The Breaking of Taboos - Viennese Actionism

September 20, 2016

Viennese Actionism, a movement that originated in Vienna during the 1960’s was not for the faint-hearted. Decades after it proclaimed its end, in 1971, the movement reached recognition and entered the system it so violently and shockingly attacked leaving its mark as one of the most disturbing and most extreme movements that pushed the boundaries of a human body to its limit. Mainly consisting of four members, the performance art of Viennese Actionism, known as aktions, was often illegal and repulsive statements against the uptight, bourgeoisie society and the society of the post-World War II Austria[1]. The ideas of Freudian’s psychoanalysis, the referencing of the ritualistic, and downright brutal use of the body along with organic materials, such as blood, urine, milk, and entrails, was something that the art world had not yet seen. Their highly controlled performances pushed not only the boundaries of body art, but influenced the development in photography and film as well.

the actionists films, action, and video works vienna audience, back in 1964, did not like.muehl was particularly disliked as muehl created the most disturbing actions and work.
Rudolf Schwarzkogle - 3. Aktion, nr.57. Image via

The Beginning of Viennese Actionism

Devastated and appalled by the fact that Austria and its conservative society were suppressing memories and unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazi of their country during the World War II, Gunter Brus, Otto Muhl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler decided to focus on rebelling and challenging the world which surrounded them. Believing that one needed to shock in order to come to terms with the past, four artists joined forces and refused to follow laws of accepted norm of existence, as well as the accepted norm of Abstract Expressionism. Referencing the art of Egon Schiele, particularly done by Schwarzkogler, the distorted paintings of figures influenced the staged photographs with corpse-like bodies, and the aktions transcended the body to becoming a surface or a site that created and received the action. The naked human flesh was spat on, covered with blood, crucified, made to bleed, and even urinated upon. These actions were done outside the mainstream gallery spaces and inside the artists’ studios, lecture rooms, cinemas, theaters, and student clubs. This loose group challenged the art system and explored the ephemeral quality of performances, done in a similar manner by members of the Fluxus movement or the early Happenings. The early performances by the group also raised questions concerning the documentation of the events as well. More often than not, the events were not visited by a large number of art audiences but as a rule of thumb were visited by the official police. The official law was broken several times by the artists, resulting in jail time or fleeing from the Austrian capital city.

the famous actionists günter kurt muehl brus otto created numerous works and films that their audience of 1964 did not like. günter muehl was the famous actionists video author.
Gunter Brus - Action Number Six, Vienna Walk. Images via

The Production of Viennese Actionism

While the nature and content of each of the artists’ work differed, there are distinctive aesthetic and thematic trends which connected the Actions and painting production that did occur in the workings of Hermann Nitsch, Gunter Brus, and Otto Muhl. In fact, it was only the production of Schwarzkogler that did not include painting, assemblage, or collage pieces shared by the movement. He concentrated his practice purely on the black and white, sometimes color documentary photography, exploring various configurations of bodily abjection, simulated castration, bandages, and bondages[2].

The ideas of Sigmund Freud stood as touchstones for the performed actions, which had one goal in mind, that of confrontation and of exercising their own traumas of war. Brutal and highly theatrical, the performances of Hermann Nitsch, involving slaughtered animals, viscera, and crucifixion, evoked medieval Passion Plays, and Mayan human sacrifices. The catharsis, abstraction, and the immediacy of the moment and of matter stood at the root of Nitsch’s actions and these ideas were shared by the rest. The body was mutilated in the 3rd Action by Rudolf Schwarzkogler presenting a figure both in pain and in the moment of healing with his trademark approach of staged photographs. Gunter Brus, on the other hand, took to the streets of Vienna in his famous Action Number Six: Vienna Walk all dressed in white and labeling himself as a living painting. This work, in fact, paved the way for future artists to perform for the unsuspecting public on the street. The act of urinating, directly into the mouth of his fellow member Gunter Brus during the Hamburg Film Festival, Otto Muhl labeled as direct art. Muhl understood and used bodily fluids as tools of expressions for intense, pent-up energy and taboo breaking[3].

the work of kurt günter muehl and otto's video works are highly controversial. muehl was one of the most respected actionists from the group, followed by otto.
Hermann Nitsch - Poured Painting, Image via

The Legacy of the Viennese Actionists

The implied violence and chaos of the group’s painting and performance production had left a strong mark. Unlike the early photo-documentation of various performances, the staged photography of Schwarzkogler stood out from the messy and random images that could have been witnessed at the beginning of performance art. This foreshadowed the use of camera and photography in the larger performative paradigm developed in 1970’s conceptual and performance art. The grotesque body mutilation, concentrating on deeper issues of redemption, sacrifice and rituals, is said to have been an important influence on the production of Marina Abramovic and U.S. conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim. The only female artist, associated with the group, Valie Export, shifted the concept of the female body, in her video art, to an idea of violence and an asexual context[4].

Breaking away from the traditional form of painting, and reflecting upon pictorial thinking manifested in real time and space, the body received a new role within the art world. In a similar way that the human body was suffocated and ruined by the traumas of war, so did the artists of Viennese actionism assign a new role to the body in art. Life and art merged and referenced the violence that was no longer allowed to be ignored.

Editors’ Tip: Vienna Actionism: Art and Upheaval in 1960s Vienna

At the beginning of the body art, the documentation of events and actions was always a tricky issue. The desire to preserve the moment was refused as the focus was placed on the here and now. In front of you is a book with over 1,400 color images, illustrated chronology, and indexes of the actions of one of the most brutal and disturbing art movements. Formed in Vienna and rebelling against the blind eye of the conservative Austrian society, the book offers the reader in-depth biographies of the main artists and creators and offers an insight into ideas and important influences that helped to shape Viennese Actionism. Believed by many that this book will be a standard reference book on the movement, if you wish to learn more, then look no further.


  1. Klocker, H.,Vienna Actionism: Art and Upheaval in 1960s' Vienna, Distributed Art Pub Incorporated, 2012
  2. Micchelli, T., Blood and Soil: Vienna Actionism’s Dangerous Game, Hyperallergic, September, 2016
  3. de Andalucia, J., Viennese actionism : Gunter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Consejaria de Cultura, 2008
  4. Priessnitz,R., Amor Psyche Aktion - Vienna: The Feminine in Viennese Actionism, Distributed Art Pub Incorporated, 2013

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Viennese Actionism – Blood Organ, performance. Image via; Rudolf Schwarzkogler - Aktion ; Aktion 3 ; Aktion 4. Images via

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