Orgies Mysteries Theatre. Retrospective

30.11.2006 to 22.01.2007

Gropius Bau

To honour Hermann Nitsch with a representative exhibition in Berlin's Nationalgalerie has been a long-standing ambition. The 18 rooms of the Gropius Bau provide a suitable architectural setting for the work of this great artist.

Hermann Nitsch (born 1938 in Lower Austria) has produced a multifaceted and uncompromising body of work that does not fit within the canon usually applied to art, and the critical and extremely fruitful debate on Nitsch's painting has always taken place in connection with the Orgies Mysteries Theatre (O.M. Theatre), a utopian project that he has been pursuing since the early 1960s and is still part of the foundation of an oeuvre that aspires to the status of a Gesamtkunstwerk or 'total art'. At the O.M. Theatre, painting performances and actions are mutually dependent.

The first experimental action took place in Vienna in December 1962 and lasted about 30 minutes. A man was chained to the wall as though crucified. He was dressed in a white robe, and Nitsch poured blood over his face.

The blood dripped onto the robe. The way in which paint (or blood) was applied to cause a free downward flow of paint is a method with which Nitsch was to create numerous 'spilled paintings' in subsequent years.

This method of letting things flow, the introduction of a random element, is also applied to the pictures which he produces with broom and paintbrush. This approach has its origins in tachisme and the whole 'objectless' art of the post-war period, a tradition to which Nitsch has always been committed.

At the same time his theatre pieces became more complex and elaborate over the years. Lambs and bulls hung on crosses were disembowelled, with music and various materials thrown in for good measure - the possibilities are endless. The actions now take place in large halls or at Schloss Prinzendorf, where Nitsch has lived and worked since 1971.

Because of the fixed repertoire of the happenings in the O.M. Theatre, the spilled and smeared paintings show great similarities and no great change is discernible. The limited number of basic colours represented in such a large-scale exhibition shows that the works are not primarily concerned with originality of presentation any more than they are with the search for a specific form or symbolic elements. Instead the repetition of a basically unchanging action scheme gives wide scope to the random factor.

The exhibition will begin with the 'Existenzaltar' of 1960, which represents something of a defining moment. Followed by nine 'Stations of the Cross', these pictures on loan from private collections and museum collections in Germany and Austria and measuring 6 m to 9 m in length guide the visitor through the exhibition like a leitmotiv. The 'Geiselwand' from the Ludwig Museum will be a particular highlight. The 'Asolo Raum' of 1973 and the 'Schömer Raum' of 1998 from the Essl Collection will also be reconstructed for the exhibition.

This is followed by some rooms devoted to 'photo documentations' which constitute a separate field of creativity. Early actions are shown on screens, while much space is accorded to musical scores, drawings and a music room.

A Hermann Nitsch exhibition is bound to be of interest to a younger generation of artists who can be expected to attend. The revived interest in performance art puts Hermann Nitsch and early Actionism back on the contemporary agenda, and the spectrum of Nitsch's art as revealed by this ambitious exhibition could attain a new relevance and an added dimension.