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Viennese Actionism

Viennese Actionism Collage

Started: Early 1960s

Ended: 1971

"I don't attempt to create a beautiful, aesthetic image of people... I accept reality, which is still beautiful and true even when it is ugly."

Adolf Frohner Signature

Summary of Viennese Actionism

The term Viennese Actionism refers to a violent, radical, and explicit form of performance art that developed in the Austrian capital during the 1960s. Mainly consisting of four members, the group collaboratively staged, filmed, and photographed graphic performances - or aktions as they called them. They used their work to make taboo-breaking, often illegal, and sometimes repellent statements that expressed violent dissatisfaction with what they saw as the uptight, bourgeois government and society of post-World War II Austria. The Actionists thought Austrians were suppressing memories of the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis in their country, and were trying to force people to face these traumas head-on through their art.

Key Ideas

Actionists were frustrated by what they saw as the limits and conventionality of abstract painting. Instead of paint they used organic materials such as blood, urine, milk, and entrails; instead of canvas they used naked bodies as 'sites' or 'surfaces' in their carefully controlled performances.
Memories of life under the Nazis had a huge psychological impact on members of the group. They thought Austrians - especially the Viennese - were trying to suppress the role they had played in the crimes committed under the regime, and wanted to use their practices to force society to confront itself.
Sigmund Freud was a touchstone for the group. It was in Vienna that psychoanalysis was born, and the Actionists echoed this symbolically by using their performances to exorcise their own traumatic experiences of WWII.
The group were prepared to act illegally in pursuit of their art: Hermann Nitsch, for example, was arrested and imprisoned numerous times for breaking Austrian indecency laws by masturbating and enacting violent sexual scenes in his performances. It was through pushing their aktions beyond legal limits that they cemented their reputation as the most extreme of 20th century Performance artists.
Viennese Actionism Image


At the dawn of the 1960s, Vienna was in a broken state after being ravaged by two world wars, and the city's art scene was not a very large one. Its heyday as a center for the artistic avant-garde before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was long over, and artists who had been active during that period such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and the artists and designers of the Wiener Werkstatte were long dead. Some of the Actionists, however, would later cite these early-20th-century artists as direct influences in part because they had also rebelled against the status quo and were not afraid to offend. Rudolf Schwarzkogler, for example, was inspired by Schiele's distorted paintings of figures to make his morbid, staged photographs featuring corpse-like bodies.

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