The legendary Austrian artist speaks about the similarities between art and religion and the nature of being.
Hermann Nitsch has been a legendary figure of Austrian art for more than fifty years. His Orgien Mysterien Theater (Orgies-Mysteries Theatre) uses actors, blood, animal entrails, robed processions, symbolic crucifixion, music, dancing, and ritualistic gestures to enact a new form ofgesamtkunstwerk: a pagan ceremony that aims at a kind of collective catharsis. Nitsch is also a painter, best known for splatter paintings made with unorthodox materials such as oil and blood. New York-based artist Piotr Uklanski, himself no stranger to controversy, visited Nitsch at his home, Prinzendorf castle in north-east Austria, and spoke to him about the similarities between art and religion, his lack of interest in politics, and the nature of being.
PIOTR UKLANSKI: Are you Polish?
HERMANN NITSCH: No, my name is Nitsch. It was Nietzsche that was Polish.
UKLANSKI: So you aren’t Polish.
NITSCH: I’m not Polish, no. But the name … yes! I am not sure if its origin is Jewish or Gypsy.
PIOTR UKLANSKI: Yesterday I drove here from Warsaw – crossing borders, through the mountains and the rain. I passed by the town of Częstochowa. It felt almost religious, like a pilgrimage – to see you.
NITSCH: Częstochowa! That is where the Black Madonna is. But wait. You speak English like an American. Where is your Polish accent?
UKLANSKI: Mogę z panem mówić po polsku jak pan ma ochotę.
NITSCH: Do you speak German, also?
UKLANSKI: No, not really.
NITSCH: So we must proceed in English.
UKLANSKI: How did you start out? Usually, young people are interested in sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Instead you were interested in religion and psychoanalysis as a young man.
NITSCH: I was always old. Even when I was eighteen, I felt older than my friends. I was not interested in jazz, and that was a mistake because jazz is a wonderful music. I had no interest in »new« music. I had a little motorbike that I bought it when I was thirteen – that was my world. I loved to drive through the fields and all the way to Bavaria.
UKLANSKI: Was that right after the war? Late 40s or early 50s? When you were eighteen years old, that is when you were making figurative paintings. Didn’t you paint Crucifixion (after Rembrandt) in 1955–56?
NITSCH: After finishing studies at a school for applied arts, I painted copies of Old Masters and so on. And I was very interested in poetry: I read Georg Trakl. His poetry influenced me a lot. So did Symbolism and German Expressionism.
UKLANSKI: Trakl killed himself.
NITSCH: He was a heavy drinker.
UKLANSKI: He drank medical-grade spirits. Trakl was a pharmacist, so he had no problem with the supply. What about Remarque?
NITSCH: Not so much. Remarque was not good enough for me. Later I got interested in all kinds of religions and philosophy. Last but not least, music! Music was very important to me – religious music of all kinds – and also contemporary classical music of that time: the Second Viennese School with Arnold Schoenberg, and John Cage. I learned very much from the history of music, and I developed my own system of notation. Around 1957 I stopped making art, and I only wrote for my theater projects.
UKLANSKI: In 1957 you made a manifesto-like announcement that you were finished with painting. Yet a couple years later you returned to painting. Nowadays one might see your actions as a commercial strategy, but not back then. What happened?
NITSCH: I started painting again after seeing exhibitions of Arnulf Rainer and Jackson Pollock in Vienna. I thought these painters, as well as the Tachists, were able to achieve in painting what I’d tried to do in the my theater and then I thought, »Okay, I have to start painting again.«
UKLANSKI: What attracted you to art informel or Tachisme? Was it a texture? Or was it the philosophy behind art informel that thought of art as a means to address the trauma of war?
NITSCH: I was very compelled by work that uses all of our senses. And I wanted to open up a suppressed situation. I wanted all the intensity to come out in painting like in my theater. I was interested in the intense beauty of the collective moment.
UKLANSKI: But you didn’t paint pretty pictures?
UKLANSKI: It was a big jump from your figurative paintings of the 50s to your wax paintings in the early 60s – it was an unusual choice of an archaic medium. Rather than using a brush, you started to pour wax onto the surface of the canvas. Were the paintings laid flat on the floor? These paintings are very intense. The drips are brutal, like from a slit throat or menstrual blood. It would be the same with your later paintings, which often look like you rip open your veins to paint. Do you think the gesture seems so physical because it also communicates an almost figurative image of blood?
NITSCH: For me intensity was always very, very important. Sometimes violence is necessary. If people are lukewarm and they lack intensity, they’re sad.
UKLANSKI: You once said, »one needs to destroy in order to create.« Is that an allusion to Dionysus?
NITSCH: A Dionysian approach is creation/destruction at once – let’s say in the same moment.
UKLANSKI: In so many different religious and cultic practices, there is no redemption without death or destruction; it is necessary to bring about catharsis or healing.
NITSCH: Yes. Well, I also gleaned that idea from Catholicism. We bring out all our suppressed intentions. That’s good. That’s very good. You’re expected to bring them out through art and therapy rather than in war.
UKLANSKI: In your view, do you think that art has replaced religion in terms of that cathartic potential?
NITSCH: Yes. People often ask me about my work’s relation to religion. I’m not a priest, but I believe that the artist is very similar to a priest. Yet I think it’s not so good to say, now, that we were priests. But it was the notion of sacrifice and ritual that interested me. I was not interested in inventing ways to make God current.
UKLANSKI: So do you think the mystery of art can replace the mystery of religion?
NITSCH: Yeah, I am able to relate to art like religion. When I’m at the Metropolitan Museum, that’s my religion.
UKLANSKI: How far can you take this? Rothko believed that he was creating a spiritual experience when he made the paintings for his chapel in Houston. I am wondering about when you stage your theater performances and you use the iconography of the Catholic Church, like a crucifix, or priest’s vestments, or a chalice. Are you not only quoting the Church but also criticizing it?
NITSCH: I’m not criticizing it. I was never interested in critique. There was only fascination. I am not interested in transubstantiation but priests are. Believers are interested in the power of priests’ robes and celebrate it. But don’t misunderstand me: I’m not interested in the recreation or replacement of traditional religion.
UKLANSKI: You had a Catholic upbringing, right?
NITSCH: I was educated in the Catholic tradition, but at the same time I was very interested in all kind of religions. I am very interested in the book of Genesis and the evolution of the Church. But I don’t believe directly. I believe only in the creation of everything. We have wine to drink.
UKLANSKI: Do you still make work?
NITSCH: Always. When I go to bed, when I wake up.
UKLANSKI: Because it’s easy – isn’t your studio just upstairs? What is it that interests you in continuing your work as you get older? Is it still the subject of creation? The passage of time? Are you looking into God’s eye?
NITSCH: I don’t know if God exists or not. This is not the most important question.
UKLANSKI: What is the most important question?
NITSCH: »What is being?« Being is for me the greatest thing.
UKLANSKI: Do you ever think about not being?
NITSCH: I think »I am Being.« That’s my consciousness.
UKLANSKI: But do you think about death? Is death the end of »being«? Ashes to ashes?
NITSCH: There is no end. I am afraid of death, but I know I am coming back … in everything that is out there. I am in you. It may be that my consciousness and my being will be gone, but I will be in you and in everything else.
UKLANSKI: But this philosophy must manifest itself in your present work. What are the new paintings like?
NITSCH: Currently, I’m working on paintings commissioned for a World War I mausoleum in Turkey, near the ancient city of Troy. It was site of very intense battle. Very many people died …. But I am not interested in politics.
UKLANSKI: Hmm. You, who were imprisoned because of your art practice; with all the violence, death, carnage, and slaughter the commission references – and yet you say you’re not interested in politics? How can you get away with this? The contemporary discourse will not forgive you.
NITSCH: Take a painting of Monet’s or listen to Bach’s Passions and it is evident that there is something happening, and it is happening in the direction of form. Form, for me, is very, very important – aesthetically and metaphysically.
UKLANSKI: Is the quest for perfect form a way to counteract your own mortality or weakness?
NITSCH: The moment is very important. The moment is eternity.
UKLANSKI: I think about death all the time. The sun is going to burn out and the planet is going die. What eternity!?
NITSCH: The repetition; the cycle of life, from birth to death and over again.
UKLANSKI: I’ll have some more wine please. How did you come to the idea of a very limited use of color in your paintings? It’s become your trademark.
NITSCH: The first time it was red.
UKLANSKI : Blood.
NITSCH: Well, blood.
UKLANSKI: You were aware of what Markus Prachensky was doing at the time, right? Pouring red paint down on canvas like you were. Were you guys in competition?
NITSCH: No. For me Arnulf Rainer was very important. There is a painting Rainer made in 1956, an Übermalung – it was a picture with color running down. Yeah, this work impressed me. Prachensky did his paintings for a live audience and it’s not true to say his performances influenced me. However, he did paint using exclusively red paint. But for me, the color red was the only possibility because of its connection to religion and the primitive. Anyway, I had respect for Prachensky. He is the founding father of this way to paint.
UKLANSKI: Was he Polish, also? The Germans like to say Copernicus was German and the Polish say he was Polish. It’s the same story with Chopin and the French.
NITSCH: And some say Haydn was Hungarian.
UKLANSKI: Did you formally study psychoanalysis?
NITSCH: I did study Freud and Jung. Psychoanalysis was very important for me.
UKLANSKI: What about Wilhelm Reich? Were you interested in his teachings?
NITSCH: He’s a great man, but I’m not interested in politics. He was way too left-wing.
UKLANSKI: Are you currently in analysis?
UKLANSKI: What about Josef Dvorak, who was your gallerist?
NITSCH: Yes, he was.
UKLANSKI: Wasn’t he a psychoanalyst at the same time?
NITSCH: He was my psychoanalyst and my gallerist.
UKLANSKI: That’s crazy! What was a conversation with Dvorak like? Did you guys discuss artworks or mothers? Was he a better analyst or an art dealer?
NITSCH: He was a very bad dealer but a very good analyst. Dvorak talked about psycho-hygiene – the cleaning of the mind.
UKLANSKI: Was that a phrase that you used in your circle in the 60s or was it something that came later, as they wrote the art history?
NITSCH: It was very important.
UKLANSKI: So you embraced it after the fact?
NITSCH: So, you make me learn an expression.
UKLANSKI: When you were imprisoned for your performative actions, were you locked up with criminals or you were in solitary?
NITSCH: The first time I was with the criminals. The second time I had my own room. The criminals were okay. They admired the artist.
UKLANSKI: Was the time in prison something that enhanced or reinforced your position vis-à-vis society or was it just the price you had to pay? Was prison like purgatory?
NITSCH: No. That is not right. You can go either way from purgatory: one can go to hell. I was imprisoned three times and then I had to leave the country.
UKLANSKI: When did you have to leave Austria?
NITSCH: It was 1966 when I was imprisoned. I was chained, cuffed, and when they let me out, I got a commuted sentence and left for Germany, the US, and then back to Germany, where I lived for a long time working on my theater and my beer belly. It was from ’68 until ’78. Nearly ten years.
UKLANSKI: That’s where you got your present image from? There is not that much work of yours from the 70s that one can easily find. Did you »turn on, tune in, drop out«? Did you do drugs?
NITSCH: No. Only wine.
UKLANSKI: Not even a smoke?
NITSCH: Beer, yes, but mostly wine.
UKLANSKI: That’s how you relate to Dionysus.
NITSCH: More wine?
UKLANSKI: You use term orgies to describe your theater works. What do you mean by calling them orgies? Did people actually have sex during these »orgies«?
NITSCH: The orgy is a fantasy. I mean orgy as a maximal experience – to use all of our senses. One can have an orgy in the theater, in music, in painting, in sex. But no – we must not spill sex into art.
UKLANSKI: Is the experience more intense when you have sex with multiple partners simultaneously?
NITSCH: I’m not thinking about that.
UKLANSKI: There is plenty of nudity in your theater works. How did you arrive to the idea of exposing genitalia, mostly male, and covering them with abject things, like animal brains, for example?
NITSCH: I’m an artist and I work with what is around me. I like the Impressionists … and I also like the Marquis de Sade.
UKLANSKI: I find it fascinating how sexualized your work can be. Take for example your earlyWachsbild (1960). It looks like a wound – Christ’s stigmata. Or an anus. Your work was much more explicit than any art made before – especially in the way the death drive and eroticism collide.
NITSCH: Let’s say, there is always a progression; they are always new things. And I hope I did some new things.
UKLANSKI: Are you familiar with Luce Irigaray – the French psychoanalyst and philosopher who wrote about the medieval devotional cult centered on worshipping Christ’s wounds? She specifically focused on the side wound of Christ. From a psychoanalytic perspective, she proposed that the side wound looks vaginal – she called it »the glorious slit« and made an equivalence between the religious ecstasy one feels when meditating on this wound and jouissance, enjoyment from orgasm.
NITSCH: I think both the stigmata and the side wound look like a vagina.
UKLANSKI: You expose the genitals, yet you cover the eyes of the actors in your theater. The blindfold is very important element in your work. Why?
NITSCH: One picture by Fra Angelico provides your answer. The blindfold: Jesus Christ had it.
UKLANSKI: Does the blindfold symbolize castration?
NITSCH: Yes, but it is not solely symbolic. The symbolic attracts people. For me it’s very important. People often ask me why I use sugar cubes. Why? What does it mean? It is what it is: just sugar cubes. And it is the viewer’s problem to work with possible associations and the connection to the symbolic. In my work, a sheep is a sheep, and not a symbol of Jesus Christ.
UKLANSKI: Yet the blindfold in your images is very violent.
NITSCH: It is what it is.
UKLANSKI: How do you explain that in the 1960s the response to your work resulted in your arrest, but today you are a venerated figure? Do you think it has something to do with the fact that society has a different relationship to violence and graphic content?
NITSCH: Well, you will remember that with the Impressionists, their subjects – breakfast, morning time, the outdoors – people were enraged by these pictures and were against them. Nowadays you have Impressionist posters in every doctor’s waiting room. It’s the same as with my reception: at first, people were very angry and now it’s domesticated. I hope you are not unhappy with the interview. I’m tired, but you are surely tired of me.
UKLANSKI: I loved it. I thought I was making you tired of all this.
NITSCH: I’m a masochist.
Hermann Nitsch born 1938 in Vienna. Lives in Prinzendorf, Austria. Exhibitions: Rite of Passage: The Early Years of Vienna Actionism 1960 – 1966, Hauser & Wirth, New York (2014); 55. Biennale di Venezia (2013); Explosion: Painting As Action, Moderna Museet, Stockholm; A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance Art, Tate Modern, London (2012); The Pharmacy, Leo Koenig inc., New York (2011) (solo). His is work is on permanent view in two Hermann Nitsch Museums, in Mistelbach, Austria, and Naples.
Piotr Uklanski is an artist based in New York.