Susanne Wenger - “Art is Ritual”

Susanne Wenger — “Art is Ritual”

by Brigitte Borchhardt-Birbaumer and Alexandra Schantl

“Adunni Olorisha”, White Priestess, Gesamtkunstwerk

Susanne Wenger stood out as exceptional in every respect: as an artist, as a person, as a woman. One constant in her life and work was her strong spiritual bond with nature. Born in Graz in 1915 to a secondary school teacher with Swiss roots and the daughter of an Austro-Hungarian military officer, she grew up in an urban middle-class world, but rather than going to school she preferred being outdoors or rambling with the Wandervögel, a back-to-nature youth group. Both during her training at the School of Arts in Graz and later in Vienna, where she first attended the Federal Training and Research Institute of Graphic Arts and then studied at the Academy of Fine Arts from 1933 to 1935, she regularly headed out on extensive hiking tours and frequently retreated into the mountains to reflect for days, to find inspiration and to gain energy. Even her opposition to the National Socialist regime was of a spiritual nature in a way; this is expressed in her interest in shamanism, psychoanalysis and the theories of Surrealism. While she moved in leftist opposition circles, she was not politically active; she helped those persecuted for political reasons, though she lived in precarious circumstances herself. All this is reflected in surreal pictures whose iconography is hard to interpret, and which put her at risk of being categorised as a “degenerate artist”.

After the war, Susanne Wenger worked as an illustrator for a children’s paper issued by the Communist publishing house Globus. She also published two of her surreal pencil drawings from 1943/44 in Otto Basil’s cultural journal PLAN; they were discredited as the work of a “mentally abnormal person” and provoked outraged reactions. Although as a co-founder of the Austrian Art Club (1947) Wenger was integrated in the avant-garde scene of the early post-war period, she felt she could find no place there as an artist and participated little in social life.

Eventually in 1948 Susanne Wenger was invited to Switzerland by a friend of her father’s; in Zurich she met painter and art dealer Johann Egger (aka Hansegger), who accepted her into the Abstrakt-Konkret group of artists and purchased her paintings. Following his advice, she moved on to Paris in 1949, where she met German-British linguist Ulli Beier: an encounter that marked a turning point in Susanne Wenger’s life. At the time, Beier had the prospect of obtaining a posting at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and it soon turned out that the job would be given only to married individuals. So the two got married without serious prior consideration and set off for Africa together.

The arrival in Ibadan was a bitter disappointment at first, since the colonial social life on the remote university campus, which focused on European culture, by no means met their expectations. Ulli Beier therefore moved to the Department of Extramural Studies to give English classes in different cities and to come into contact with the local people. In 1951 his teaching activities led him, among other places, to Abeokuta where there was a mental hospital whose state of serious neglect shocked him so deeply that he and Susanne Wenger organised weekly painting classes for the patients. Inspired by Hans Prinzhorn’s 1922 book “Artistry of the Mentally Ill”, which Beier had known through his father, himself a doctor, they showed the results at an exhibition titled Psychotic Art at the university library in Ibadan a year later. This project not only led the way for Beier’s workshops, which he initiated from the 1960s to promote the local Oshogbo population’s creativity, but it also showed his own and Susanne Wenger’s interest in the discourse around the concept of art brut coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s. Dubuffet understood art brut to be a subversive, alternative form of art as can only develop beyond cultural norms and outside academic aesthetics. While Ulli Beier followed this concept further, later founding an experimental art school for non-artists in Oshogbo from which a successful generation of Nigerian artists emerged, Susanne Wenger felt an increasingly strong attraction to Yoruba culture. Before she had a chance to become more familiar with it, however, she fell ill with open tuberculosis in 1951 and was confined to bed for months. During her recovery she read anthropological books about the Yoruba and painted fantastically whimsical figures of flashy colourfulness and ecstatic style on small wooden panels while lying in bed. As these early paintings show, already at that early stage she had “realised that the African spirit does not reveal itself in the representation of any shape but in the transformation of shapes, in their active reshaping, […]” which, however, was in no way to be an end in itself but should “serve life in a life-enhancing way” (Janheinz Jahn in: Beier 1980, p. 44).

After Wenger recovered from her serious illness and returned from a journey to Europe, she moved to the town of Ede where she had a fateful encounter with Ajagemo, the high priest of the god of light Obatala. He recognised her “archaic awareness” and became her teacher and spiritual father: “This priest instantly put me into situations where I had no time to learn first, but which I just had to master. Long before I had guessed it, he already knew what I was going to do. He immediately entrusted me with important responsibilities because he sensed that I had a natural gift.” (Chesi, p. 15). What followed then was a physically and mentally extremely demanding initiation process of many years from which Wenger emerged as Olorisha, a person adherent of a deity (Orisha). At the same time this led her into an existential crisis: “Ajagemo, this volcano, […] had deposited religious powers in me as if I was an altar item.” (Denk, p. 38) From then on her ritual name was “Adunni Olorisha”.

At the time when Wenger found her true spiritual calling in life in Nigeria, however, the traditional Yoruba religion, which is characterised by a holistic, animistic world view, had almost been eradicated due to colonisation and missionary activity; or rather, what had remained of it was considered primitive and backward. Additionally, the adaptation of the African languages’ characters according to Western models and the associated Anglicisation had had devastating effects, accelerating the alienation from their own culture. Such systematic disintegration of the original unity of religion, culture and society finally led to a decay of art as, with the collapse of the local community, artists lost their previously clear-cut role and means of subsistence. When ethnographic and religious interest in the “primitive” culture awakened as part of colonisation, various efforts with a reconciliatory intent were undertaken to revitalise traditional handicrafts. For example, regardless of their religious belief, African wood carvers were commissioned to produce Christian art in the Yoruba style, or they were hired as art teachers at local high schools. The result was merely a further decline of genuine creativity, the particular power and inspiration of which were tied to their very own religion.

In this situation the head priestess of the river goddess Oshun sent a call for help to Susanne Wenger, who answered the call and came to Oshogbo in 1958.

By that time Wenger had been recognised for her spiritual authority and experience in restoring shrines, which she had already gathered elsewhere, and she was asked to rescue the Sacred Grove of Oshogbo from imminent decay. Assisted by a young craftsman who introduced her to the cement technique, Wenger started reconstructing the Idi Baba shrine, preserved only as a ruin by then, of the god of suffering Sonponna, whose cult circle she herself belonged to. While Wenger followed the original structure as regards the architecture of the shrine, she chose stylistic elements for the nearby cement sculptures, the dynamic of which was not at all in line with the Yoruba’s sculptural tradition.

After completing the Idi Baba shrine, Wenger committed herself to the service of the goddess Oshun, whose main shrine, being destroyed by termites, urgently required renovation. Provided with funds by the Antiquities and Monuments Office in Lagos, Wenger hired two local bricklayers with whom she first restored the fence around the sanctuary. In the process she encouraged both assistants to produce their own relief ornaments. Thereafter the goddess’s oracle required a portal to be built. For Wenger this was a special challenge since there had never been any gate and thus she had to create something completely new. She increasingly benefited from her artistic freedom and attempted to illustrate the ritual meaning by means of shape unlike traditional Yoruba architecture, which did without visual elements of cosmological references. In that way, from the 1960s to the 2000s she created a sculpture complex in and around the Sacred Grove of Oshogbo that has earned international renown due to its unique symbiosis of nature, art and religion.

In the individual projects which are assigned a specific religious function each, Wenger did not follow any fixed plan but rather described the creation process as a ritual course of action during which she recognised the right shape in meditative work. It is for this reason that she described her art as “New Sacred Art”, a label which at the same time referred to the group of her assistants who helped her to implement the wood and cement monuments. They were simple craftspeople who, by working so closely together with Wenger, discovered their creativity and gradually became artistically active on their own. What is characteristic of the collaboratively created sculptures and shrines are rambling shapes with an organic aspect and occasional sexual connotations, which represent a radical break with traditional Yoruba aesthetics. Inspired by the idea that the spiritual meaning of the ancient sacred sites could only be reanimated through new shapes, Wenger, with her European-rooted artistic design intent, saw herself neither as an intruder nor as an accountable contractor but rather as an active part of a whole:

“The groves of Oshogbo were doomed to death, but my conviction of the Yoruba religion’s inner truth was so strong that I, as a lively and modern person not subordinate to traditions, felt that I had to build a power centre to protect these groves. I was able to achieve this just by means of my expression because I was so deeply involved. After all, I was not an employee, a construction worker or architect; my devotion to this philosophy was not subject to any question; it was a fact for me and others.” (Chesi, p. 20 f.)

Wenger’s activities had far-reaching consequences and were therefore not undisputed. The mere fact that New Sacred Art actually reinforced the ancient Orisha belief provoked indignation with the followers of the Christian and Muslim faiths. This also resulted in the fishing, hunting and settlement ban across the Oshun Grove based on a pact with the goddess, which had been ignored for a long time prior, suddenly being taken seriously again and thus in the curbing of a further devastation of the groves. In any case, Wenger’s works, which were repeatedly threatened by vandalism and also strongly criticised by European observers, raised great attention beyond Nigeria’s borders as well. This, in turn, led to the idea of their touristic use from 1976, at the time of the enthronement of a new local king. Wenger was strongly opposed to this development; she did her utmost to thwart such plans and contacted the Department of Antiquities, which had declared the Oshun grove a national heritage some time earlier. This triggered a conflict lasting many years between the artist and the government which was centred mainly on economic and political interests. The festival in honour of the goddess Oshun, for example, which takes place in August each year, was even compared to Mecca or Jerusalem due to the high visitor turnout and thus is economically very important. Since Oshun, as a goddess of fertility, also symbolises wealth, it is not contrary to religious belief to capitalise on the celebrations for the renewal of the mythical founding pact. In the debate over the close interdependency of religion and local kingship which is characteristic of Yoruba culture, Susanne Wenger eventually had to surrender. Given that she was confirmed as a supervisory authority, in the end she opened up the groves to tourism despite her concerns, trusting that “everyone […] naturally becomes a pilgrim” and “senses that this is not an ordinary attraction but a space of reverence to life, in whose atmosphere they partake.” (Brockmann/Hötter, p. 155)

The establishment of the Osun Grove Support Group and the Adunni Olorisha Trust in the 1990s marked a turnaround in favour of the artist: she was hailed as a pioneer of a “green” aesthetic and the Gesamtkunstwerk she had created in Oshogbo was celebrated as a postcolonial avant la lettre showcase project (Probst, p. 71). Wenger received the greatest recognition in 2005, when she celebrated her 90th birthday and the Sacred Grove of Oshogbo was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reasoning states that Wenger’s New Sacred Art has revived the Sacred Grove in line with its original purpose by absorbing the essential principles of Yoruba cosmology. The other side of the coin is, of course, that the “World Heritage Site” label has all the more opened the floodgates to commercialisation, some of which Susanne Wenger experienced even in her lifetime. She passed away on January 12, 2009 and, as a special reverence, was buried according to traditional Orisha rituals in the Sacred Grove of Oshun, which she herself had chosen as her home.


Susanne Wenger’s concept of art: Tracing her European roots

As part of the Documenta11 art fair in 2002 the postcolonial concept of “glocalisation” was coined, meaning a linking of global and local influences on art. Since Susanne Wenger had represented this idea already much earlier, Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor included her work in the postcolonial exhibition titled “The Short Century Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa”. It was shown in Munich, Berlin, Chicago and New York and set new standards with regard to African art. The concept of “cultural nomadism” (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) also applies to the exceptional artist: Austrian by birth, holder of a Swiss passport and living in her adopted home of Africa. She inhabited the “third space” in between two cultures. With her life and work after 1945, she was able to realise classical modernity’s dream of a fair and just internationalisation of art.

By her own account, her working style in Africa continued to be European; she had not created Yoruba art but had committed her creativity from the profane back to religion. However, there were the common archaic symbols of religious thinking, of the bond with nature in the cyclic process and from the depths of the psyche, which she placed above artistic or aesthetic concerns. She refrained from the purely rational Western way of viewing things and distanced herself from the scientific concept of “shaman”, despite her initiation as a Yoruba priestess, while maintaining the context of holistic theories combined with Christian images. Due to her artistic syncretism, it has been hard for authors to subject Wenger’s spiritual visualisations — which, at that, were developed collaboratively with Nigerian artists — to art history analysis.



Pre-1945 art and science

The influence of 20th century European art, literature and science continues to be visible in Wenger’s works since, opposed to the “typological” time concept of African sculptures, she adhered to the Western physical, dynamic time structure. What nowadays is called “typological” in politically correct terms was previously considered timeless and static in the effect of shape; stylistic differences between African artists were ignored in favour of generalisation. Much as she rejected the materialistic, intellectualist world view, Susanne Wenger read publications from all over the world until her eyes would no longer serve her in her last years, as is known from Wolfgang Denk’s conversation with the authors.

Her correspondence with Joseph Campbell, one of the most significant mythologists, is a clear sign of her broad cultural view and of her hope for a new common ground for art and science. Like the religious researcher Mircea Eliade, Campbell for example in “Masks of God” (1962) from the fifties onward also compared African origin myths with the stone circles of Stonehenge, Mycenae and the Bible to demonstrate that they have relevance to this day. Like Wenger and a whole generation that ventured into a new way of social thinking after the horrors of World War II, Campbell also went on a search for the origins of all images and for a myth that is relevant to the entire (art) history of mankind.

Before that, the comparative and for the first time nearly non-judgmental cultural morphology (previously termed Kulturkreislehre, i.e. “culture circle theory”) of africanologist Leo Frobenius was important. His theory of a “cultural soul”, with culture being an organism, was exemplary to négritude, a philosophical, political and poetic movement around Léopold Sédar Senghor (later the first President of Senegal), which postulated the equality of “black” culture. From a postcolonial point of view, the African liberation movement favoured by Germans, French and British is considered too strongly influenced by European ideals. In this context, American anthropologist Sally Price criticised as racist especially the continued anonymity of African artists in Europe (Prussat/Till, p. 319 ff.).


A holistic view

Susanne Wenger herself believed art to be an archaic language common to all of mankind, irrespective of cultures. She referred above all to the theory of archetypes developed by Sigmund Freud’s somewhat controversial disciple Carl Gustav Jung. Wenger’s images “remembered in advance” are to be understood as archetypes, i.e. primordial images, in her “heart full of the tree’s wisdom”. Her admiration of pantheism became apparent already during her early years in Graz, where she often stayed away from the apparently unsatisfactory classes at art school and instead found her teacher in nature where she used to draw and paint. The Alps, with trees and rocks onto which she could visually project a large pieta and shrines, as later into the sacred forest of Oshogbo, were those archetypes which were to be revived through her art. In quite a few early, seemingly Tachisme-style drawings, quasi as a future memory, she anticipated the buried and forgotten shrines which served as archaic containers of the nature gods’ fetishes and messages and where the rituals of revitalisation were to take place in annual cycles. Similarly, Yoruba priest Ajagemo, as one of the last “archaic men”, knew in advance that Wenger was going to reconstruct the shrines and to rehabilitate the sacred forest, as this forms part of the metaphysical aspect of “divination”.

What is obvious is the proximity to the archisculpture of classical modernity, in line with Rudolf Steiner’s organic construction style and thus Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s theory of metamorphosis although Wenger was never active as an anthroposophist and did not want to be seen as such. However, she is closer to holistic anthroposophical thinking than to other Gesamtkunstwerk ideas ranging from the Palais idéal (“Palace of Dreams”) of facteur Ferdinand Cheval (developed rather as a work of fantastic outsider art) to Antoni Gaudí’s buildings based on floral art nouveau in Barcelona to several variants of Kurt Schwitters’s Dadaistic “Merzbau”, with merz being the final syllable of German Kommerz, i.e. commerce. Despite its early criticism of capitalism, that latter architectural manifesto in its crystalline structure rather resembles Hans Scharoun’s, Hermann Finsterlin’s or Bruno Taut’s expressionist “light cathedrals”; it is quite different from the hybrid vegetable shapes of an undomesticated nature that is full of religious, prehistoric sites of origin made of rock, river and tree. But there is one way in which Schwitters’s art cave is compatible with Wenger’s work: destroyed logic. Ironically termed “Cathedral of Erotic Misery” by Schwitters, however, the focus is on the glorified random principle of a sacralisation of the meaningless, of the profane, as with Marcel Duchamp. Much as they connect to alchemy, religious motivations be it in an animistic or Christian sense are excluded from the play instinct of experimenting modernity.

“Goetheanum II”, Steiner’s architecture designed in accordance with Goethe’s natural philosophy, is seen as a type of “archaic skull” which was transferred to space using modern materials like concrete. Wenger also worked with iron reinforcements and cement; the use of modern materials, however, did not prevent the image of enlivenment through the spiritually animated “tree impulse”. The spirit of symbolism or of modern Platonism is articulated in expressive natural shapes which are to reconcile the humanities and art. Spiritual concepts like the “will to form” (Alois Riegl) and the art psychology of empathy (Wilhelm Worringer) burgeoning in Vienna and Munich around 1900 accompanied Susanne Wenger as scientific guiding principles  to the restoration of the African shrines. She described her creative empathy as a kind of “inward and outward meditation”. This corresponds to the spiritual principle prevailing at the beginnings of modernity directed into abstraction, but also to the Surrealist avant-garde and its “automatic handwriting” of psychograms without taking the detour of logic.

To rescue a vanishing culture, “nearly without any effort on my part”, Wenger added divine inspiration to the spontaneous artistic momentum of modernity. Science still considered the art of the native peoples to be equivalent to those first prehistoric works of art (one need only think of Eckhart von Sydow’s art history volume “Die Kunst der Naturvölker” [The Art of the Primitives] of 1932). Wenger also followed this similarity in meaning in line with Jung’s ideas. She described the imposing of artistic forms as a spiritual transfer which she was due to exercise as “errand boy” of the gods, as paranormal life power of mana, comparable to electric energy (Bozzano, p. 13 f.) and which she was able to spread out to her disciples as creative momentum due to her involvement in the cults. In all this, authorship is irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the return to the archaic symbols of the religiously anchored precolonialist world. In this context, what Albrecht Dürer called “higher infusions”, as divine spark of a unio mystica (the union of god and man according to tradition of the catholic mystics St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila), can be compared to the open-minded Yoruba religion, as Wenger used to do in interviews.


Shared archetypes

The artist included archaic models such as the tree, the eye, animals like salamanders, snakes or birds, the being devoured by monsters, the ride on a ritual boat, the orans gesture and the phallus cult, but also the poetry of prayers, the rhythm in ritual dance and singing in her works; in this way, the équilibre dynamique, i.e. the dynamic balance of her figures woven into codes of nature, distinguishes itself from the Yoruba’s traditional work style. This dynamic of the shapes of her shrines, walls and deity figures is resented only by few, and even the Yoruba priests have accepted this new creation in the spirit of modern art by Wenger and the New Sacred Art artists, as it is understood to be in harmony with religion and nature. The recognition of the Sacred Grove as UNESCO cultural heritage site has contributed to the preservation of the cult site and was conducive to the ongoing restoration of the living artwork; to some extent, however, it has proved counterproductive as the sacred forest’s primary purpose is not to be a tourist attraction.


Wenger’s search for archetypes initially became evident in pencil drawings which were created during the night-time bombardments of Vienna in 1943/44 and which, in the form of hybrid creatures, disguised the reign of terror and the war itself in a surreal way. In them, Wenger’s “collective will to form” in accordance with Jung, Riegl or Worringer, who, like art historians Carl Einstein and Aby Warburg, contributed to extending and opening up the concept of art virtually exploded, given the clear parallels with the then prohibited “degenerate” art. “Der grüne Träumer” [The Green Dreamer] combines Jung’s spirit with African masks, plants and the orans gesture showing trance, death during initiation and masking during contact with divine energy.

In the other drawings, animals represent the Shamanic helping spirits that illustrate the transformation of man into a wild beast (according to Jung, this is the lycanthropy into the human werewolf) during war, among them “Der monströse Hasenriese” [The Monstrous Hare Giant], “Der Tod in Schafsgestalt” [Death Disguised as a Sheep], and “Der rote Vogelpopanz” [The Red Bird Bugbear]. With its animal crown, the latter resembles Cycladic idols with similar Shamanistic brainchildren. Again and again, Wenger emphasised her own proximity to wild animals: she said that she had a standstill agreement with the venomous snakes in the Oshogbo forest and that the monkeys accompanied her during work.

In the drawings “Die Mörderbestien” [The Killer Beasts] or “Die vier Gebärenden” [The Four Delivering Women], the aspect of religious life in harmony with nature that is important in the cyclic process and the myth of being devoured by a monster are expressed; after being cut into pieces, man is put back together again inside the animal and is reborn. Evidently Wenger had already read the literature of Hans Findeisen and others on Shamanism, where the powers of heavenly beings, which have been transferred outward, are symbolised by animals. There is one key consistency within the dissimilarity of archetypes: life and death belong together in these drawings which explode with colours despite their gloomy subject matter. The hare radiates the deadly light for igniting the sea of fire which Wenger had anticipated in the red evening sky already at the time of the National Socialist invasion. In “Die Mörderbestien”, human heads separated from their bodies fly through the air under the yellow or red lightning-struck sky. The style of the drawings is somewhere between Carl Einstein’s “Negerplastik” [Negro Sculpture] (1915) and infantile art brut which from 1922 was also termed “artistry of the insane” (Hans Prinzhorn) and later “state-bound art” (according to Leo Navratil, around 1960), a term that is not a bit more appropriate. Had they been shown in public, the works undoubtedly would have been classified as “degenerate” and would have been confiscated. Wenger did not show them until after 1945 as part of the first presentations of the Art Club that she had co-founded; but even there they caused major disconcertment — and that despite the fact that her references to the archaic sacred are completely different from status reports of the psyche. Cosmic symbolism creates a meaningful artistic cartography for adepts, whereas the pure psychogram only creates an aesthetic structure.


Between Shamanism and Surrealism

In contemporary art theory, Carl Einstein’s text “Negerplastik” critically explored European prejudices and was of great significance to the Art Club artists. Wenger had probably already been exposed to him earlier through the owner of Bücherschwemme, a second-hand bookshop in Vienna’s Kärntnerstrasse, who was arrested by the National Socialists. Before the antiquarian bookseller was deported to Auschwitz, a lot of banned literature about Eastern philosophy, Shamanism and cultural anthropology ended up in Wenger’s studio. From the period of Paul Gauguin on, Western art was searching for a way out of the stagnation characterised by illusionist Salon painting through reanimation from outside Europe and through prehistoric influences. It was also detachment from reason which allowed Symbolism and Cubism to break through to Abstraction. Eventually, Expressionism and Surrealism were able to develop further after the disruption by the National Socialist regime’s art dictatorship.

Susanne Wenger preserved her broad artistic horizon based on the holistic thinking of Jung and Steiner, whose theories were largely banned under the Nationalist Socialism regime, and by holding on to Symbolism and Surrealism. This broad horizon reached back to prehistory: to Aristotle, the medieval mystics and other pioneers of modernity such as William Blake. As a visionary, Blake, whom Wenger quoted quite often like Steiner, sought to create a world from ancient popular belief and rejected empirical modernity whereas, being a revolutionary, he was a political campaigner for women’s self-determination. His writings and images were of great importance to Surrealism; his archetypes anticipated Jung’s antagonisms (in addition to chimeras between animal and man, Jung created the antagonism of the motherly woman and cruel seductress which also fascinated the cool male group of talented Surrealists around André Breton).

It is a short way from Surrealism and Steiner’s “sounding cosmos of spiritually active beings” to parapsychology. The supernatural realm of divination requires “spirit eyes” that gaze out from the soul’s body, as is the case with the later sculptures of Wenger’s Gesamtkunstwerk. The veil of taboo and language scepticism lays itself over the works that are free from materialism and empty transcendence. Re-spiritualisation, also in the sense of preserving an aura for the work of art, whose loss Walter Benjamin bemoaned in 1936 with regard to modernity, however, distinguishes itself from the intellectual diversion of Surrealists and their artificial equivalent of machine aesthetic.

Wenger was also interested in the twelve tone music of Josef Matthias Hauer and emigrant Arnold Schönberg which had been banned during the Nazi period; they had been in touch during Johannes Itten’s Vienna years from 1916 to 1919. Itten brought the holistic ideas, the teachings of polarities, and far-eastern philosophies, such as the Indian Mazdaznan teachings or Taoism, from Vienna to Weimar Bauhaus. Another mystically influenced teacher in relation to early Bauhaus was Paul Klee, whom Wenger met in Switzerland in 1945.


Renunciation of Marxism

On her search for alternatives such as Jung’s archetype, Wenger found inspiration in socialising with artists who were active in the resistance movement: for example, in seemingly innocuous ceramic figurines, Maria Biljan-Bilger picked up matriarchal aspects according to Johann Jakob Bachofen which, one should note, were not always in line with Jung’s theories of antagonism. The communist circle around Heinz Leinfellner also included her friend Elisabeth Charlotte “Goldy” Parin-Matthèy, who, together with August Aichhorn, worked in a Vienna home for difficult adolescents from 1933; she had fought as an anarchist in the Spanish Civil War and had created the new field of ethno-psychoanalysis together with her husband Paul Parin. Later, the couple also travelled across West Africa with Fritz and Ruth Morgenthaler and in 1963 published “Die Weißen denken zu viel” [Whites think too much] about the Jogon people’s inner life.

Wenger not only refused to be considered an anthroposophist, but much as she liked Karl Marx she was unable to warm up to the real conditions within the Communist Party. This may have been due to the “para-religious” character which Mircea Eliade attested to the movement. Judeo-Christian salvation belief crept into de-sacralised modernity and the ideology of Marxism which originated from it in the 19th century. Even with God having been replaced by the individual responsibility of a Homo faber, it was regarded as imperative to rescue the Proletarian masses by means of a fair social struggle and to change the world for the better. Marx rejected the return to the allegedly classless and unspoilt primeval age; he regarded prehistoric man as crude and believed there was no true myth in the form of a creation event during that age. Eliade’s hypothesis of Marxism being a “para-religion” can even be transferred to today’s hedonistic leisure-loving society with its materialistic world view, as we are undoubtedly ruled by business and money. However, Wenger did not seek to replace nature religion with a Utopian model in Europe, but she ventured for an African culture in which she felt better understood than in the artistic avant-garde.


Post-1945 art and science

With the foundation of the internationally oriented Art Club in Vienna in 1947, Susanne Wenger met Ernst Fuchs and Friedrich Stowasser (aka Friedensreich Hundertwasser); what she had in common with them, apart from a holistic approach and the vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, was the call for a more organic, more humane architecture than the strictly geometric, concrete constructions of international style and the consequently ill-conceived, inexpensive, prefabricated post-war apartment block building style. Something else that she shared with Hundertwasser was the absorption of Eastern philosophy in the deliberately internationally made-up Art Club group. Ernst Fuchs, who in 1959 together with Arnulf Rainer and Hundertwasser had founded the Pintorarium “anti-academy” as a manifesto of art leading back to life, wrote in a book published in 1966 about the “lost style” of the origins which architecture had to rediscover. Rainer temporarily followed Taoist ideas, too. The latter, like Zen Buddhism, led Wenger and Hundertwasser to a process-driven, dynamic world (and art) view. The holistic approach in nature as well as culture also integrates the negative processes of decay and death in a positive way — with a lasting effect on Western art.

What Hundertwasser’s “Moldiness Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture”, Paris-based Yves Klein’s cosmologic view, the American avant-garde around John Cage, and Susanne Wenger had in common was a new, geographically amplified art concept. During that Cold War period, a reconciling look on the part of artists was typical; one example thereof, which covers over 60 states, is Edward Steichen’s photography project “The Family of Man”. Hundertwasser described the origination process of the painting “Der große Weg” [The Large Path] in 1955 as “Transautomatism”. What he meant was a spontaneous creative style that was as much as possible detached from mind, which characterised global post-war art; what has been sourced from the archaic subconscious meets with far-eastern meditation in the effect of a semi-sacral process. The main goal was to point out to Western man, by means of the return of spiritual values into art, that man had lost his bond with the Earth and lived in constant danger of total destruction due to the arms race. Hundertwasser’s attempts to rescue trees and establish grass roofs and compost processing in urban concrete deserts are legendary; however, compared to the preservation of sacred sites of memory as undertaken by Wenger in Nigeria, these mundane nature gestures seem all but naïve today.

Intuitively, yet not without models (which she found in the Taoist and Zen movements, for example), but in any case without any preconceived ideas, Wenger let her shrines and figures grow around trees, stones and islands like plants; the world-spanning archaic knowledge also coordinates the walls and gates around the grove. The shells and stones pressed into cement have a defensive role: they are to prevent injury. In contrast to the abovementioned artists, Wenger eventually was the only one to consistently and conclusively turn her back on Europe and to assimilate into a completely new culture, whereas Hundertwasser did go to Japan, but only for a short time and with considerable negative effects on his late art.


Zurich — Paris — Nigeria

After a longer stay in Rome, for which she had received a scholarship, Wenger in 1948 travelled to Zurich, where she joined the Abstrakt-Konkret artist group whose members also included Paul Klee, Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber and Piet Mondrian. Like Wassily Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian were followers of theosophy in the early stages of their artistic careers. Wenger initially exhibited her paintings in Hans Egger’s (aka Hansegger’s) gallery Des Eaux Vives and in 1950 she brought some of the famous members of Abstrakt-Konkret to an Art Club show at the Vienna Secession. Her work of 1947/48 focused on oil paintings in very muted colours: shades of ochre, grey and brown are dominant in “Heimkehrer” [Homecomers], “Das Liebespaar” [Pair of Lovers], “Badende” [Bather] and “Die Vögel sind nicht eingeladen” [The Birds Are Not Invited], a Shamanistic paraphrase of the Last Supper theme. Like many prehistoric idols from around the Mediterranean Sea or the fringe of the Alpine rig, men have birds’ heads in this Supper on one table. The birds’ heads imply the masking or veiling in view of the secret of the divine (taboo). Many religious traditions are merged in this painting: god-kings suffer a ritual self-sacrifice death on behalf of the faithful. Like the Eucharist, the spiritual supper can also be interpreted in a cannibalistic sense a fascination which Hermann Nitsch did not miss either.

The not-too-strict monochromy of Wenger’s paintings is evocative of the religiously motivated, medieval Lenten cloths (“cloth painting”). This subject matter together with the pale colours is strongly related to her memories of the terrors during the war years; Surrealist aspects are linked with constructive elements in Wenger’s works of art.

Susanne Wenger spent 1949/50 in Paris, but there she neither followed the Surrealists, who were stuck in a strictly old-masterly painting style, nor their “razor-blade sharp minds” (quote by Wenger) and the aesthetics of the École de Paris. Her mixture of abstract and figural elements appears very innovative when compared to the abstract works of the members of the Vienna-based artist group Art Club.

Besides her passion for conversations with the clochards along the river Seine, what seemed to be more important to Wenger was her orientation along the works of sculptor Germaine Richier. The latter’s extensions of Surrealist ideas by wiring and tying up human, animal and vegetable forms, also to torsi, occasionally convey the impression of tightened nets of nerve lines. Richier’s hybrid creatures interact, as Wenger’s would later on; they appear threatened, decarnalised, which might point to the Shamanic trance experience of meat loss down to the bones. The French artist considered looks as important as Wenger, and the search for archaic sources of knowledge seems to be further addressed through hybrid forms: insects such as a praying mantis serving as oracle animal refer to undomesticated nature; pre-logic thinking seems to reveal as a threat the ability to think rationally, which was discredited during World War II. Wenger was interested in looking back onto unspoilt nature as well as on the transformations of natural matter, the withering and dying off. In Richier’s late work, Goethe’s metamorphosis theory, and possibly also the anthroposophy in a dynamic life principle of a cosmic dimension, seem to resonate.

The very physical, impulse-driven work style typical of American action painting and of abstract expressionism, but also European Tachisme or Informalism, reflect the impetus of the pencil drawings which Wenger had created in Styria before the war and her desire to overcome the conventions of painting, of the picture and the studio. Maria Lassnig, who, like Wenger, had studied with Ferdinand Andri and was considered “degenerate”, came to Paris with Arnulf Rainer; his ritual blackening of the painting according to mystic models of early Christian “negative theology” and his temporary orientation towards Taoism, comparable to Wenger’s re-sacralisation, move from a psychic to a ritual character; however, in Wenger’s case this takes place in the public space in Nigeria where she lived from 1950.

After her relocation to Nigeria, Wenger came to Europe only for exhibitions and, later on, to sell her paintings and batiks in order to raise funds for her major projects in Nigeria. It is unknown to what extent she herself inspired the avant-garde in talks with its protagonists. Her autonomous role can by no means be compared to the problems faced by Christa Hauer or Hildegard Joos, who were active in Austria and who she stayed in touch with. Later she also distanced herself from the Eurocentric view of her partner Ulli Beier, who never gave up the idea of changing the world, at least in Africa.


Profane gardens and sacred groves

As mentioned earlier, there are some overlaps and similarities between Wenger’s work and Jean Dubuffet’s art brut. In this context, not only the voluminous archisculpture to which he dedicated himself in nature relatively late, especially in his “Jardin d’hiver”, is worth mentioning, but also his principle to completely re-invent art in a non-academic and anti-intellectualistic way inspired by laypeople, children, naives and handicapped persons. He drafted caves and labyrinths which resemble Niki de Saint Phalle’s experimental gardens and walk-in sculptures. With the “She — A Cathedral” figure which is accessible through the vagina and houses a cinema and bar in the belly and chest, Niki de Saint Phalle was able to make the divine principle of the world by means of a female shape as existing in nature religions an experience tangible for visitors at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm in 1966. The archetypical way of returning into the motherly womb of the earth goddess (mountain or burial mound) after death was made tangible in this work of art. In her late work, in “The Tarot Garden”, she implemented ideas that were dismissed as scandalous nonsense back then.

Both artists placed metaphysics above the pataphysics of Surrealist Alfred Jarry. Nonsense is a parody of the methods of modern sciences, but Saint Phalle’s “Nanas” brought a bright, colourful comeback of the female archetypes of the “Big Mother”. This is comparable to Wenger’s shrines and figures in honour of the Yoruba’s earth goddess. Post-war matriarchal researchers, among them Susanne Wenger’s friend Luisa Francia, railed against Jung since he did not accept woman as a creative creature. Therefore Wenger only peripherally took note of the feminist movement. In her own understanding as a woman, Wenger always felt creative and “called upon” and believed that matriarchy in Jung’s antagonisms was eternally present and repeatedly reproducible anyway, just that feminists were not aware of that; furthermore, Wenger believed that in their analyses feminists demonstrated a lack in wholeness of truth, even though they rightfully “stigmatise patriarchal garbage” (Brockmann/Hötter, p. 143).

With research increasingly being based on prehistory and protohistory, an invisible connection between the “automatic handwriting” of Surrealists and the “Maccaroni” lines (Breuill) in Stone Age caves was established; Georges Bataille and the Structuralist artists also revisited protohistory. This led to a new view devoid of the European, quite destructive progress idea within the meaning of a belief religion pointing towards the last days. Man after 1945 had to acknowledge also through art that the theory of evolution towards a higher being was suffering a setback; being civilised had become questionable and culture loss had become evident. From 1950, modernity started to crumble like the shrines of the ancient nature religions which had sunken into landfills by the time Wenger arrived in Nigeria.

Land Art refers to art in simple shapes and in the direct context with nature as an experience to be made while wandering. Artists would leave the confines of their studios, moving across gardens out into the expanses of deserts, mountains or urban space. Similar to Wenger’s archisculptures, its works were socio-critical statements and not intended for the art market or museum spaces. But what is true also for concepts like “Lightning Field” by Walter de Maria, Richard Long’s stone circles, or Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is that they have only semi-sacral aspects and revisit prehistory using archetypical basic shapes (rectangle and spiral). Nature’s contribution defines their expiry date — another parallel with Wenger’s sacred forest. During the act of walking, the process-like — in the sacral sense of a procession by visitors — is thus linked with a physical experience (and perhaps, in the best case, spiritual enlightenment, but not in a religious way); the same is true of works of Dennis Oppenheim and James Turrell.

In “Der Wille zur Kunst” [The Will to Art], Beat Wyss in 1996 ironically targeted the semi-sacral paths, rows, double causes and materials, some of which were suspected of being associated with alchemy ranging from Arte Povera to minimal art and conceptual art, thus directing the look back to the atom model advocated by theosophists, since it corresponds to anti-materialism and abstraction; in his view, the ultimately destructive disintegration of the visible world goes hand in hand with the propagation of a spiritual life of the soul as astral body. Thus the epiphany of modernity also arises from the luminescence of dangerous electricity and of the atom model as representation of divine energy with the paranormal power of mana turning into dangerous mania. In connection with divine energy, Susanne Wenger also speaks of “pre-nuclear symbol integration” in trees, animals, plants or minerals as archetypes beyond time and space. For according to Jung and the anthroposophists, the human body does not distinguish itself from the soul: an idea which in literature also trickled from Walt Whitman over Ezra Pound and James Joyce to Allen Ginsberg into the beat and hippie generations. Wenger’s work has temporal and poetic components in this “dropout mindset”. Yet the belief in the artist as adept of the “Great Spiritual” (Wassily Kandinsky) quite quickly vanished among most post-war artists; the Communist “will to power” of Cold War realpolitik had made the certainty of salvation in Europe die down. Wit, irony and analysis thereafter found their way into postmodernity, but Wenger’s art no longer had anything in common with this.


Fluxus and the Situationist International

Together with John Cage, who has already been mentioned in connection with Hundertwasser, and both artists’ love of Zen Buddhism, the “Situationist International” with Fluxus artists such as Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys needs to be mentioned as well: Paik’s mother was a practicing shaman; his video sculptures reflect both the process character but also the typological aspect of time. And like Wenger, Beuys saw his initiation as a shaman in serious illness and a nearly fatal fall, describing how stressful the near-death experience was in a simulation afterwards. Despite all taboos, Susanne Wenger reported of similar strains.

What Wenger shares with Beuys is not only the social aspect in art, but also its re-sacralisation and extended definition. Even more than her, he was influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s holistic view. “He who does not want to think will be expelled (from himself)”, was a deliberately ambiguous joke of his about the constant liminal experience of his shamanistic existence. His action involving a coyote and a hare, and his liking of purification rituals using water, are combinations of Christian archetypes and protohistoric cyclical thinking, as with Wenger. Beuys saw himself as a man on the threshold of the Stone Age past and the future at the same time. “Never look into history too deeply, [and] never more than 500 years into the future,” is how he explained the role of art. Additionally he called himself a new “cave painter” and discoverer of mysteries in mundane places such as a railway terminal; apart from Arnold von Gennep’s Rites de Passage [Rites of Passage] he had found inspiration in Findeisen’s and Eliade’s literature about shamans. As a medium between the world the of animistic nature religion of the Celts or Scythes and our time, he considered himself to be on an eternal nomadic journey from East to West. Instead of planting a tree in nature, he built the world axis in the German pavilion of the 1976 Venice Biennale and planted 7,000 oaks in the German town of Kassel; a constantly renewing work of art extending far beyond his death.

Beuys shares with Wenger the rejection of overrated Western rationality, with the difference being that, in artistic terms, he saw the renewal of thinking and of art not as coming from the South but rather from the East and North. As with Wenger, his solidarity with the weak ones within society has been adopted from the post-war period tenor, as he regarded himself as a good and teaching leader (Sandro Bocola), quasi as a contrast to the evil leader of his adolescence during National Socialism.

A return to art as unity with religion and life, as prevailing back in classical modernity, with a view to the Bacchantic mystery cults of the Greeks and syncretistically to other religions, is offered by Viennese actionist Hermann Nitsch. The idea for the Gesamtkunstwerk of his Orgien-Mysterien-Theater [Orgiastic Mystery Theatre] dates back to the fifties. Besides taking recourse to the utopias of classical modernity, Nitsch shares with Wenger the process character in working without any final point, considering nature, integrating it into the work, looking back to early rituals of humanity such as the blood baptism in the Mithras cult, oracles and some holistic concepts of the modern age. However, there are numerous differences apart from the basic one that Wenger’s work serves the ritual and reactivation of the myth of the Yoruba’s spiritual world, whereas the theatrical aspect with Nitsch serves an art-interested audience’s synaesthetic pleasure. Yet not just the recipients and continents are different ones, but also the artists’ positions. Wenger used to play down her dual role as priestess and artist, whereas Nitsch and Beuys became iconic figures on the art market as pure art priests without any persistent crossing of a border to the metaphysical.

But Nitsch sees the renewal of myths in a positive way, too; instead of indulging in the holiness of the meaningless in the “Cathedral of Erotic Misery” (Schwitters about his “Merzbau”), he also returns to antique festival rites in the “cultural memory” (Assmann 1992, p. 48 ff.). With her art, Wenger extends the view to archaic origins with their primary nature and culture religions (Assmann 2006, p. 18 pp.) and their cosmological inclusion of a homo aequalis. In the reactivated Yoruba religion the gods continue to stay in this world instead of being hierarchically far below an extramundane creator god, as is the case in secondary religions. Her art has extended to become a mnemotope, an extraordinary landscape of memory. Cultural memory needs secured places and has a tendency towards spatialisation. “The main difference compared to communicative memory is its shapedness and the ceremonial character of its events.” (Assmann 1992, p. 58) In this way, Susanne Wenger’s art has filled the void created by European aura loss. In addition, Wenger changed sides, turned the view around, directing the look from Africa to Europe, which makes her perception of art an anticipation of current postcolonial ideas.




Jan Assmann, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, Munich 1992

Jan Assmann, Ma’at. Gerechtigkeit und Unsterblichkeit im Alten Ägypten, Munich 2006

Ulli Beier (ed.), Neue Kunst in Afrika, Berlin 1980

Ulli Beier, Auf dem Auge Gottes wächst kein Gras. Zur Religion, Kunst und Politik der Yoruba und Igbo in Westafrika, Wuppertal 1999

Ernesto Bozzano, Übersinnliche Erscheinungen bei Naturvölkern, Bern 1948

Rolf Brockmann/Gerd Hötter, Szene Lagos. Reise in eine afrikanische Kulturmetropole, Munich 1994

Gert Chesi, Susanne Wenger. Ein Leben mit den Göttern, Wörgl 1984

Stefan Eisenhofer/Heidelinde Dimt (ed.), Kulte, Künstler, Könige in Afrika. Tradition und Moderne in Südnigeria, Katalog des Oberösterreichischen Landesmuseums, Linz 1997

Mircea Eliade, Mythen, Träume und Mysterien, Salzburg 1961

Mircea Eliade, Das Heilige und das Profane. Vom Wesen der Religion, Frankfurt/Leipzig 1984

Exhibition catalogue Mythos Art Club. Der Aufbruch nach 1945 (Kunsthalle Krems) 2003

Exhibition catalogue Joseph Beuys. Schamane, Nürnberg (Kunsthalle Krems) 2008.

Exhibition catalogue Hundertwasser. Japan und die Avantgarde (Belvedere Wien), Munich 2013.

Walter Kugler/Simon Baur (ed.), Rudolf Steiner in Kunst und Architektur, Cologne 2007

Kunsthalle Krems (ed.), Susanne Wenger. Eine biographische Collage von Wolfgang Denk unter Einbeziehung von Texten und Aussagen von Susanne Wenger und Ulli Beier, Krems 1995

Peter Probst, Osogbo and the Art of Heritage, Bloomington, Indiana 2011

Margit Prussat/Wolfgang Till, Neger im Louvre. Texte zur Kunstethnographie und moderne Kunst, Dresden 2001

Claudia Spieß, Germaine Richier (1902–1958), Hildesheim/Zurich/New York 1998

Judith Elisabeth Weiss, Der gebrochene Blick. Primitivismus – Kunst – Grenzverwirrungen, Berlin 2007 (Phil. dissertation Heidelberg 2005)

Beat Wyss, Der Wille zur Kunst. Zur ästhetischen Mentalität der Moderne, Cologne 1996