The Art of Alfred Hrdlicka:  The Cross After the Holocaust

Alfred Hrdlicka, born in Vienna in 1928, is internationally recognized as a sculptor, painter, and drawer. Having first trained as a dental technician, he then studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in his native Vienna. Later, he studied sculpture with Fritz Wotruba.

Hrdlicka was to make headlines very quickly with his art projects in public spaces: the antifascist and antiwar monuments in Hamburg and Vienna, the Wuppertal Monument to Friedrich Engels.  He attracts attention, taking offense and giving impulses. Granted, his works anger many people. Precisely in an age of abstract, often minimalist, art he strives to remain true to the figurative. With this conception of himself as artist, he has kept above all fashionable tendencies for decades. As a non-conformist, he is a person who refuses to be utilized, and does not go with any trends, either outside or inside the field of art. Although he is a master of precise portrayal, he does not paint in a naturalistic manner.  For this, despite all skepticism regarding those who represent the modern movement, his works reveal too much abstraction in detail. At the same time, the proportions of the human body set the standard. His motto is: All art departs from the flesh. Like all western art in bygone centuries, Hrdlicka preserves a sense for the contours of the figure, its limbs, its movements and its potential of expression.

Who would have ever thought that this Austrian artist would deal with the theme of the crucifixion? He comes from a communist, working class family, deeply rooted in atheism. He has remained true to this legacy.

After the war, Hrdlicka came into contact with the Bible rather by coincidence. For him, a person who otherwise preferred dealing with subjects like politics, sexuality and violence, the Old Testament became a treasure trove for many images. Later works such as Samson and Delilah, Judith and Holofernes, Lot’s Daughters or Cain and Abel attest to his affinity to biblical dramas he had felt early on.  In the New Testament, it is above all the Beheading of John the Baptist and the Crucifixion of Jesus, which repeatedly serve as sources of inspiration. However, he already detaches the motif of the crucifixion from its biblical context early on.  In viewing the cross as an instrument of torment and torture, he discovers the absolute means of how people may be violent to one another. It becomes independent as a metaphor for mistreatment, torture, bestiality and brutality.  Sometimes, just like in the traditional, biblically inspired iconography, he portrays the person crucified with two thieves at his side. But the cross in Hrdlicka’s art nevertheless remains a timeless symbol despite these formal reminiscences. It interprets history as an eternal cycle of violence and inhumanity, which finds expression in the symbol of the cross. The cross therefore finds its way into the portrayal of contemporary atrocities. The reference to the present day removes it from its historical context.

The Christian cross unites two facets – the life and death of Christ on the one hand, His resurrection and salvation on the other. Alfred Hrdlicka transforms this symbolism by making it contemporary. He takes the age-old theme and puts it in a framework that is entirely in the here and now. Both of these dimensions of meaning remain preserved in the process: on the one hand, he interprets the cross as standing for all attempts to abase, to degrade and humiliate man with horridness; on the other hand, it is seen as a symbol of protest against this type of desecration and as a sure sign for invincible dignity. Thus, in addition to being a metaphor of boundless humiliation, the cross is also a metaphor of exaltation. It is no coincidence that, behind Hrdlicka’s crucified persons, there are people who have displayed civil courage in rising against authoritative, violent potentates or structural violence.  They become victims of their insubordination and at the same time, themselves become agents of hope even in this monstrous disfigurement. In the portrayal of their maltreated flesh, Hrdlicka always unmasks the ideology, the name in which such ill treatment is carried out. The crucifixion as a motif thus becomes an element of enlightenment, and a political and moral signal of protest.

Those who are piously and sensitively inclined might accuse the artist of blasphemy because of the drastic portrayal of physical nakedness and the male genitalia in the crucifixion scenes.  But this could be countered with the fact that it is not the type of presentation, but rather the reality portrayed, which constitutes the actual blasphemy. In many kinds of executions, the executioner would expose the persons to be executed to nakedness, robbing them of their last vestiges of dignity by stripping them of their clothing.  If, in keeping with Christian understanding, man is an image of God, any inhumanity to a human being created by God also insults his Creator. Hrdlicka’s crucifixions do not so much show blasphemies in a conventional sense, as they seem like a thorn in the flesh of the Christian viewer. They call on us to take stands and to protest, enjoining us to change in our ways of dealing with one another.  Emphatically creating the tortures makes it possible for us to relate to biblical crucifixion. Unlike most crucifixions known to us in art history, Hrdlicka makes us feel something of the horrid ending on the cross, caused by circulatory failure as the result of hanging for hours.

The crucifixion motif is encountered in the context of various techniques and materials: in sculptures, paintings, drawings, and prints. It shows up for the first time in 1959, in a marble sculpture: The Crucified One. As the title suggests, Hrdlicka does not desire to focus upon the crucifixion as such, but rather on a person who has suffered such a death. The cross as a structure is missing, the horizontal elements seem to have dissolved except for a slight hint on the stumps of the arms. The sculpted block of marble is wholly bound to the vertical lines. Thus, initially there is the illusion of an upright stature. However, since the lower halves of the legs are missing, the possibility for walking upright, a sign of human dignity, has been taken away. Likewise, the arms, hands and head are missing.  Hrdlincka shows man in all of his physical brokenness: He is now only a torso, a fragment, a lifeless piece of meat, although with exaggeratedly large genitalia.  Here a religious motif is paired with sexuality and violence. The three central themes in Hrdlicka’s work touch and permeate one another.(1) It may be that a slaughtering scene served as a model for this sculpture. The crucifixion as a bestial way of killing has dehumanized the victim, debasing him like one of a herd of cattle that has been chopped up into individual pieces after the slaughter.

But if we take a closer look at the torso, we are also able to determine ambivalent features. Not everything human has been destroyed, broken and ruined in this fleshy meat fragment. Even in its destruction, the well-shaped torso and its attitude almost tell of dignity, the inviolability, and its sublimity.  A wound to the side reminds us of the lancing by the Roman soldier into the body of the crucified Jesus. It points to the iconographic tradition and contents linked to it. The ambiguous character of the figure is understandable if we compare it with the thieves the artist created in 1962 and 1963. Albeit, they have a head, revealing faces distorted in pain, but how rough and ugly their bodies are in comparison with the well-proportioned sculpture made in 1959.  As a matter of fact, they only represent the tortured creature, suffering in isolation, numbly awaiting death.

The reduction of man to a torso is, albeit, not typical for Hrdlicka’s work, but it does show the scant significance the head and face have in his crucifixion. The features of the human countenance remain unclear, hiding behind hatchings or cloaked in darkness. Above all, it is the trunk of the body which, as the major bearer of the mass of flesh, expresses the pain inflicted without mercy. Already the Study for a Crucifixion, done in 1960, reveals the artist’s endeavor to develop the form of the body from torturous sufferings. He deals with the question of how the hands, arms and above all, the chest and belly, react under such tortures. As is the case with later portrayals, here as well we see the artist’s intention to express pictorially how the vital function of breathing affects the trunk of the body.

The extent to which the portrayal of physiology also exemplifies Hrdlicka’s political creed is shown in his Homage to Lucas Cranach. Although the artist respects Christ’s death on the cross in terms of his own political convictions as a revolutionary deed, he shows no understanding for his attitude of non-violence. “And yet, for myself, I cannot find any sense in a resistance of passive suffering. I cannot say now: Christ demonstrated suffering to us. This is not my intention. …For me, Christ is the absolute triumph of thought or the idea over raw violence. Only I have to tell myself repeatedly, I could never pursue such a path. Ultimately, Christ is not a role model for me. But His words are a model to me…”(2)

Thus, above all, he portrays the thief on the right, the violent murderer, in all of his virility, whereas the Christ hanging on the cross displays typically feminine features. The face of the thief bursts with brutal determination, even seeming decisive in his martyrdom; the face of Christ, on the other hand, bespeaks submission to his fate. The thief, revealing features of the painter, still makes fists even though he is in the throes of death on the cross, a gesture of his resistance against the violence directed against him.  Hrdlicka visualizes two fundamentally different approaches to the faults of this world using bodily and facial expression.

In his Crucifixion of 1967, Hrdlickatakes recourse to the traditional crucifixion scene. Three people are hung by others, without the instrument of torture itself being visible. Using contrasts of light and dark, the artist makes Jesus and the thief on the right stand out from the thief on the left. The latter is distanced from the two others by the bright atmosphere. In addition, the thief on the right has been hung at a right angle to Jesus, turned to his direction: This is a gesture that signalizes the ties between the two victims. The heads are mere contours, or respectively, cloaked in darkness in the case of Jesus and the thief on the right. Once again the portrayal of physical ruin, the torment inflicted upon a creature, stands at the forefront.  The reduction to the ruin of human flesh is concentrated here on the limbs, the hanging arms and legs. The henchmen, whose silhouettes the artist has only sketched, are in action. The inhumanity of this way of killing is made clear by means of the retrogression of the human body to rudimentary structures and allusions.

The cross as a wooden frame, a combination of the vertical and horizontal, is not absolutely necessary as a sensually perceptible object due to its metaphorical meaning. It might also be limited to one dimension via horizontal transversals, or merely sketched. The vertical direction is only marked by the body. Moreover, the tormented persons do not hang by nails from the beams, but have been fastened with ropes or meat hooks. In this detail, Hrdlicka’s tendency for transforming the crucifixion becomes evident. A realistic understanding of current references to the Antique method of killing also demands changes in the way details are wrought. Thus, the group of crucified persons in the Plötzensee Dance of Death hangs on hooks attached to a horizontal crossbeam.

The Crucifixion scene in Good Friday grapples critically with the image cosmos of Piet Mondrian. Done in 1966, it represents the connection between the Antique killing apparatus and modern mass destruction processes during the Nazi regime. Whereas three figures hang from the ceiling, a fourth one lies as a dead body half in the furnace of the concentration camp. Another figure, naked from the waist up, stands at the right edge of the picture. The way they look reminds us of photographs of Jewish victims of the Nazi massacres.  The conventional iconography of the crucifixion thus appears decisively changed here. Granted, like in the portrayal of Christ and the two thieves, three martyrs may be seen. But at the torture stake, we do not see the constellation of the grieving figures we are accustomed to. Rather, in addition to the hanging scene, we witness two more victims in different phases of torment: one now only awaits the fate of those already hung, and the other already dead. There is no longer any more room for the group of the bereaved. At best, the viewers of this painting may assume this role.

In this portrayal, death dissolves into an industrially organized anonymity that is immune to any form of piety. Ignominiously, the entombment degenerates into a complete physical destruction by burning. Hrdlicka accentuates the motif of the crucifixion as the most inhumane barbarity of Antiquity. Not even in death is the dignity maintained for the body that had been so abased in life. No one grieves, the corpse does not receive a burial. The appalling nefariousness of the modern, unparalleled in history, seeks entry into this picture. The Ecce homo motif undergoes a modern variation: the degrading of a path of suffering to an object of voyeurism and desire for coarse executioners.

The scene is embedded in a mosaic of portrayals of scenes of war and violence. It is part of a tableau, divided up into rectangles à la Mondrian. Two biblical crucifixion scenes, a portrayal of the Last Supper, a rally of demonstrators, a torture scene, encounters of sexual exploitation, Jesus walking on water, the capture of Jesus, the trench warfare of the Vietcong under the boot of an American soldier and the Buddhist monk in Vietnam who burns himself to death all add up to an extremely varied patchwork. It conveys extremely differentiated excerpts of social and political life. In an impressionist and associative fashion, Hrdlicka brings the impacts of violence, war, and suppression found in a news broadcast from Good Friday 1966 together with the horrors of the Nazi Regime and the biblical crucifixion. The result: a staging of brutality over two millennia.  He pits the general law of the world expressed in the harmony of the de-Stijl movement against his own despair at mistreatments and the violation of human dignity. History appears to be caught in an inescapable cycle that it just cannot break.  In this context, Hrdlicka reduces the cross as a sign of redeeming hope to absurdity. It symbolizes hopelessness. Hrdlicka places his belief in cyclical development against the linear thinking in the Christian conception of history. The biblical crucifixion no longer marks the beginning of a new era, but rather becomes a piece in the mosaic of history, its bloody colors heightened to odiousness 2000 years later. There is no Easter to follow this Good Friday, the day of the deepest humiliation, no salvation of man from his being caught in his sinfulness. On the contrary, he is at its mercy, desperate, incorrigible, and doomed to eternal repetition.  The detachment of the picture motif from its Christian frame is shown here in all its radicalism. It loses its previous meaning, becoming synonymous with mankind’s desolate dead-end fate.

Working in associative series and sequences allows the artist to go beyond traditional genres and bring the motif of time into his work without having to narrate chronologically. This becomes evident in the Plötzensee Dance of Death, which was done between 1969 and 1972 for the church of the Plötzensee parish.  Wholly in accordance with the form of this late medieval topic, Hrdlicka makes death appear with its various faces. The work consists of 16 upright-format panels, arranged to hang on the walls of the church in groups of three or four. Scenes from the Bible such as Cain’s murder of Abel, the beheading of John the Baptist, death in the boxing ring, death in show business and death in the concentration camp stand next to a sort of triptych clearly echoing the crucifixion of Christ. Hrdlicka did take up here once again the pictorial connection between the biblical martyr and contemporary tortures that he had used already in 1966. Three naked bodies hang on an iron transversal extending through the room. There are no nails to hold their weight to the iron, their wrists have been pierced with hooks – a modern intensification of the bestiality compared with the antique type of execution. The figure in the middle is redolent of portrayals of the crucified Christ. The viewer recognizes a crown of thorns on his head, a figure pierces his side with a lance, and at the foot of Jesus there lies a skull. The figures hanging at either side remind us of the thieves. Their physiognomies clearly differ from that of the figure in the middle. Their swollen bellies and flaccid muscles contrast with the fit, well proportioned, muscular appearance of their fellow sufferer. The central position emphasizes the figure of Jesus. Unlike the historical Jesus, who was executed between two common criminals, the crucified Christ here appears in the midst of other victims of concentration camps. The biblical story carried the degradation all the way to the group he was associated with in death: God’s Son was placed close to common lawbreakers. Hrdlicka’s Golgatha, on the other hand, only acknowledges innocent people, helplessly at the mercy of their horrible fate. He consciously foregoes the contrast between the criminal and the politically persecuted, so as to enhance the latter.

Despite small differences in the picture tradition, nevertheless up to this point, there is much to remind us here of Crucifixion portrayals. But again, Hrdlicka alienates the familiar motif. The three victims do not hang on the planks we know from antiquity. The deathly beam, a transverse bar of iron is what connects them with one another. And the modern Golgotha does not take place on a mountainside; Hrdlicka has shifted the action to an interior space, as the windows in the background allow us to surmise. In addition to the three victims of torture, three torturers and a person on his knees appear: on the left panel, someone punches the body of the hung victim; on the right one, the executioner’s assistant, his axe raised, attacks his helpless victim.  The shifting of the action to an interior room, the iron bar on the ceiling as a device for killing, and also the context of the pictures, indicate this Golgotha to be a Nazi concentration camp. This interpretation is confirmed without a doubt by the proximity of another triptych. It introduces a hanging scene and the guillotine of Plötzensee.

If in the aforementioned triptych there is a figure among the victims that reminds us of Jesus, then this only goes to show once again Hrdlicka’s conviction that nothing has changed in the history of mankind since the death of Christ. Hence, his death was for nothing. On a pictorial level, this interpretation is emphasized by the lack of vertical lines. The crucified ones only hang on crossbeams. The vertical element of hope that soars upwards and indicates the transcendental is missing. At best, this is shown in the posture of the human body, though it is doomed to decay and death.

The close linking of the biblical crucifixion and scenes of torture in our day makes it possible to separate the sign from the symbol of redemption, and completely detach it from its traditional connection. It is now available for portraying purely secular stories of suffering. Just as in our everyday language the metaphor of the cross to be borne has been borrowed from religious terminology, Hrdlicka borrows from the history of art, which has been influenced by Christianity. In doing so, he tries to bring into the picture man’s mercilessness towards his fellow man, his lust for murder and his thirst for blood. This may be, for example, the terrorist Holger Meins, who in a work of 1975, has been nailed to the cross as an alleged victim of administrative despotism. Or maybe it is the idol of the 1968 student movement generation, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who takes the way of the cross in a comprehensive cycle done in 1983/84. In a sculpture called Homage to Pasolini, done in 1985, Hrdlicka shows the Italian writer with a crown of thorns and a wound to his side. The sculpture seems like a contemporary Ecce homo.

On a poster for Pasolini dating from the same year, the artist shows him like Jesus, broken under the weight of the cross. He kneels on the ground, supporting himself on his right hand, bent under the burden. Above his head a piece of wood rises up, riddled with nails. Bright red stripes on his head and also on his body remind us of the traces the crown of thorns and the flagellation have left on the body. Hrdlicka shows the author and moviemaker he greatly admires in his last moments of life, when he is clubbed to death with a wooden beam. At the same time he moves his fate close to Jesus’s way of the cross. Like Jesus of Nazareth, the Austrian artist also interprets Pasolini as an anti-authoritarian admonisher and caller to protest in the desert. Like Jesus, his fellow man puts him to death. As always in his crucifixions, he shows a man, who dies for his convictions, without resistance, through the brutality of others. Whether the individual is executed out of religious motives, for the sake of a divine or a political mission, is less significant. What is decisive is that he has questioned the prevalent order by his behavior, his speeches, or his written or pictorial messages.  Pasolini, who walked a narrow line between Christianity, Marxism and third-world mythology was always a non-conformist, and thus fit into a series with biblical figures. In this way, he was in accordance with the historical Jesus. Like him, he became a victim of political reaction as an unbidden, unpleasant admonisher as well as a political and spiritual renegade. The killing instrument for the dastardly, and even now still mysterious, murder of Pasolini, the piece of wood, has been stylized as a pars pro toto for the cross. Hrdlicka consistently tends to bring modern murder weapons into contexts with the Roman model.

In Hrdlicka’s work, the cross as murder weapon condenses more and more to a magnificent image to be compared with all violent mechanisms of despotism directed against the heroic individual. The cross as a stake made by human hands encompasses all inhumanity that man is capable of –it is the cross as the incarnation of evil. Echoes of Christian thought are conjured up: there, Jesus takes all imperfection upon himself on the cross, freeing mankind. In Hrdlicka’s works, there is no trace of salvation, however. The Christian sign, which points to a new perspective of hope from its deepest defeat, becomes a symbol of failure and darkness.(3)


(1) See the following quote by Alfred Hrdlicka in a letter to Wieland Schmied in the spring of 1980 in Alfred Hrdlicka. Das Gesamtwerk. Schriften, edited by Michael Lewin, Vienna 1987, p. 150 f. “My early works are characterized by religiousness and sexuality, or respectively violence. I would refer to this as my Old Testament phase.”

(2) Alfred Hrdlicka: Interview with Friedhelm Mennekes in: Franz Joseph van der Grinten und Friedhelm Mennekes, Menschenbild – Christusbild. Auseinandersetzung mit einem Thema der Gegenwartskunst, Stuttgart 1984, p. 67 ff.

(3) See on this topic, by the author: The Word That was Made Flesh, Catalogue Künzelsau (Kunsthalle Würth) 2002. F.M., Kein schlechtes Opium. Das Religiöse im Werk von Alfred Hrdlicka, Stuttgart (VKB) 1987. F.M. and Johannes Röhrig, Crucifixus. Kreuz und Kreuzigung in der Kunst unserer Zeit, Freiburg (Herder) 1994. F.M. and Johannes Röhrig (Hgg.), Alfred Hrdlicka: Glaubenskriege, Vienna (trend-profil) 1998.