By Magdelena Polak
Viennese Actionism is an example of Austrian performance art that took place between 1960-1971 and is, to this day, considered controversial. Placing it into a historical context, the consequence which the so-called Victim Myth, propagated after WWII, had on its people. This myth is a theory that argues that Austria has essentially been the first victim of Nazi Germany, having been annexed in 1938 to be part of the Third Reich.
However, taking documents, witnesses and film materials into account, as well as photographs showing cheering crowds welcoming Hitler upon his arrival in Vienna on 15 March 1938, it can be safely argued that Austria’s annexation was at least not entirely unwanted.
Nevertheless, the consequences of the Victim Myth resulted in there not being the amount of Denazification and rehabilitation that Austria needed in order to come to terms with its past; Denazification meaning the purposeful removal of any remnants of Nazi Ideology from Austrian culture but most importantly, its politics. As this did not happen to the necessary extent, in the years after the war, Austria found itself led by notable politicians who had previously been members of the NSDAP, now calling themselves Social or Christian Democrats, Friedrich Peter or Franz Murer being just two examples of many.
Bearing this in mind, Austria’s state in the 1960s was such that a new generation of artists, born between 1935-40, being in their early twenties, found themselves in a deeply conservative, catholic country that more or less refused the acknowledgment of any kind of responsibility in regard to the period leading up and during World War II. This was, naturally, a good breeding ground for social controversial art.
Viennese Actionism’s main purpose was the opposing of social repressions, seeking confrontations with the state and the church, and dismantling the hypocrisy that made Austria from the 1960s what it was. They did this through performance art, crossing the borders of the genre of painting in favour of actions with real bodies, objects and substances in space and time. They wished to intensify the public’s awareness of the direct confrontation with the psychological and physically tangible reality.
It refused to accept a patriarchal society that would not question its past, continuously breaking social taboos in the process. Their aim was also to dismantle the secret, underlying perversions that lay underneath the covering up of one’s past. It also aims to break apart the controversies between what was being talked about/done behind closed doors as opposed to the public image. As a result, Viennese actionism is often as sexual as political, and always united in its radicalism.
In Günter Brus’ Aktion Ana from 1964, we can see the artist’s struggle of breaking the ties with the oppressive and restrictive social conventions that existed in Austria. Actionist art is physicality to the extent of pain and going well beyond that.
Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s work, on the other hand, calls to mind an element of slow withering away and death, and the helplessness that comes with that; appropriate themes in light to his suicide in 1969.
Hermann Nitsch’s work is the one that most blatantly rebelled against the Catholic Church. As early as 1960, he started developing the concept of his Orgy-Mystery-Theatre: a full work of art (including action painting, architecture, music, the connection between Sacrificing and religion), its aim is to aggravate the public and push it to such an extreme to the extent where its high point is the recognition and acceptance of life at its most gruesome and beautiful, as well as point out the easy coalescence of the two. Again, the element of pushing the public to its most extreme in a very radical way.
Needless to say, society’s acceptance and celebration of Viennese Actionism was not instantaneous. Almost all of the Actionists had at point been in prison for offences against public decency. The biggest social outcry was as a result of an action from 1968 called Art and Revolution, when the Actionists gate-crashed a lecture at the university of Vienna and performed various breaking of taboos such as masturbating, emptying their bowels onto the Austrian flag, flogging themselves all while singing the Austrian Anthem, showing the hypocrisy and their disgust with the Austrian state as an institution.
Until this day, the Viennese Actionism does not enjoy the same recognition that Egon Schiele’s or Gustav Klimt’s work does. Though this will certainly be to a large extent due to its difficult and radical visual aspects, drawing back on the Victim Myth, one might conclude that this is due to the incapability of the acknowledgement of guilt. The statement “I had only done my duty” is one that one will repeatedly find in the history of Austrian politics after 1945, and perhaps it is also this incapability of dealing with the past that is one of the reasons why people tend to struggle with Viennese Actionism,