Gesamtkunstwerk 총체예술: Hermann Nitsch Solo Exhibition

5 September - 30 December 2023

“Everything comes together in the reality of our actions. Poetry becomes painting, or painting becomes poetry, music becomes action, action painting becomes theater, informal theater becomes primarily an optical event.”.[1]

K&L Museum is pleased to announce its inauguration with Gesamtkunstwerk: Total Artwork, a  solo exhibition by the Austrian avant-garde artist Hermann Nitsch (1938-2002), on view from September 5 to December 30, 2023. Hailed as the father of Viennese Actionism, a movement that expanded the conceptual boundaries of art in the early 1960s, Nitsch has been acclaimed as one of Austria’s most seminal contemporary artists of his generation. Nitsch, who is known for his interdisciplinary practice that encompasses many genres including painting, drawing, printmaking, performance, musical compositions and stage design, is also recognized for his bold performances and gestural abstract paintings that trace its “aktionen.” The artist dedicated himself to the experiment of complex genres and materials, aiming to explore subjects including the nature of human existence, repressed desires and the human body, over the course of six decades.  

This inaugural exhibition will present Schüttbild, Nitsch’s monumental painting series, which holds  critical importance in the artist’s comprehensive oeuvre. The Schüttbild series was built upon  Nitsch’s performance at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival in 2021, after having been invited as the  artistic director of Walküre, an opera written by the German composer and music critic Wilhelm  Richard Wagner. The exhibition will orbit around this series, simultaneously encouraging discourse  on Nitsch’s belief in creating a “total artwork” combining innovation and expansion, alongside their intersections with Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. Heavily inspired by Wagner’s vision of  Gesamtkunstwerk, Nitsch dedicated himself to producing “total works of art” involving different  genres including music, theater, poetry and literature, throughout his lifetime. In celebration of  the 210
th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, K&L museum will also play a film of Nitsch’s performance from 2021, while highlighting his original paintings. Visitors will be able to enjoy an immersive experience of Nitsch’s “cosmic” artistic vocabulary that fostered its own artistic value by actively integrating Wagner’s musical genius.  

In his early works, Nitsch primarily used language as a tool supported by the genres of theater and performance, to deliver his artistic vision. He utilized performance art to convey the spirit of playwrights and composers, such as Shakespeare, Faust, Kleist and Wagner, through  
the participant’s (actor’s) language (dialogue), evoking the psychological and ontological aspects of human life. However, Nitsch came to acknowledge the limitations of conveying the various depths and nuances of human emotions via language by the 1950s, which led him to  expand his artistic boundaries by executing ritualistic performances and exploring the medium of theater. With these radical actions that structurally reflected religious rituals, Nitsch was able to release his oppressed emotions as well as discover new potential paths for his art through the possibility of catharsis. Nitsch’s  performances extended beyond ocularcentrism by stimulating all five senses, including touching, tasting and smelling. The artist commonly employed organic substances such as milk, vinegar, wine, animal blood and even carcasses as part of his installation to enhance the viewer’s sensual impression; one that was beyond language and reason. As a pioneering avant-garde artist, Nitsch had deconstructed the traditional theories of art often linked to painting -including linear discourse and perspective- and created works that interweaved art  and daily life, enlightening and awakening the senses toward the potential meaning of human existence. For Nitsch, “aktionen” was a deeply  fascinating, sensory, primal process that allowed him to comprehend the depths of life; according  to Nitsch himself, “Gesamtkunstwerk is the act of awakening all the senses, in other words, the five senses of the human being.”2 

One of Nitsch’s most important works is The Orgies Mysterious Theatre (hereafter O.M. Theatre),  created in the 1960s. In O.M. Theatre, Nitsch presents violent scenes of blood splashing, outcries and brutal actions through his action painting; splashing paint mixed with animal flesh, blood and viscera. His performance - which brought unprecedented shock to the audience- conveys a strong message of resistance and deconstruction of the hierarchy inherent within the bourgeoisie and power structures within society. Simultaneously, O.M. Theatre holds an important significance in art history as it is infused with an active movement towards reconstructing the concept of art after World War II and alleviating oppressed desires and impulses. From the coherence of language to the emotional outburst of a scream,  from music to noise, from painting to splattered paint, Nitsch’s unconventional approach to performance art provoked the audience with its purity and rawness, and its trail of accidental, extreme and provocative actions. O.M. Theatre discusses mythology and religion, including Oedipus, totemism, and Jesus; the main themes being the essence of human existence, life, death and resurrection. Nitsch’s actions blatantly reveal the negative and brutal aspects of ourselves that we have shunned away, providing an opportunity to liberate ourselves from seemingly crude desires and humiliation. Blurring the boundaries between the performer and the audience, the performance questions the integrity of binary classifications, such as center-periphery, up-down, beauty-ugliness and truth-falsehood. The subject of deconstructing and expanding such concepts remains meaningful even in the context of the contemporary era.

After having used mainly hues of red and black as symbols of life, death, fire, love, the human body and blood for decades, Nitsch expanded his palette to yellow, purple, blue, green and white in the 1990s. Bright and vivid hues, evident in Nitsch’s later works, tend to represent themes of resurrection. Following this gradual transition in tone, Nitsch’s art begins to increasingly focus on resurrection and life, rather than death. These bright yet powerful tones are once again present in his action paintings completed throughout the Walküre performance in 2021. Throughout the progression of the three acts in Walküre, Nitsch presents a total of three action paintings belonging to his Schüttbild series. The artist employed a different color of paint for each act (depending on its plot), which resulted in more than 1,000 liters of paint being used for the gesture of splashing the paint—a striking visual interpretation for the narrative of the opera. 

Nitsch once mentioned the value of imagination, religious mysticism and profundity included in  Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk: “Wagner has fascinated me all my life. Because of this wonderful,  indulgent, sensual music, which makes the sound blossom beyond the melody. Even in its earliest  forms of performance, art was connected with cult, religion and the gesamtkunstwerk. And Wagner is the uncoverer of the gesamtkunstwerk. He made it shine.” Nitsch did not simply comprehend Wagner’s vision of Gesamtkunstwerk as “total art” that combined different genres but focused on the composer’s reverence towards the concept of a metaphysical and transcendental God, in addition to the mythical aspects that serve as a source of rich imagination. Wagner constructed his own thoughts and philosophy through grafting and modifying these mythical aspects onto his knowledge of music. It can be understood that Wagner and Nitsch shared a common ground  in their contemplation about God and man, as well as the majestic existence of the supernatural. Nitsch’s oeuvre exhibits a festival and a ritual that acknowledges the existence of God and questions the metaphysics of man; it does not remain confined to the realms of promoting religion. The performers involved in Wagner’s intense and profound opera performance boldly splash paint from instinct, completing the action painting in harmony with the music by stepping on the canvas. Hermann Nitsch’s performance art is reborn as a new form of  Gesamtkunstwerk through its relationship with Wagner’s musicality. 

Gesamtkunstwerk: Total Artwork will present eight works from the Schüttbild series, large-scale  installation paintings that were completed on the stage walls during the performance in 2021, 20  drawings from the latter years of the artist (until his death in 2022), and 20 prints that served as  the pillars of his artistic vocabulary.  

Hermann Nitsch unceasingly proposed ideas that formed the foundations of his belief of Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesizing writing, painting, theater and musical composition. The artist  eliminated the boundaries between the stage and the audience, realizing a form of participatory art where those involved could awaken all five senses. Revolutionizing the traditional theories of 

20th century theater by creating discourse on subjects including human existence, spontaneity, intensity, and catharsis, Nitsch addressed the essence of life- the continuum of facing painful, discouraging, brutal moments- and the beauty and passion submerged in the exceptional human ability to overcome these hardships; the vitality and the eagerness for resurrection and revival. K&L Museum is delighted to offer viewers an opportunity to experience the true spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk, brought to life by Hermann Nitsch. Gesamtkunstwerk: Total Artwork will highlight Hermann Nitsch’s journey of experimentation and defiance, as well as Wagner’s innovative vision of Gesamtkunstwerk within the context of the dawn of postmodernism. K&L Museum anticipates this exhibition to set an example for its vision in growing into Korea’s leading arts and culture institution that spearheads the landscapes of international contemporary art.


[1] The quote is from Hemann Nitsch’s mentioning of his major performance in the 1960s “The Orgies Mysterious Theatre”: Foster, Hal et al. “Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism” (Soo Hee Bae et al, Trans.), p467.

[2] Kim, Hyang Suk, (2004). The brutality of Hermann Nitsch’s Experimental Spirit, “The Western Art History Society” (Vol.22., p136).

Installation Views