Agents Provocateurs: Vienna’s two seminal 20th century art movements go head to head.

Body, Psyche and Taboo, currently showing at the MUMOK, brings together a large selection of work by the early Viennese modernists and the Viennese Actionists, inviting “intellectual and formal” comparison between them. It’s an interesting idea, perhaps, but the result is hardly a fair fight.

The modernists, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Gustav Klimt, Richard Gerstl, are household names today. The Actionists are the “scandal artists” of the 1960s: Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Otto Muehl, Günter Brus and Hermann Nitsch, the latter two still living. Disappointingly, there is nothing here by the subversive feminist performance artist Valie Export, the only woman among the group, the most interesting politically and, arguably, the most scandalous of them all.

Egon Schiele, Selbstbildnis mit gesenktem Kopf, 1912 (Photo: Leopold Museum)
Egon Schiele, Selbstbildnis mit gesenktem Kopf, 1912
(Photo: Leopold Museum)

Apart from Klimt’s lovely Nuda Veritas of 1899 and a good number of starkly approachable paintings by Gerstl, Kokoschka and others (mostly relegated, without Actionist juxtaposition, to the first of three floors), the early modernists are represented overwhelmingly by Egon Schiele. And Schiele dominates – not just numerically, and not just the artists of his own period. He is a great artist, and the power of his startling, demanding works is like a glorious trumpet sounding from the ramparts above the desperate raspberry-blowing of the Actionists below.

Günter Brus Malerei - Selbstbemalung - Selbstverstümmelung, 1965 © Günter Brus, 2016 (Photo: mumok)
Günter Brus Malerei – Selbstbemalung – Selbstverstümmelung, 1965

© Günter Brus, 2016
(Photo: mumok)

Schiele’s Newborn gouaches (1910) strike us immediately with their quasi-skinless vulnerability, making the accompanying photographic works of the Actionists – Brus’ self-absorbed 1967 Action with Diana, his infant daughter, and Muehl’s misogynistic Portrayal of a Birth – look adolescent in comparison. Schiele’s raw and riveting Female Nude (1910), a chalk and watercolor torso with seemingly amputated legs, glares out from the wall at the schlock-horror self-mutilation games of Nitsch’s From the 12th, 14th, 18th, 20th Action (1965-66) and Brus’ Self-Mutilation film of 1965.
Schiele, who died in 1918 at the age of 28, will effortlessly outlive them all.

Master and disciples
To be fair, the Actionists knew this. Schiele’s woody hands reach across the decades into Nitsch’s 1958 Bible Cover gouache on cardboard; the young master is there, unmistakably, in Brus’ twelve Action Sketches of 1965-66. Here at least, the exhibition is comparing like with like. Otherwise it is unfair, perhaps even pointless, to compare works presented in such different forms.

But surely there’s a difference between original and compelling work that may incidentally be shocking and mediocre work whose only apparent purpose is to shock? In intention, yes; in the quality of the art, also yes.

In social fallout, however, perhaps they’re not so different. If the early years of the last century were socially and politically repressive, the bland, dirndly conservatism of post-war Austria must have been suffocating. And in this sense, the exhibition succeeds very well: it shows us what shocked the bourgeoisie in 1910, and what was supposed to shock them in 1965.

Brus masturbating in public (no, not part of this show), Schwarzkogler with a slimy fish down his back, sacrilegious images, humiliation of women, it’s all tasteless, certainly. But shocking? By 1967, anyone who opened a newspaper had seen photographs of children sprayed with burning napalm, severed heads stuck on pikes, Nigerians dying hideously from starvation. For the Actionists’ parents, there were certainly things about the recent war they didn’t want to confront. But they knew all about blood and guts and mutilation, and naturally they objected to the pretense of it. They’d been through the real thing.

The “scandal artists” were young men in the 1960s, and like other young men, they took themselves seriously. They didn’t see the irony of their fantasy world of nastiness and violence, that it was the product – necessarily – of a time of public decency and personal safety.

If our response to Schiele is to shake our heads in wonder, should our response to the Actionists then be to shake our heads and smile?


Body, Psyche, and Taboo
Vienna Actionism & Early Vienna Modernism
Curated by Eva Badura-Triska
Through  May 16, Mumok, MuseumsQuartier