Hermann Nitsch

Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries. Early Actions. 5th Action 1964, 9th Action 1965, 12th Action 1965


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Not on display

Hermann Nitsch born 1938
10 black and white photographs, gelatin silver prints on paper, animal blood, textile and digital print on paper
Overall display dimensions variable
support, each photograph: 648 × 500 mm
support (colophon): 820 × 640 mm
mount: 820 × 640 mm
object (portfolio box): 845 × 660 × 35 mm
object (fabic): 625 × 501 mm
Presented by Hermann Nitsch and Nitsch Foundation 2019


Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries. Early Actions. 5th Action 1964, 9th Action 1965, 12th Action 1965 1982 is a portfolio of ten photographs and one action relic relating to a number of Hermann Nitsch’s actions from the 1960s. It was retrospectively printed in 1982 in an edition of fifteen plus five artist’s proofs as part of Nitsch’s ongoing collaboration with collector and publisher Francisco Conz (1935–2010). This project allowed Nitsch to produce both large-scale black and white and colour prints of the earlier documentation of his actions, something he had been unable to do at the time due to the atmosphere of hostility towards his work by the Austrian authorities during his time working in Vienna. His actions and exhibitions between 1960 and 1966 were routinely shut down, resulting in court trials and three prison sentences for the artist.

This portfolio, which is number fourteen in the edition, forms part of a larger group of photographic documentation in Tate’s collection and Library relating to Nitsch’s performative practice of the 1960s and 1970s, in which he explored the limits of the body through an ongoing series of ritualistic actions. Other editions in Tate’s collection that document Nitsch’s infamous Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries are Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries. Early Actions. 12th Action 1965, 15th Action 1965 1982 (Tate T15697); O.M. Theatre. 4th Action 1963, 3rd Action 1963, 37th Action 1971 1974 (Tate T15698); and Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries. Photo documentation of the 50th Action. 1975, Prinzendorf, Wienviertel 1977 (a bound volume of 168 photographs and one action relic held in Tate Library Special Collections). The group of photographs and portfolios also includes a group of contemporaneous, small-scale prints (see First Prints. 5th Action 1964, 8th Action 1965, 9th Action 1965, 12th Action 1965, 18th Action 1966 1964–6, Tate P21029).

Taken together, this body of prints and portfolios marks a trajectory from the private realm of the studio (such as in 5th Action 1964), with Nitsch’s own body and those of Viennese Actionist co-participants such as Rudolf Schwarzkogler depicted as the actors and ‘passive actors’ – the term Nitsch used for bodies upon which an action would take place – to growing co-participation and ever-more public visibility of the actions, developing into mass-orchestrated theatrical festivals.

The title of Nitsch’s works as numerical actions attests to the recurring, cumulative nature of the performances he developed, each of which has links with the others. They have included the pouring and dripping of fluids such as blood and paint, the sacrifice and disembowelment of animals, mutilation, self-mutilation and crucifixion. Over the course of his actions, Nitsch developed these elements into a set of gestures and sequences of actions that culminated in a yearly enactment of a six-day-long Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries action. In turn, the Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries was already conceived in written form in 1957 and began to be realised in 1960. Nitsch and the Viennese Actionists conceived their ritualistic actions as an attempt to shift and make conscious the repressed emotions and memories of the recent horrors of the Second World War among bourgeois Viennese society by staging violence, pain and cruelty that exposed the participants and audiences to their own inner drives in a safe environment of performance, culminating in a state of catharsis. Nitsch acknowledged his debt to Freudian psychoanalysis: ‘The non-verbal actionist abreaction makes us conscious by means of making things visible, by means of form … Sensory working out is plucked out made conscious, by means of something that comes ecstatically from movement. Sadomasochistic actions with flesh and blood, slime, intestines and entrails penetrate deeply into the realms of tragedy, of the tragic, of death.’ (Hermann Nitsch, ‘Freud and Art’, in Karrer 2015, pp.76–7.)

Nitsch’s work also has an affinity stylistically with tachisme, art informel and abstract expressionism, all of which the artist has acknowledged as playing a role in the development of his practice for their conscious shift away from easel painting and toward new forms of media and gestures, including the actions of dropping and splashing paint on canvas. This is especially visible in works such as his Poured Painting (Schüttbild) of 1963 (Tate T03334), which Nitsch has stated as being ‘a preparing step, leading to the actions’ (Hermann Nitsch in a letter of August 1982 to the Tate Gallery, quoted in The Tate Gallery 1980–82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984, p.192). In this painting the dripping and splashing of red paint anticipated the use of blood in his actions, as did the process of documenting on camera the artist’s vigorous, bodily actions in creating the painting. The art historian Wieland Schmied has noted that the act of painting was, for Nitsch, not just a step towards the actions, but also became itself part of the actions and universe of the Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries: ‘As the form of painting developed by Hermann Nitsch – the pouring, sprinkling, splashing and pawing of canvases with blood and painting – precedes the painting actions themselves theoretically and conceptually, so the latter precede the actual performances chronologically, only to then repeatedly become a part of and merge with them.’ (Wieland Schmied, ‘Not only Paint but Blood as well: On Hermann Nitsch, his Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries and his Painting’, in Karrer 2015, p.36.)

This holistic approach, through which Nitsch built up his six-day-long Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries out of the elements and gestures he performed in his actions, is indicative of his interest in the concept of the gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Nitsch has commented on his commitment to actions fully experienced through all the senses, stating: ‘A real event is the gesamtkunstwerk. A real event is experienced through all 5 senses. It can be tasted, smelt, seen, heard and touched.’ (Hermann Nitsch, ‘The Exhibition: The Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries’, in Karrer 2015, p.29.)

Nitsch worked with a number of photographers to document his actions: Ludwig Hoffenreich, Siegfried Klein, Franziska Cibulka, Eva Nitsch, Ute Eskildsen, Beate Nitsch and Mario Parolin. Nitsch directed them in their photography, with particular attention to specific camera angles, scenes and frames within the actions, thereby taking charge of how the actions are experienced in their mediated state (Nitsch Foundation, in conversation with Tate curator Dina Akhmadeeva, 12 March 2019).

Further reading
Britta Schmitz (ed.), Hermann Nitsch: Orgien Mysterien Theater. Retrospektive, exhibition catalogue, Cologne 2006.
Hubert Klocker (ed.), RITE OF PASSAGE: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism, 1960–1966, Cologne and New York 2014.
Michael Karrer (ed.), Hermann Nitsch: The Gesamtkunstwerk of the Orgien Mysterien Theater, Cologne 2015.

Dina Akhmadeeva
April 2019

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