Text written by Patricia Ellis (Saatchi Gallery)
Hermann Nitsch was born in Vienna in 1938. While studying graphic illustration, he became interested in religous art. He made copies from Rembrandt’s 100 Gulden Blatt and Christ Crucified, and from other religious themes by artists such as Tintoretto and El Greco. Other drawings Hermann Nitsch made at this time were strongly influenced by Cézanne, Klimt and Munch, amongst others. From around 1957 onwards, the depiction of Dionysian revelry and ceremonies began to feature in his work.
In 1957, Hermann Nitsch’s idea for a radical theatre was conceived, which he called the Orgien Mysterien Theater. The O.M. Theatre took its shape from ideas about Aristotelian catharsis, Freudian psychology, conventional theatre, and Dionysic orgy. It is an attempt to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a ’total art’, or mystical experience that involves all the senses.
The first performances of the O. M. Theatre consisted of Hermann Nitsch and friends using animal carcasses, entrails, and blood in a ritualistic way. The cloths, bandages and other fabrics used in these performances introduced Nitsch to the idea of making paintings. 1960 saw the first exhibition of his ‘Aktion’ paintings in Vienna. In the mid-60’s Nitsch’s theatre pieces were also performed in Vienna.
During that period, his use of taboo images put him out of favour with the authorities. His ’Aktions’ were interrupted by the police and closed down. Hermann Nitsch served time in prison for blasphemy and provoking a scandal. In 1968, Jonas Mekas invited him to New York, where he met the Fluxus performance artists. He staged ‘Aktions’ in the streets of New York, as well as at the Judson Church & Cinematheque.
In 1971 Hermann Nitsch bought Prinzendorf castle in the wine-producing area of northern Austria, so that it might become a centre for the activities of the O. M. Theatre. During this time Hermann Nitsch staged performances and exhibitions in Italy, France, the US, and Germany. He was also planning a three day (and night) performance.
The music that Hermann Nitsch composed himself was becoming increasingly prominent in his performances. In 1972 he participated in Documenta V, Kassel, and staged ‘Aktions’ at the Mercer Center and Everson Museum of Art. In 1984, Hermann Nitsch staged a performance that lasted three days and three nights at Prinzendorf. In 1988 he married Rita Leitenbor. In the mid-90’s he co-directed and designed the set for the opera Herodiade by Jules Massenet at the Vienna State Opera. In 1996 he performed an ‘Aktion’ in the wine-yards of San Martino (Napoli), and in 1998 staged the 6-day play in Prinzendorf, an ‘Aktion’ that Hermann Nitsch sees as the greatest achievement of his career.