An important collection of Viennese actionist art is being offered on long-term loan to the Courtauld Institute in London. The works, which include major pieces by Hermann Nitsch and Otto Muehl, belong to the British barrister Simon Davenport who has collected for over a decade.
Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Davenport revealed that the possible display at the Courtauld is the prelude to an eventual gift of the collection to a British museum. “The works are going to stay together and they are going to stay in Britain,” said Davenport, who has already loaned actionist works to Tate Modern where they were displayed in the Rothko room alongside the gallery’s own holdings of actionist art. The two-year Tate display ended in July and Davenport says he was keen for the works to remain on public view. “The work is relatively unknown in this country so it’s important to make it accessible,” he says. The work of the four main actionists—Günter Brus, Muehl, Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler—has rarely been seen together in Britain, although there have been notable solo presentations.
Courtauld gallery director Ernst Vegelin said the gallery is taking the offer “seriously” and “is considering what might be possible”. The fact that Viennese actionism is shown rarely in Britain is “part of the appeal of Davenport’s offer”, said Vegelin, who notes that as a university art museum, part of the Courtauld gallery’s remit is to educate the public.
The Davenport collection comprises around 30 works and includes key early pieces such as a bright red Untitled Hermann Nitsch canvas dating from 1960 which resembles dripping blood and predates the canvases the artist would later cover with actual animal blood. Another Untitled piece dating from 1960 is by Otto Muehl. One of only ten canvases of its kind, it is composed of jute and cloth and mixed media held together by resin. “It looks like the scrapings off his studio floor,” said Davenport.
Much of Davenport’s collection has been purchased from the Sammlung Friedrichshof, 60 km southeast of Vienna, an organisation which evolved from the commune founded by Otto Muehl in 1972 as an experiment in communal living and a rejection of conventional society and family life. There was no private property, marriage and monogamy were banned, and children were raised collectively.
The experiment attracted hundreds of members and lasted for some 20 years before being disbanded in the early 1990s around the time Muehl was convicted of sexual offences against children and sent to prison for seven years.
Today the Sammlung Friedrichshof is run by the surviving members of the commune who have opened a hotel and restaurant on the site and rent out apartments and other property to generate the income required to look after the collection of art and archival material. In October the collection opened public galleries for the first time with a display of historic material and a temporary exhibition of work by Paul McCarthy (until 27 March 2011).
The centre’s director, Hubert Klocker, who is one of the leading experts on Viennese actionism, says the new galleries are an important step in the promotion of the movement. “Because of all the political problems with the Viennese actionists in Austria, they had been not so much collected until very recently,” he explained, noting that Austria’s Museum of Modern Art (Mumok) had almost no actionist works in its permanent collection until the end of the 1990s. In 2002, Klocker negotiated the sale to Mumok of a group of works and historic materials from Sammlung Friedrichshof, a milestone in public recognition of the actionists’ work.
Difficult to show?
“Some of the material is tough, I wouldn’t hang it at home,” said Davenport, who has four young children. Consequently, institutions often prefer to gloss over the more disturbing aspects of the actionists’ personal histories. A display of Muehl’s recent painting at the Liverpool Biennial, which closed in November, made no mention of the artist’s conviction for child abuse. Neither does François Pinault’s current display at Palazzo Grassi. The preferred term is “controversial”. By contrast the Leopold Museum in Vienna, which is currently hosting a Muehl solo show (until January 2011), has prominent disclaimers on all its promotional material. “The Leopold Museum distances itself clearly and unequivocally from the sexual abuse to which the group experiment at Friedrichshof in some cases led,” reads one.
Prices for actionist art remain quite low. The most important private collection of actionist material after the Sammlung Friedrichshof is currently on the market for E3m. It was assembled by the Austrian art dealer Julius Hummel beginning in the 1970s. The highest price for a work by Hermann Nitsch (a triptych from 1984-2007) was E112,500 in November this year. C.R.