Günter Brus, Artist Who Shocked Postwar Austria, Dies at 85

Günter Brus, a founder of the radical art movement known as Viennese Actionism, who courted outrage and arrest in the 1960s by using his body — and bodily effluvia — to shatter the bourgeois civility of a country haunted by its Nazi past, died on Feb. 10 in Graz, Austria. He was 85.

His death was announced in a statement by Kunsthaus Bregenz, an art museum in Bregenz, Austria, that is currently hosting an exhibition by Mr. Brus. The museum did not say where he died or cite the cause.

The weight of his nation’s history bore heavily on Mr. Brus, who was born in the village of Ardning in 1938, the year of the Anschluss, the annexation of the country by Adolf Hitler, a native of Austria, into the Nazi Reich.

Over a six-decade career, he amassed a vast archive of work as a painter, graphic artist, experimental filmmaker and poet. Even so, he cemented his fame — and infamy — with the Actionists, a performance art collective that he formed in the early 1960s with the artists Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Otto Muehl, all of whom were committed to creating art that resisted commodification, instead using their bodies, in all their earthiness, as canvases for subversive art.

In a set of performances in 1965, titled “Selbstverstümmelung” (“Self-Mutilation”), Mr. Brus lay on a white sheet on the floor, his body covered in a gooey plaster. Writhing in agony, he acted out various acts of self-defilement involving several implements including a knife, razor blades and a corkscrew.

Such “actions,” as the group referred to its performances, were intended to shake what Mr. Brus called the “frozen authoritarian structures in politics and art” of a country that, in his view, had receded into repressed bourgeois civility while denying its role in Hitler’s war machine and the Holocaust, posturing instead as a victim of Nazi tyranny.

At the height of his career, Mr. Brus’s embrace of depravity in the service of art seemed to know no bounds.

In 1968, with leftist student rebellions erupting throughout Europe, he participated in an incendiary Actionist event “Kunst und Revolution” (“Art and Revolution”) at the University of Vienna.

Mr. Brus’s contribution involved urinating into a glass and smearing his body with excrement, before belting out his country’s national anthem while masturbating. At the end of the performance, he drank the urine and vomited.

“The aim was to break taboos,” Mr. Brus was quoting as saying of his work in a 2018 profile in The New York Times “My art doesn’t just stink in the physical space but smells in the souls of the people.”

In a country that “was not a police state, but close enough,” as Mr. Brus put it, the response was swift and severe. He was sentenced to six months in prison for “degrading the symbols of the state.” But he avoided incarceration by fleeing with his wife and artistic collaborator, Anna Brus, and their daughter, Diana, to West Berlin, where they settled for years.

In a 2018 interview with the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung that had also included his wife, Mr. Brus recalled a movement to “take our daughter away from us.” He added, “People had already collected 2,000 signatures for it.”

His wife added, “We all know that people become hyenas when they get excited.”

Mr. Brus was born on Sept. 27, 1938, in Ardning, in the Austrian state of Styria, and grew up in Mureck, about 100 miles southeast.

He studied at a vocational arts school in Graz and later enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, although he dropped out in 1960. During that period, he met a young Swiss art student, Alfons Schilling. The two eventually settled for several months in Mallorca, where they met a young American artist, Joan Merritt, who inspired them with stories about the boundless creative energy of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, who influenced Mr. Brus’s early painting.

The artists mounted a joint exhibition in 1961. That same year, Mr. Brus was conscripted into the Austrian military — a traumatizing experience for the rebellious young artist. After his service was complete, he found himself washing dishes and polishing shoes to make a living.

His days of obscurity were numbered, however; he would soon align himself with the Actionists.

He performed a very public action in July 1965, with his “Wiener Spaziergang” (“Vienna Walk”). Climbing from a Citroën 2CV parked in the Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, of Vienna, he was clad in a suit and covered in white paint from head to toe, with a line of black paint, like a violent stitching, running up the center of his body and face.

Calling to mind a Franz Kline painting with legs, Mr. Brus’s action suggested the violent division of the Austrian psyche — or perhaps his own — wrought by the Nazis, as he strolled toward the Hofburg imperial palace, where Hitler had once addressed cheering masses.

Although he did not stir the public as expected — “Absolutely nothing happened,” he told The Times — he caught the attention of the police, who apprehend him for disturbing the peace.

It would be mark a rare time that his action was met with a collective shrug. His work as an Actionist eventually drew to a close after a 1970 performance in Munich in which he slashed himself with razor blades.

By then, such work was taking its toll. “I couldn’t sustain these heavy injuries anymore,” he said in a 2016 interview with The Art Newspaper. “My actions weren’t theatrical like Nitsch’s or Muehl’s; they related to me, and I couldn’t continue this self-harm forever.”

Information about his survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Brus continued to work at what he called a manic pace as a painter, graphic artist and the writer and creator of “image poems” — collage-like graphic narratives including drawings, text and other visual elements. His wife told Kleine Zeitung in 2018 that he had produced some 80,000 drawings over the years.

At 80, Mr. Brus said that he had no desire to attempt to court scandal as he had in his early days. When asked if age had become its own source of provocation, he demurred.

“No,” he said. “I just find it boring.”

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