In Vienna of the early 1960’s, Herman Nitsch began presenting a series of performances that, in 1965, he would consolidate as the OM, or Orgies Mysteries, Theatre. His work was a focused exercise to bring the performance genre to its darkest spaces, its most difficult test. In form the performances are essentially revivals of the Dionysian ritual called the sparagmos, or dismemberment; the performers tear apart and disembowel a lamb or bull. Nitsch writes of his work in consciously Dionysian terms. He has created a theory for it based on Freudian and Jungian reinterpretations of ancient religious forms, on Aristotle’s doctrine of catharsis, and on the ritual of the scapegoat as the wellspring of purification for the community. The artist is seen here as a kind of extramural initiation priest, a healer or guide who points the alienated soul back towards the dark depths of the psyche.
Nitsch’s drawings are hypothetical architectural plans (Architecture of the OM Theatre) on action-stained paper or cloth. The forms resemble internal organs and entrails presented in a map-like fashion. In a drawing after the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci, full figures are represented with internal anatomical details.
In 1965 Nitsch formed the Weiner Aktionismus group in conjunction with Günter Brus among others. Brus became notorious in the 1960’s for his self-destructive and cathartic performances. The artist would perform acts ordinarily taboo in public settings. After prosecutions for sacrilege and obscenity he went into exile in Berlin, and over the last twelve years has produced an extraordinary body of intense drawings. Brus draws on the imaginative tradition of romantic visionaries such as William Blake and Richard Dadd, as well as medieval illuminated manuscripts, and the history of Austrian culture.
For nearly thirty years Arnulf Rainer has been making paintings, drawings and more recently, photographs, which are painted over or obliterated in various ways. At first sight they appear to be violently aggressive and uncontrolled, though their very existence testifies to a constant search for the vitality and spontaneity at the root of human creation. Rainer’s body and mind have been tested to their full extent in an attempt to refine the impulses of art to their most fundamental level.
Rainer’s drawings consist of drawn-over photographs of found images such as details from Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, death masks and unknown heads from the morgue, as well as photographs of his own body and face in contorted positions. These works recall an earlier artistic tradition, notably the late 18th-century interest in physiognomy.