His provocative actions of the 1960s caused chaos and violent indignation in the narrow-minded, religious, conservative Austria of the period. Günter Brus (b. 1938) has never lost the resulting maverick image, even though he is now part of the Austrian art establishment and regarded as one of the country’s greatest living artists. This exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum focuses on Brus’s work in the period when he abandoned his performances and self-mutilation and turned mainly to writing and drawing. These media allowed him to give his imagination free rein, without taking physical restrictions into account. The resulting works are wonderful, fantastical drawings and image-poems reminiscent of the Symbolist pictures of earlier Viennese artists like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt.
Like most avant-garde artists of his generation, Günter Brus dropped out of art school. He left Vienna’s Academy of Applied Arts in 1960 and quickly became a leading figure in the Wiener Aktionismus (Viennese Actionism) movement. His radical Kunst und Revolution performance, in which he appeared naked before a crammed lecture hall at the University of Vienna and defecated in public while at the same time intoning the Austrian national anthem, attracted the wrath of the establishment. He was sentenced to six months in prison and had to leave Austria. In 1969 he fled for a period to Berlin.
In his performances, Brus used his own body, rather than canvas or paper, as the support for his art. This approach led him from harmless self-daubing in his early period to the laceration of his body with razorblades in his disturbing final action, Zerreissprobe (1970). Thereafter, he ceased to give performances and confined his personal actionism to drawing and writing.
His elegant drawings of the 1970s and ’80s exude the decadent atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Vienna. His fabulous, colourful pictures of flowers and sensual human figures look as if they have sprung directly from his subconscious. At the same time, however, they are replete with critical references to philosophy, history, the Bible and social issues.
In his image-poems, Brus creates an entirely individual visual idiom in which text is an important part of the drawing. He is equally imaginative in his use of language, inventing words or combining syllables to form new words which have no concrete meaning but great power of suggestion.
Works from the Gemeentemuseum’s own collection by artists like Schiele, Klimt and Jan Toorop are used to round out the exhibition and demonstrate the link between Brus’s work and the Symbolist Viennese art of around 1900.
The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated Dutch/English/German-language catalogue entitled Mitternachtsröte, containing essays by Franz Kaiser, Peter Noever and Olivier Kaeppelin. The event has been organised in collaboration with the MAK in Vienna, the Musée d’art moderne in St. Étienne and the Heike Curtze gallery in Vienna and Berlin.