in 1977.

The title of Nitsch’s works refers to the recurring nature of the actions. 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 identity of the photographer(s) of these images is unknown, but it is likely to have been one of those identified by Nitsch as ‘Bellini’ or ‘G. Avallone’. The third photographer present, called Mino, only took colour photographs. A different version of these images was exhibited at the Hermann Nitsch Museum in Mistelbach, Austria. The prints are an enlargement from the original negatives of smaller scale vintage prints, suggestive of the fact that Nitsch accorded 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. The photograph was exhibited for the first time in the exhibition A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance at Tate Modern, London in 2012–3.

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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