Arnulf Rainer, born in 1929 in Baden, has an importance to art history that is uncontested. He is the founder of Art Informel in Austria, and his ‘overpaintings’, developed in the 1950s, made his name well beyond Austria's borders, and cemented his fame among fellow international artists.
His committed search for new approaches to painting and his constant development of painterly strategies, accompanied by performative works and extensive writing, has led to Arnulf Rainer becoming one of the most influential living artists of our day.
- 1981 – 2015
In 1981, Arnulf Rainer became a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and was made a fellow of the Berlin Academy of Arts. In 1994, 26 paintings were destroyed in his studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, and as a consequence Rainer retired in 1995. The identities of the perpetrators were never discovered.
Several large retrospectives show Arnulf Rainer's growing international importance, including 1984 at the Musée National d’Art moderne /Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, 1989 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, 2000 – to mark the his seventieth birthday - at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Kunstforum Vienna.
Various awards and honours underline his status: the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich dedicated a room to Rainer in 2002, where his work will be on permanent display. In the following years he won the Rhenus Kunstpreis for his complete works and in 2004 the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Münster granted him an honorary doctorate. In 2006 he received an honorary doctorate in theology from the Katholisch-Theologische Privatuniversität Linz, and was the first non-Spanish artist to receive the Aragón-Goya Prize for his complete works.
In September 2009 the Arnulf Rainer Museum in Frauenbad in Baden near Vienna opened with the exhibition, ‘Aller Anfang ist schwer. Frühe Arbeiten 1949 – 1961’.
- 1971 – 1980
The Kunstverein in Hamburg dedicated the first large retrospective in Germany to Arnulf Rainer in 1971. He was also exhibited at the 11th São Paulo Art Biennial, and took part in Documenta 5 (1972), 6 (1977) and 7 (1982). He was awarded the Art Prize of the City of Vienna in 1974, but declined to take part in the award ceremony, which led to the prize being withdrawn.
In 1978 he represented Austria at the Biennale in Venice and was awarded the Grand Austrian State Prize in the same year, ‘in recognition of his accomplishments in fine art.’
He expanded his artistic practice by incorporating video and film and then took sequences from these films as a basis for his photographic overworkings. He also began work on ‘gestural hand paintings’ and later ‘finger and foot paintings’. This was also when his years of collaboration began with Dieter Roth: Mixed and Separate Art.
In the late 1970s Arnulf Rainer had grimace photos made, with and without face painting, which he then painted and overpainted. In this way he created a kind of mix between the theatrical and graphic media of expression, converging with the Viennese Actionism of Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, Otto Mühl and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, however without becoming a member of the group. Several series of overworked grimace photographs were created during this period, which became known as the ‘Face Farces’.
- 1961 – 1970
In the mid 1960s, Arnulf Rainer started his experiments with drawing under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The drugs and his intense involvement with painting people with mental illness led him to develop a hallucinatory, almost frenetic practice and unknowingly he drew on his own figurative, surrealist beginnings, but at the same time the experience of overpainting remained visible.
In 1966 Arnulf Rainer received the Austrian State Prize for Graphic Art and in 1968 the Museum des 20. Jahrhundert organised one of the first large retrospective of his works.
During this period, Arnulf Rainer had grimace photos taken with or without face painting (either in photo booths or by photographers), which in turn he then painted or overpainted. The grimacing and behaviours of people with mental illness, who he engaged with intensely, represented a rich vein of expressive possibilities. He wrote, “The faces I drew earlier all had impossible wrinkles, fake furrows, invented accents. I felt they were missing from the photos. As I painted them onto the cheeks, and then went for a walk, I felt like a new man (…) It wasn't until I began to overwork the expressive photos of the farces that I discovered to my surprise: a bunch of new, unknown people, who were lurking within me, but who my muscles alone couldn't formulate,” (Arnulf Rainer, Hirndrang. Published by Otto Breicha, Verlag Galerie Welz Salzburg 1980, p. 106).
In this way Rainer created a kind of mix between the theatrical and graphic media of expression, converging with the Viennese Actionism of Hermann Nitsch, Günter Brus, Otto Mühl and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, however without becoming a member of the group. Rainer described the divergent artistic approaches as follows, “...the Actionists (…) tried to make explicit content that was latent but there, in the language of the theatrical, and using specific processes. While the form and pose of the body played a very subservient role. The materials and approach are something very important to them (…). While for me, material is actually very secondary and I now work without anything like that (…). I'm only interested in the physical expression of the body.” (Arnulf Rainer, Noch vor der Sprache. In: Arnulf Rainer, Hirndrang. Published by Otto Breicha, Verlag Galerie Welz Salzburg 1980, p.100)
- 1951 – 1960
In March in 1951, the first and only ‘Hundsgruppe’ exhibition took place at the Wiener Gesellschaft für Wissenschaft und Kunst. At the opening there was a real art scandal: Rainer, then called ‘TRRR’, was so disappointed by the opening speech given by Ernst Fuchs that he started to shout at the audience. Soon after the exhibition, Rainer turned away from the Fantastic and started his first attempts to work with his eyes closed (blind painting).
In the summer of 1951, Arnulf Rainer travelled to Paris with Maria Lassnig, to meet André Breton – the ‘Father of Surrealism’, who, however, proved to be a disappointment. But he was excited about another movement in art: l’art informel. Moved by these works, Arnulf Rainer broke decisively with his Surrealist and figurative beginnings, and for the first time came to his abstract forms, which he termed ‘microstructures’ and ‘atomisations’. From the ‘microstructures’ developed ‘centralisations’ and ‘central and vertical designs’ (sparse drawings created from just a few marks). A lack of material during this period led Arnulf Rainer to his first overpaintings of the works of others.
Between 1953 and 1959, Arnulf Rainer lived as an ascetic in his parents abandoned and unfurnished villa in Gainfarn, in Lower Austria. There he began the ‘reductions’, a group of works comprising stark monochrome black pictures with geometrically delineated areas of white, which are seen as an initial step towards the overpaintings. In 1953 in Vienna he met a priest named Monsignore Otto Mauer, who later founded the Gallerie St. Stephan, which became a meeting place for the Austrian avant-guard.
Rainer now started to concentrate (from around 1965) on his overpaintings. He experimented with various shapes of frame. There were round pictures, but the cross was also used. On 17 September 1959 Arnulf Rainer, together with Ernst Fuchs and Friedensreich Hundertwasser, founded the ‘Pintorarium’, as a ‘creatorium for the incineration of the Academy’. The Pintorarium remained in existence until 1968.
- 1929 – 1950
Arnulf Rainer was born in Baden on 8 December 1929. Between 1940 and 1944 he attended the National Political Institute of Education in Traiskirchen, Lower Austria. In his art lessons, his paintings were inspired by aerial photography and cartographic landscapes with bomb craters, fires, tanks and aircraft, and avoided figures and faces. When his teacher tried to force him to draw from nature, he left the school in 1944 and decided to become an artist.
In 1945 he fled from the occupying Russian forces on a bicycle to relatives in Carinthia, where, over the coming years, a series of deserted landscapes were created. Until his school leaving exam, Arnulf Rainer attended the vocational school (building and architecture) in Villach, and discovered international contemporary art (Paul Nash, Francis Bacon, Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore) at a British Council exhibition in Klagenfurt in 1947. Rainer also became interested in Surrealism’s revolutionary theories, and was greatly influenced by them in his work. The potential of unbridled imagination held a particular fascination for him, in particular after his experience of dictatorship at the Nazi institute of education.
Despite lacking motivation, Rainer left the Villach vocational school in 1949 with good exam results. He then passed the entrance exam to do graphic arts at the Vienna Academy of Applied Arts but left the class on the same day because of artistic differences with an assistant professor named Korunka. He also applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, a painting class, but three days after passing the entrance exam he left this class too, when his work was described as degenerate.
In the the early 1950s, Vienna was experiencing strong influences from late Surrealism, later collected under the banner of the ‘Vienna School of Fantastic Realism’. Arnulf Rainer, under these influences, also created surreal drawings, but increasingly rebelled against the aestheticism of ‘Art-Club’. He founded his own group called the ‘Hundsgruppe’ (Dog Pack) along with Ernst Fuchs, Anton Lehmden, Arik Brauer, Wolfgang Hollegha and Josef Mikl.