Hermann Nitsch

Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum

In his filmed performance Maria Conception, 1969, Hermann Nitsch, dressed up in a chasuble and surrounded by his assistants, makes no concessions to illusion. The film’s directors, Irm and Ed Sommer, make it clear that the organizing idea of Nitsch’s simulated surgical operations and flowing blood is one of shock and horror; the distanced tone of their presentation makes his Orgies Mysteries Theatre come over like a slap in the face. The sadomasochistic performance, a welter of anarchism and religious references, culminates in the besmirching of a naked woman bound to a cross with the blood and entrails of a slaughtered lamb. The shock of horror felt by the viewer seems only minimally related to an esthetic.

Nitsch’s “actions” had power then, but time, the great healer, has made it easier to accept his extremism. Watching the performance that accompanied this exhibition, I thought that I had hardly ever seen a more uninteresting event. Even when a lamb was cut open, rent limb from limb, and disemboweled, I was left curiously unmoved. Was this more than hocus-pocus?

Moreover, the exhibition of relics from Nitsch’s earlier performances was sterilized and dust free, perhaps like the waiting room of a provincial mortuary. An array of surgical instruments, photographs of naked men and women covered in animal organs, and hospital trollies was nicely set off against surplices, chalices, and blood-stained vestments. Jars of grain, lentils, incense, and other symbolic matter were placed on tables between drip paintings, dripping more with blood than paint. But what could have been a chamber of real horror remained stunted, studied, and distanced, an empty shell of unrealized esthetic ambition. And the monastic architecture of this museum reinforced the impression that what the exhibition dealt with was history. The work, perhaps originally revolutionary, had a preserved feeling about it, defused as it was in a gentle atmosphere of esthetic mysticism and soft occultism.

Nitsch’s current work must be seen as a run-up to his “Six-Day Play” scheduled for Prinzendorf, Austria, this year. Judging from Nitsch’s preparations, the event should probably restrict itself to the role of a wine festival rather than attempt something in the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk tradition. Nitsch is simply not good enough at theater to come up to the expectations his past reputation evokes, let alone present new problems to his audience. There will always be a young generation curious to see how he manages it all, but he seems to have run short of fresh ideas.

In the catalogue, however, we are given the impression that this is a real world-beating artist. In its texts virtually all of European cultural history is analyzed to prove that in Nitsch’s work we are dealing with a real Dionysian power and an ecstatic, orgiastic, boundless joy. Yet the driving force of the Dionysian was totally absent in both the performance and the exhibition here. Also lacking were the artistic intelligence and creative verbal power of the Dionysian theater, with its grip and compelling momentum. We should not underestimate the stimulus of Nitsch’s work on the art of the ’60s, but we should be careful not to set him in any pantheon of true geniuses. The name of Nietzsche, for example, is constantly dropped in the catalogue, but the relationship between the two is strictly limited to the homophony of their names.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Michael Latcham.