Viennese Actionism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Viennese Actionism
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.
Education and War Experiences
There were four main Actionists involved in the movement: Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Guenter Brus. They had all received a formal art education at various schools in Vienna, giving them a thorough knowledge of the traditional art forms that they would later rebel against. Muehl gained a teaching degree in German and History in 1952 and taught for a year before studying at Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts in 1953. Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler met while both were studying painting at the Graphic Training and Research Institute, while Gunter Brus studied graphic art at the Akademie fur Angewandte Kunst between 1957 and 1960 in Vienna before dropping out.
Muehl was the oldest of the group and the only one to have fought in the Second World War. The three younger Actionists had been too young to join the armed forces, but nevertheless felt traumatized by their experiences of living through the Nazi regime and desperately wanted to put this across in their work.
Informal Meetings and the First Aktions
The Actionists intentionally and explicitly made art outside traditional gallery contexts. Their aktions could variously be encountered in one of their studios, in cinemas, lecture rooms, theatres, and student clubs, but rarely in anything resembling a conventional white cube gallery space. Their resistance to traditional spaces and exhibits makes it difficult to plot the development of their movement because they had no seminal group exhibitions in the traditional sense, and were more like a loosely affiliated gang than a tightly defined art movement. Instead, art historians track the movement's evolution by looking at the dates of their most recognized aktions and events. Many of these were quite poorly attended at the time and only reached art-myth status years later as the Actionists' importance to the art historical canon began to be recognized.
Muehl and Nitsch's first recorded, three-day-long Blutorgel Aktion took place in Muehl's basement studio in 1962. With Muehl's encouragement, Gunter Brus co-created his first aktion with his wife Anni in 1964. The first piece in his iconic Self Painting series - in which he coated his head and a wall behind with exuberant strokes of paint using a large brush - followed in 1965. Schwarzkogler performed his first, live aktion - Wedding - in 1965, using the clinical backdrop and themes of binding and mutilation that would come to typify his later, staged photographs.
Actionism and Other Performance Movements
Art historians strongly associate Viennese Actionism with other pioneering performance and conceptual art movements of the 1960s - especially Happenings and Fluxus. While they were not directly affiliated with these other groups, the Actionists shared their desire to break free from the confines of traditional art production (especially painting) and explore new theoretical and physical territory in their art.
Living as poor artists in broken post-war Vienna, most of the Actionists were actually quite isolated for much of the 60s and had relatively little direct contact with other European and American practitioners of the time - simply because they could barely afford to travel. A notable turning point was Muehl and Brus's participation in the Destruction In Art Symposium, held in London in 1966 that was led by the German artist Gustav Metzger. The event brought together Fluxus artists such as Yoko Ono and Al Hansen as well as other performance practitioners from around the world for a series of staged happenings and discussions. The event received a good deal of international press and brought the Actionists' activities to a much wider audience.
Viennese Actionism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Recorded and Live Performance
Actionism paralleled other artistic movements of the time that were moving away from traditional mediums and materials towards performance such as Fluxus, Happenings, the Japanese Gutai, and French Situationism. All these groups had their own preferences as to how their work should be documented and remembered - the Actionists usually preferred films and photographs, though written plans and accounts of aktions also survive and are often shown alongside them. The press photographer Ludwig Hoffenreich and avant-garde filmmaker Kurt Kren were the main documenters.
While every member of the group documented their live aktions photographically, Rudolf Schwarzkogler was the only one of them to stage performances specifically for the camera, in private. After putting on his first aktion in front of a live audience, he claimed their presence was too distracting, and developed his own, influential style of staged photography. Every element in each of his subsequent five works was carefully selected - he used recurring themes and props to create black and white compositions with strong, formal qualities that set them apart from the messy, random images that characterized performances by the other Actionists.
Painting and Drawing
Despite their stated rebellion against particular types of abstract painting, the group was very much inspired by paint as a material. As well as using organic liquids such as blood, milk, and urine in their aktions, most of them continued to create their own canvasses and drawings as well as performances throughout the heyday of Actionism. Hermann Nitsch, for example, used blood poured from a cloth to create his Blood Pictures from the early 1960s onwards - works that very much reflected the themes of ritual, redemption, and sacrifice that he was exploring in his aktions.
Later Developments - After Viennese Actionism
Within a decade of Brus and Muehl announcing the official 'end' of Viennese Actionism in 1971, the movement started to be recognized as one of Austria's most important and influential contributions to 20th-century art. There have been a number of major survey exhibitions at museums worldwide over the last few years, firmly (and ironically) placing the group in the canon they originally sought to overturn.
The group has had a marked influence on later artists. U.S. conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim, for example, was one of a number of conceptualists to self-harm his naked body in performances that were strongly influenced by Actionism. The group is also considered to have had a considerable impact on Serbian-born, New York-based performance artist Marina Abramovic, the 'grandmother of performance art' who has also used her body as a 'site' for violent expression in front of a live audience from the 1970s to the present day.