In the early 1960s, a group of artists emerged from Vienna’s art academies who shook up Austria’s conservative post-war society with naked bodies, excrement and blood. The Viennese Actionists–Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler–masturbated, defecated and mutilated their bodies in public to break the universal dominion of abstract painting and to challenge the social structures that allowed Austria to suppress its dark Nazi past. The central tenets of the movement were inspired by the avant-garde of the turn of the century–criticism of society, focus on the body and blurring of the boundaries between art and life–but it also involved an unprecedented level of violence. The movement, which was all but over by the 1970s, may be seen as a forerunner of the performance and body art of the following decades.
The Actionists were not alone in attacking Austrian bourgeois values. Valie Export, one of the first women artists to work in multimedia, committed herself to gender politics. Like the Actionists, Export sensationalised her body, rolling naked in shards of glass for Eros/Icon, 1971, for example, but her works were deeply feminist and she used her body to criticize the male-dominated language of the media. In one of her most famous works, Tap and Touch Cinema, 1968, Export made the objectification of women in cinema explicit by strapping a mini-theatre to her chest and inviting passers-by to feel her bare breasts through the curtains.
In 1980, Export shared the Austrian pavilion at the Venice Biennale with Maria Lassnig, who died earlier this year at the age of 94. Known for her confrontational nude self-portraits, Lassnig was denied the institutional recognition she deserved until her 60s. Lassnig’s reputation was then cemented with such honours as the Grand Austrian State Prize–she was the first woman artist to receive the prize–and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at last year’s Venice Biennale. In 1980, she also became the first woman professor of painting in a German-speaking country (at the University of Applied Arts Vienna).
Despite Vienna’s reputation as a wonderfully preserved, but static monument to Baroque and Secessionist architecture, a flurry of contemporary exhibition spaces have opened in the city over the past decade. They include the Kunsthaus, the Künstlerhaus, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, and the vast museum complex, the Museums Quarter. The city’s burgeoning art scene has launched the careers of numerous internationally-recognized artists including Franz West, Erwin Wurm, Arnulf Rainer and Markus Schinwald, while the recently established ViennaFair and Vienna Gallery Weekend have provided a platform for younger graduates of the city’s art academies, such as Oliver Laric, who are proving to be particularly strong in digital art.
Austria is a very small country and lives in the shadow of its bigger, more powerful neighbour, Germany, which has produced a number of artists – Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz – who have dominated the contemporary art scene for several decades. Much of this work was a confrontation with the country’s Nazi past. As that dark period fades from living memory, and German artists’ status has become assured, Austrian art is coming into its own.
Julia Michalska is Exhibitions Editor at The Art Newspaper