The brutality and blood lust in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ have their roots in the art and theater of Hermann Nitsch. But ironically, advocates of Gibson's film would probably cry "Blasphemy!" when confronted with Nitsch's provocative visions.
This month, the local art space the Station Museum is presenting the first major U.S. museum exhibition of Nitsch's paintings, photographs and videos of his performances in "Hermann Nitsch: The Orgies Mystery Theater."
One of the most acclaimed and controversial artists of his generation, Austrian-born Nitsch was influenced by the expressionists, and his teachers encouraged him to take his expression to the extreme. In 1957, Nitsch unveiled his spectacular concept, the Orgies Mysteries Theater. Imagine an ecstatic, six-day Dionysian orgy of animal sacrifice, feasting and wine-drinking, crossed with complex rituals in which white-clothed participants pour buckets of blood and animal entrails over naked men and women tied to crosses.
It sounds outrageous, but Nitsch isn't out to shock. The rituals are conducted soberly, with a compulsive attention to detail. "It's not a joke at all to him," says Donna Huanca, one of the exhibit's curators. "He takes himself very seriously." Nitsch has been accused of satanism by fundamentalists and Catholics and even endured three prison sentences in the early to mid-'60s for what Viennese courts considered unacceptable. Nitsch's fans, however, find incredible power in his paintings and performances. "It's a celebration of life, in a way," says Huanca. "The animals are sacrificed, but it's done professionally by a butcher. Their bodies are used, and the food is eaten after the show."
The large paintings in the exhibit depict crucifixlike images smeared and splattered with paint, action-style, and soaked in ritualistic fervor. Nitsch himself will make an appearance at Saturday's opening, but the night will not include a performance. Says Huanca, "Our floors can't take it."