Hermann Nitsch : the aesthetics of soiling



Hermann Nitsch is considered to be the leading light of Viennese Actionism (1962-1968), a protest movement which aimed to heal the wounds created during the Third Reich. They did this by breaking taboos through group rituals and private ceremonies steeped in blond and excrement. Remaining faithful to his first “happenings”, Nitsch continues his organic and impulsive rhetoric as he reaches his 70s. His paintings in oil, acrylic and blood evoke the sacrificial violence which featured in his Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries.

Hermann NITSCH’s work now receives the support of Charles Saatchi whose taste can make reputations while being picked for his collection tends to boost an artist’s results at auction. Saatchi included Nitsch’s work in his Triumph of Painting exhibition at London’s County Hall in 2005. The result was a 44% drop in the artist’s no-sales ratios in two years. Faced with increasing demand, auction houses are putting up more and more works for auction and there is no doubt that sales volumes are growing every year. In 2001, for example, Nitsch made close to EUR 65,400 from 24 lots and in 2006, 64 works generated a profit of more than EUR 491,000! Between 2001 and June 2007, his price index had risen by 150%.

UK auction houses responded to the dynamic sales of their Austrian and German counterparts, who are responsible for 91% of lots put up for auction, by setting a new record for Nitsch at Sotheby’s on 25 October 2005. The work in question was Schüttbild which was valued at GBP 18,000 – 25,000 and went for GBP 58,000! We would clarify that the bidders were spurred on by the tribute paid to Nitsch at London’s County Hall, and they were bidding for an historic work which was created in 1962, the year Viennese Actionism officially emerged.

Works from the 1960s are rare: we have counted 24 among over 400 paintings offered for sale in the last 20 years. Later works go for an average of EUR 5,000 to 15,000. On 19 June 2007, Im Kinsky Kunst Auktionen sold 10 paintings in Vienna, including a blood-drenched work from 1973 for EUR 9,000 (Hemd, 41. Aktion, Prinzendorf). Canvasses measuring over two metres go for more than €15,000 – the best score of the 19 June sale was set by Kreuzwegstation (1989), a 200cm x 300cm canvas which went under the hammer for EUR 31,000.

Objects used in his Dionysian rituals are recovered by Nitsch and presented as relics. One of these, a pair of blood-stained trousers entitled Relitto (flotsam), changed hands for EUR 8,000 at Finarte in Milan in December 2005. A series of photographs also bears witness to his performances and remain affordable: around EUR 1,000-1,500 on average for a single edition. Some photographs change hands for less than EUR 1,000, such as 5.Aktion, a 1964 print which went under the hammer for EUR 800 at the sale by Im Kinsky Kunst Auktionen in Vienna on 21 November 2006.