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Austria celebrates last surviving shock ‘actionist’ artist

Austria's Guenter Brus is the last surviving founder of Vienna's famed 'actionists'
Austria's Guenter Brus is the last surviving founder of Vienna's famed 'actionists' - Copyright AFP ALAIN JOCARD
Austria's Guenter Brus is the last surviving founder of Vienna's famed 'actionists' - Copyright AFP ALAIN JOCARD

Several shows are recognising Guenter Brus, the last surviving key member of Vienna’s famed “actionists”, who turned 85 this week and whose radical movement broke new ground using the body to make art. 

Brus, together with three others, founded the “Vienna Actionism” movement which emerged in the 1960s.

The actionists did not shy away from using blood, urine and excrement as they defied the confines of traditional painting.

Of the group, only Brus is still alive, with retrospectives in Vienna and the city of Graz showing prints from his key performances, his pictorial poems and other important pieces to mark his 85th birthday.

“From an Austrian perspective, Guenter Brus is certainly one of the few who have outstanding international significance. It is impossible to imagine art history without him,” said Roman Grabner, who runs a museum dedicated to Brus in Graz, where the artist now lives.

Born on September 27, 1938, in the village of Ardning in central Austria, Brus studied art in Graz before moving to Vienna where he worked with Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler — the other actionists.

One of Brus’s most notable and first performances was in 1965 when he crisscrossed Vienna with his body painted white and bisected by a jagged black line before being arrested by police.

Grabner said the “legendary” act demonstrated “the rift in Austrian post-war society, including of course that of the individual who suffered from this situation”. 

-‘Contaminated by aging Nazis’-

Austria — the birthplace of Adolf Hitler — was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938 and long cast itself as a victim before, in the 1980s, beginning to face up to its role in the Holocaust.

Brus openly spoke up about the country’s dark past, saying in a 2018 interview with the Belvedere Museum that “Vienna, as all of Austria, was contaminated by aging Nazis”.

The movement at times took a heavy toll on the artist.

Brus, with his wife Anna and their young daughter, fled Vienna in 1969 after he was sentenced to six months in jail for degrading Austrian state symbols.  

He had taken part in a performance that involved stripping naked in a university lecture hall, defecating and masturbating while chanting the national anthem.

“In Austria nothing more would have been possible. We were shadowed by the judiciary as rioters, and rebels… We were stared at on the tramway,” said Brus, who settled in Berlin with his family before eventually moving back.

Brus held his last live performance in Munich in 1970, in which he appeared nude and cut himself with a razor blade.

According to Anna Brus, who also featured in some of his acts, his performances had become life-threatening.

“I couldn’t continue with the performances… I had to realise that I couldn’t continue like this,” he said in 2018.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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