Marc Straus


A Historical Exhibition Of Works From The Past Four Decades

September 9 – October 18, 2015

Hermann Nitsch’s painting originates from a complex analysis of topics ranging from cult and theatre to mental constitution of humans as well as a religion-like preoccupation with human existence.

Against this background, Nitsch has been working on his idea of the Orgien Mysterien Theater since the 1960s, the concept of a performative art he devised in Prinzendorf and has since performed there regularly. A complex symbol language of organic materials and religious elements like the sacrifice shall transform the metaphors of our lives as well as our existence in reality, and serve a gestus of relief. Within the meaning of gestures of relief and strategies of ego-dissolution in the 1960s also dealing with depth psychology plays a key role in Nitsch’s opus.

The Orgien Mysterien Theater

Hermann Nitsch developed the Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries (O.M.Theatre) in the mid-1950s.

Peter Gorsen remarks that the origins of the O.M. Theatre lie in literary and sensory language. The artist first articulated the idea of his total artwork in verbal poetry. In 1956 – influenced by the Greek tragedies, by Georg Trakl, German Expressionism, French Symbolism, Stephan Georges, James Joyce and the Surrealists – he began writing a drama which was to last six days. Hermann Nitsch conceived "a kind of compressed archetypal drama, aiming to summarise the conflicts and catastrophes of the myths. The Oedipus material was processed in the same way as the Nibelungen-Myth, the Atreides myth, the death of the Sun-hero and the Catastrophe of the Cross." However, this work remains unfinished. After two years, the artist realised that language did not have sufficient capacity to convey the required profound and convincing emotional intensity, and transferred his level of expression to different areas. He started working with actual substances – such as milk, vinegar, wine, blood or meat, which stimulate the senses of smell, touch and taste; this seemed to him more conducive to the enhancement of sensual impressions.

In the staging of such events, art is liberated from the task of depiction and representation – as was generally striven after in the 20th century, especially in happenings, performances and Actionism during the 1960s. Art transcends the boundary of life and reality – art and life become one. In real time, sensuous reality is experienced. Literary experience is replaced by real-life experience, thus making it possible to dispense with spoken language. Nitsch says that it is not language (linguistic association) that plumbs the depths, but ecstatic sensual experience achieved through 'Aktionen', tending towards orgiastic excesses, which will expose what has been repressed.

Around 1960, Nitsch abandoned the traditional representational level of the picture and the classic form of theatre. He tried to reduce the means of representation to its elementary and original state or to the purely material – language to the scream, music to the noise, painting to spilling paint. He changed from the word to the action and from portrayal to material. He sought reality instead of theatre and arrived at the orgiastic 'Aktion', whose purpose is reality and life itself – with all its positive and negative aspects, comparable with the "Theatre of Cruelty" by Antonin Artaud, which Nitsch himself refers to. With this, the artist not only achieves a lasting expansion of the pictorial resources, but at the same time a "theatrical dramatic expansion of art".

In 1960, on the basis of the drama, the psychology of Sigmund Freud and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Hermann Nitsch contrives a "dramaturgical abreaction model" (Hermann Nitsch). The guiding characters in the abreaction play of the O.M.Theatre are Dionysus the destructive fertility god who embodies the primal principle of being, and Christ, who sacrificed himself for love. The dilaceration of Dionysus is seen as a model for the Passion of the Cross; both are principle leitmotifs of the O.M.Theatre. The subject is human existence itself – birth, life, death, rebirth. Myth and ritual are his tools. Hermann Nitsch takes up the theme of rituals of sacrifice and re-enacts them. In this context, the artist and the participants assume the role of suffering humanity, which is to be saved through the retrieval of what is repressed. The sensuous experience curve goes from sensual orgy, to orgiastic excess, to ecstasy, right up to meditation and leads to emotional realisation and catharsis. Form is essential here. "Form has a deep metaphysical moral and ethic quality." Trough form, negative and destructive impulses can be channelled into abreaction. (This is why the artist always draws up precise scores with strict stage directions.) The abreaction rituals of the O.M.Theatre, in which real actions expose participants to a deep experience of the self, with the aim of revealing, channelling and redirecting what is repressed and submerged.

The O.M.Theatre is a "basic experience of excess and a celebration of resurrection, a sadomasochist excess and catharsis, a brutal dismemberment and a harmonising synthesis, an incantation of the myth as a contracted world view and psychoanalytical therapy." "Every descent into the perverse and the unappetising takes place for the purpose of bringing about healing awareness." Increasing disgust and horror and crossing all boundaries and taboos should ultimately lead to an affirmation of life transcending life and death; being is to be embraced in its entirety.



my earliest experiments in drama made use of the word, of language. the actors were to speak their lines (as in classical theatre), play their roles. my priority was to combine values creative and sensory in terms of language, as evident for instance in lyric poetry, with what was specifically dramatic. i saw this union achieved only in classical tragedy and in kleist. the separation between drama and poetry disturbed me. i wanted to bring the latter into the action plot far more emphatically as hitherto, without however reducing dramatic power. this led to a sensory intensity almost baroque in its proliferation, a creativity with words that was expressively surreal, which language itself had to breach if it was to come into contact with and fashion reality. language was packed with sensual images and forged ahead, towards its own dissolution. a lot that was libidinal, unconscious swelled and seeped into the language, which could not cope though. recollection of sensual perception, activated through language, was not enough. the need for actual feeling thrust through language, language inhibited intensive, sensory feeling. a rush of the dionysian took it by surprise, repressed sensuality was activated. i could no longer find any satisfaction with language, it was now a mere relic, a symbol (remembrance of what was once experienced). i wanted to penetrate to reality, to real experience, so as to elaborate an art that is only an aesthetic arrangement of what is directly experienced. to complement and enrich my language results, i introduced the directly immediate registration of certain sensory perceptions and feelings, as demanded by the play. the audience had to register smells, tastes and tactile sensations. they had to pour and slop fluids, for example:

  • wine
  • hot water
  • chasselas
  • lukewarm water
  • urine
  • hot blood serum
  • alcohol
  • blood
  • greasy wash water
  • paint
  • etc.

besides the visual perception, registering the smells and temperatures of the fluids was integral. additionally, the audience members has to pass objects around amongst themselves. raw flesh was carried through the crowd in wooden troughs filled with lukewarm water. instructions were given that a dead, skinned ox be carried through the audience, which was to be disembowelled and ripped to pieces. the actors (covered with blood) were to do this screaming, extremely agitated, triggered by the organized sensory impact the substances (flesh, bowels, blood, etc) were having. the final tearing into pieces and dismembering of the animal by the audience had to come of itself. i demanded of the audience the performance of actions with concrete objects on laboratory benches. these acts were almost like physiochemical experiments, with the difference that for the “experiments of the o.m. theatre” the substances, fluids and objects were not related to one another for the purpose of natural science. i did not understand the objects used in terms of their chemical, physical functions but in terms of their potential to evoke a relishing registration running along channels towards form. similar to alchemy the objects were related to one another with a view to their symbolic value and on the other hand their sensory transmission value in the sense of gestating form. the various objects with their specific symbol aura and sensory radiance constitute the elementary components which, correctly used, result in form. through the analytical forging of interrelationships between smells, tastes, tactile sensations, felt temperatures, visual sensations and resultant language a sensitization of human feeling was to be achieved in the direction of a pleasure-brining registration (of form)…

- Hermann Nitsch, Die Entwicklung des OM Theaters, in: Hermann Nitsch: Das Orgien Mysterien Theater 2. Theoretische Schriften, Partiturentwurf zum 6 Tagespiel“, Neapel 1976, S. 113-115.

The Paintings

“i saw the substance that is sensual perception, which has fascinated me, first put into material practice by the art informal painters. they carried this out on a picture surface and i wanted to do the same in theatre. suddenly i wanted to paint the walls of my theatre. i dreamt of smeared, sullied picture surfaces. all of the substances i employed in my theatre were to run down the walls.”

The paintings of the O.M.Theatre are based on informal art. Action painting, the excessive splashing of paint on vertical and horizontal canvases – which Nitsch himself describes as visual grammar of the 'Aktionstheater' on a pictorial surface – is based on tachism as conditional on shaping and expressing the unconscious in a sensually stimulated production process. The elementary sensual stimulation of painting, effected by splashing, spraying and smearing paint, corresponds to the 'Aktionen' with meat, blood and intestines, and appears equally suitable for abreaction of repressed desires and urges. The painting 'Aktionen' (in front of an audience from 1960) with its temporal ecstatic processes are the predecessors of the actual theatrical 'Aktionen' in which the pictorial resources are replaced with real ones. The painting process increases in intensity to an 'Aktion'; the pictorial surface is replaced with reality.

Since 1963, instead of painting, which apparently culminated in the O.M.Theatre, the RELICS of the 'Aktionen' are transformed into artistic objects. The fabrics and clothes, marked by the processes of the 'Aktion', stained and besmeared, are considered authentic documentation of the events; they preserve the actions and their traces and retain their relevance over time. The artist has been systematically collecting the action relics – sheets, shirts, stretchers – since 1968. A year later, Nitsch included Eucharistic vestments from the Christian church in the action painting. Later, he extended this idea to the smocks he himself wears for painting – as true proof of the (ritual) event.

Nitsch - 56. Malaktion & Die Ägyptische" - 4.Satz, Finale

In 1983, after twenty years, Hermann Nitsch takes up painting again – more joyfully, intensively, spontaneously and insouciantly than ever – and recognises, completely contrary to his practise of the two previous decades, the mutual necessity of painting 'Aktion' and the O.M.Theatre. Since then he has been carrying out painting 'Aktionen' periodically.

The second phase of painting is characterised by the use of bright colours (since about 1989) – initially monochrome, and later in combination. For a long time, the artist exclusively used the colour red – the most intensive colour, which signifies life and death, symbol of fire, love, flesh, blood – followed by black.

In the 1990s his work opened up to a larger spectrum employing – apart from yellow – the liturgical colours, violet, blue, green and white. Their effect and symbolic meaning is consciously used in the painting and Actionist work. The excessive, subjective and immediate painting process is subject to various pragmatic and contentual preconditions and devoted to various problems and accordingly produce different pictorial results. Central focus is the experiment with the consistency of the paint which varies from liquid to pastose. The paint is spilled, splattered, brushed or smeared with bare hands; the artist plunges his arms into it as he does with animal intestines. Here, art informel gesture is combined with Actionist reality.

Hermann Nitsch also worked on multi-part picture cycles – often characterised by the central application of a smock which, similarly to the relic of the 'Aktion', is to be interpreted as a stained sacrificial garment. In the 1990s, the cycles begin to vary and the works are no longer tied so strongly to one concept. The painting is seen more freely as a genre in its own right and each work is more autonomous.

Total Art

Significant for the O.M.Theatre are works of painting, drawing, graphics, music, photography and film.


»Grablegung«, triptych, line etching on copper, softground etching on aluminium, lithograph, on original relic, 2007 © Atelier Nitsch

The drawings and prints are also inseparably connected with the oeuvre and represent immediate parts of it. In the 1960s and '70s, the work of Hermann Nitsch was defined primarily by Aktionism. His graphic works, particularly his architectural drawings (since 1964) are of lesser known. 

From the 1970s, only two large-scale drawings are known: Die Eroberung von Jerusalem [the conquest of Jerusalem], 1971 and Das letzte Abendmahl [the Last Supper], 1976/79. Years later, in 2008 and 1983 respectively, they were both made into prints.

Originally, in the 1950s, drawing was a useful discipline for studies and sketches on religious topics as well as formulations of art informel scribble drawings; from 1958 onwards it became a purely practical process employed to complement the scores composed, then rapidly advancing to become a resource in its own right. More than a mere concept, image or sketch, it ultimately attained a status independent of painting. In printing, however, the two are combined.

In the 1950s, Hermann Nitsch attended the Academy of Graphic Art in Vienna, finishing with a diploma in 1957. During this time the artist acquired the skills which are considered the basis of his extensive and complex graphic work, with its wealth of technical subtlety and distinctive features devised by the artist and his colleagues, not least for use in their own work. In Nitsch's work, even when we talk about an edition, it always consists of manually designed, unique individual works – Nitsch has labelled them "Unikatgrafik".

Since the 1980s, Hermann Nitsch has been working in the graphics field and created an extensive oeuvre. Architectural drawings form the basis for the prints; it is the starting point and motif for the majority of the published prints. From 1984 to 1991, he produced the project Die Architektur des Orgien Mysterien Theaters [the architecture of the O.M. Theatre]; this collection, consisting of four folders with direct lithographs of over 3,300 individual prints, is the centrepiece of his graphic work. The content, as the title suggests, refers to the vision of a subterranean urban architecture, like a grail temple, dedicated to the "sacred acts" of the O.M. Theatre.

Since 1991, Hermann Nitsch has been working together with Kurt Zein. This period is marked by the impressive extension of technical printing possibilities which, of course had a significant effect on the results. Works such as Das letzte Abendmahl, 1983, Die Eroberung von Jerusalem, 2008, or Die Grablegung [The Entombment (of Christ)], 2008 are printed on original relics. The latest monumental work in the field of graphics is the large-format, Hebrew-German art book LEVITIKUS, which Hermann Nitsch published in collaboration with Har-El Publishers (16 copies). It refers to the third book of Moses, which describes the sacrificial rituals in the Temple of Jerusalem. The work is accompanied by twelve terragraphs (screen prints with sand), with a surface structure similar to that of the splatter paintings.


The essential element in the work of Hermann Nitsch is the interplay of sound and colour – their harmony or dissonance. This kind of dovetailing is evident in his scores, in the autograph (stage) instructions for the "Aktionen" which the artist has been writing down since the 1960s.

Here tonal notation is sometimes replaced by coloured lines. In his music, as in his theory of colours, the only important thing is tone quality and harmony; melody and rhythm are obsolete. The intention is to go beyond the classical categories of music to achieve an extreme form of expression which will sustain the intensive, ecstatic basic motif. Since the 1970s, and from the time when the "Aktionen", festivals and performances were held at Prinzendorf castle, music has been an essential element of the O.M. Theatre. In its archaic form – as sound, scream, noise –, to some extent it replaces spoken language. Neither narrative nor description, it is nevertheless an equivalent form of expression. Emerging from the state of excitation arising within the "Aktion" it has at the same time a heightening effect. The "Aktionen" are accompanied and forcefully intensified by "noise orchestra", "scream choir" and traditional wind band with electronic amplification. Nitsch postulates: "An orgiastic music is to transpose us to an intensive state wherein we find being".


From the beginning, Hermann Nitsch's 'Aktionen' were recorded, or generally carried out as pure photo 'Aktionen', excluding the public – as, for example for the first time in 1963. It was important to the artist that the recording should be bound to the work in a neutral way, but carried out from an appropriate viewpoint, so that the images reflect the concept of the work as a whole.