The controversial performance artist Hermann Nitsch invited us to visit in Prinzendorf to discuss art, nature, death and wine
“In art you don’t have ‘ideas’,” Hermann Nitsch said across his sitting-room table. “You work something out. Ideas are for swindlers.”
For over six decades, Nitsch has been “working out” his artistic statements. One of Austria’s most famous living artists, he is known for his often shocking performances, depicting and deconstructing life, death, renewal, and the themes of crucifixion and resurrection.
Driving up, we were greeted by a goat and a donkey. Around the corner and up the hill, we entered a vast courtyard, a group of peacocks trotting about inside. Nature is one of Nitsch’s great loves, including the substances he uses in his art – blood, feces and dirt.
Nitsch joined us in the sitting room. He moves slowly – he is quite stout – and has a warm inviting smile. But behind his signature beard, his face is marked by decades of experience.
When he was about 12, “it was decided” that he wasn’t that bad at drawing. “I was lucky enough to be accepted to the Graphische,” he said. Originally, he was to become a commercial artist after attending Vienna’s famed graphic arts school, but he was much more interested in painting and the old masters. He evolved as a person and as an artist, conceiving the Orgien Mysterien Theater (The Orgiastic Mystery Theater) and staging nearly 100 performances between 1962 and 1998.
“Then there was this worldwide movement and all kinds of art became performative,” he explained. The local crowd would later be known as the Viennese -Actionists. “We were interested in the medical side of humanity,” he said. “Like Michelangelo and Leonardo, who dissected people… Carnal substance fascinated us.”
As a child, he lived among factories in Floridsdorf. It was war time and morning a sirens sent everyone to the air-raid shelters. “The people would all pray because they were afraid, afraid of death,” he said, matter-of-factly. When they resurfaced, “everything was burning; there were black smoke clouds, destroyed houses, bomb craters.” From his childhood, to post-war Vienna, there was a change in consciousness.
“I had to do the Nazi salute in elementary school and then when the allies came, the media were in American, Russian and French hands. Communists and Americans were just cursing about each other,” he sighed. “That’s when I saw that they were all assholes: the Nazis, the pseudo-republicans, the communists and the über-socialists.” Nitsch wants nothing to do with politics. “My heart already beat for anarchy back then and still does today.”
Nitsch’s house is scattered with galleries. There are giant T-shirts caked in red paint (or was it blood?) stuck to enormous canvases, or photos of crucifixions and a series with bandaged wounds and bare genitalia. While initially taken aback, I began to take time with the work. The pieces were intensely honest – ‘natural’, as Nitsch might have said. And undoubtedly powerful.
“I learned to fear death very early in life and that’s stayed with me,” said Nitsch as he offered me some of his homegrown white vintage, a gemischter Satz. “I’m still afraid of it, especially now that I’m old, and it can get me at any moment.” But talk of death didn’t seem to make him melancholic. On the contrary. He said he has a lifelong interest in philosophy, “which is essentially about overcoming death and that’s also what art is trying to do. But the fear remains.”
As we moved on to Vienna and his many arrests, we clinked glasses. He smirked. “I think the people who say they aren’t afraid of death are fibbing a little.”