Friedrichshof – Otto Muehl’s Radical Commune
Otto Muehl. Born 16 June 1925. Died 26 May 2013. Artist. Pioneer of Viennese Actionism. Founder of the Friedrichshof Commune.
Otto was born in Grodnau, Austria and after serving in the German Wehrmacht in WWII he graduated from the University of Vienna with a teaching degree in German and History. He also studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna then spending around 10 years working as an art therapist between the mid 50’s and 60’s.
Muehl was quick to disregard traditional art techniques shortly into his career. He embraced performance art and jumped at the chance to utilise film cameras to create short films. His subjects, humans, splattered in paint, milk, food, blood and the organs of freshly slaughtered animals, always nude and often participating in sexual acts. He couldn’t have been further away from popular culture at the time. In 1964 the films, Marry Poppins, The Sound of Music and Thunderball were released. Meuhl and Kurt Kren released, Mama Und Papa, a 4 minute long bombardment of flashing images of naked women coated in various substances, being urinated on, splashed with paint, decorated with flour, oil and more. You can watch it here. Meuhl’s films were often banned from public consumption, often cited as being a threat to public morality but also a threat to public safety.
Otto was a bit different.
Viennese Actionism was a short and violent art movement believed to have lasted between 1960 and 1971 with some artists continuing on independently after this era. Muehl was a pioneering partner in the movement along with Gunter Bros, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler who used primarily performance and body art. Nitsch comments, “Vienna Actionism never was a group. A number of artists reacted to particular situations that they all encountered, within a particular time period, and with similar means and results.” The term being applied more so to colloborative efforts between the artists at the time, only becoming more relevant as we look back on the movement.
Actionism rejected popular commodifiable art practices, preferring stage performances of actions in controlled environments in front of audiences, an early form of performance art. These performances often involved naked subjects and themes of violence and destructiveness and it wasn’t uncommon for for participants to serve short jail terms for breaching decency laws. In 1968, Gunter Bros earned himself a 6 month prison sentence for a performance in Vienna where he concurrently masturbated, covered his body in his own feces and sang the Austrian national anthem. Muehl was arrested on similiar charges in Germany after his performance of “Piss Action” in front of an audience in Munich.
As video cameras became more accessible throughout the 60’s, the artists moved to documenting their performances using film. Still in very experimental ways, the avant-garde films were known for their rapid editing, short, snappy cuts leaving the viewer questioning exactly what it was he just watched as the next frame takes the screen. Otto Muehl recorded a large amount of Actionist related film work during his time at the Friedrichshof commune.
Formally known as the Aktionsanalytische Organisation (Action-analytical Organization), the Friedrichshof commune was founded by Muehl in 1972. Viewed by some as authoritarian sect, the commune ran for around 20 years before falling apart in the early 90s, at it’s height of success the commune boasted nearly 600 members. Home to men, women and children of a free-love nature, the childcare was communal, possessions communal and family relationships prohibited. Everything was shared.
In the commune manifesto written by Muehl in 1973 he states, “The attempt to live together in communes is an important social experiment that will allow the transformation and evolution of the nuclear family society in the long term.” To young children born into the commune, everything outside of it was described as evil, the nuclear family? A distant and destructive idea. In reality though it’s as if all of the commune members were in fact the children of Meuhl himself (sometimes more literally than implied here). Otto ran the commune in a controlling and authoritarian way, setting it up as a response to his loneliness after his marriage collapsed. A hierarchical structure was formed, defining the status of each member, all of whom were “directed” by their leader in the, odd, often disturbing art performances, children included.
The highest member of the commune below Otto would be his, “First Lady,” the one who Otto most preferred at that moment in time, the list then spiraled down to the bottom where the members whom Otto thought to be the most timid and unattractive were ranked.
I do not want to brag and represent myself as a sex champion. If I told you how often I had sex, it would be terrible for other men. I was an unbeatable Olympic Champion.
Otto often bragged about his sexual accomplishments whilst at the commune, “Everyone wanted to be with me, with papa who would hold their hand.” He referred to himself as a sex slave to the women he lived amongst and talked of taking 30 women at a time back to his flat, with a hundred more wanting to come in. He talks of these incidents as “terrible,” when in fact his words are evident of his enjoyment and smugness. He thrived on the popularity and power. In an interview with Otto titled, “Der Sex-Champion,” he talks further of being awoken by groups of 14 year old girls, leading him to the shower and drying him off.
Commune members were encouraged to sleep with different partners each night of the week, apart from Muehl who of course could sleep with whoever he wanted. With the encouragement of sex at least 3 or 4 times a day, outbreaks of plenty of sexually transmitted infections were apparent alongside many children being born into the commune often unaware of who their birth father was. As these children grew and matured into puberty, their leader found out that he actually preferred sleeping with the younger members of whom had been informed by their mothers that sex with Otto was regarded as a privilege, something to strive towards. This, however wasn’t to the liking of all of the younger children, ultimately resulting in Otto’s 7 year prison sentence for widepsread sexual abuse of minors.
The anti-society inevitably gained increased tensions between members, culminating in a revolt and the disbandment of the commune in 1991, alongside Muehl’s arrest. Friedrichshof was over. Otto was out.
As it stands today some of the original members of Friedrichshof still live in the very same commune, yet with monogamous partners and children of their own who actually know their fathers. Otto started up another commune after his release from prison in Portugal and remained artistically active until his death to Parkinsons Disease in in May 2013.