Now, more than a half-century later, Mr. Brus’s 80th birthday is being celebrated in Vienna with the exhibition “Unrest After the Storm” at the Belvedere 21 museum, and artists and curators say Mr. Brus’s work has taken on renewed significance after Austria’s recent right-wing turn. The show opened this month and runs through Aug. 12.
“Unrest After the Storm” brings together works from across Mr. Brus’s eclectic output. These include early “informal” paintings reminiscent of Jackson Pollock; drawings; illustrated poetry; costume design; and footage and photographs of his shocking actions.
It is for his actions that Mr. Brus is best known: carefully orchestrated performances involving naked bodies, self-harm, and the use of bodily fluids like excrement, blood and tears, to explore taboo themes like birth and sexuality. But they are not the main focus of this exhibition. Records of them are shown in dialogue with drawings, paintings and poems which further explore the limits of the body.
Along with other artists like Otto Muehl and Hermann Nitsch, Mr. Brus formed a group that became known as the Vienna Actionists. Together, they put away the canvas and made their bodies a part of their art.
“Austria was not a police state but close enough,” Mr. Brus said, sitting at a long wooden table facing snow-covered hills through large bay windows. Postwar Austria was a traditional society, strongly influenced by the church and governed by strict rules. Mr. Brus recalled being fined as a young man for walking on a patch of grass.
“We rebelled against this society,” said his wife, Anna Brus, sitting in a wheelchair at the head of the table. “It was so unbelievably palpable, how these Nazis were everywhere, on every corner, much more than the police.”
As Mr. Brus’s notoriety grew, so did the anger some members of the public felt toward him. He and his wife both received death threats, and there was a petition to take away their child.
“The aim was to break taboos,” Mr. Brus said of his actions. “My art doesn’t just stink in the physical space but smells in the souls of the people,” he said.
Mr. Brus’s work was not only taboo-breaking, it was also political. Today, many in the art world here are similarly engaged. Last year, riding the wave of a backlash against Europe’s treatment of the migration crisis, the far-right Freedom Party again took up key posts in Austria’s government, following a break of over a decade.
“I feel this political consciousness in his work,” said Harald Krejci, curator of the exhibition. He said that he had selected several works for their political content. One is titled “Average Austrians and Austrians-by-Choice Demand a Ministry of Re-engagement in National Socialist Activities and Excuses,” and features these words written on the Austrian flag. Mr. Brus made this work in 2000, after the Freedom Party achieved a record share of the vote in an election.
In 1968, as student protests swept Western Europe, the Vienna Actionists were invited to stage an action in a lecture hall at the University of Vienna. “Art and Revolution” involved Mr. Brus cutting himself, urinating, defecating and masturbating while singing Austria’s national anthem, in an outrageous effort to show the facts of life with no filters. As a result of the performance, Mr. Brus was prosecuted for the crime of “degrading symbols of the state” and fled with his family to exile in West Berlin.
“In Berlin we found an open and tolerant, liberal society and my wife didn’t even know what the police looked like for the first two years,” Mr. Brus said.
Ms. Brus easily found work as a seamstress and later a fashion designer and Mr. Brus found new artistic expression in collaborations with other artists. Drawing gave him newfound liberty once he had reached his body’s limits. (After the work “Zerreissprobe,” or “The Real Test,” in 1970, in which Mr. Brus slit himself with a razor and beat himself to exhaustion, ending up bloodied, panting and sweating, the artist called an end to the actions.)
The exhibition in Vienna also emphasizes the partnership between Mr. and Ms. Brus. Valie Export, a feminist visual artist and contemporary of the Actionists, said Mr. Brus’s treatment of women stood out from the rest of the group. She said the actions Mr. and Ms. Brus collaborated on “had a poetic language.”
Ms. Brus said she was often asked how she endured being part of her husband’s actions, like “Transfusion,” in which Mr. Brus, naked, painted his wife’s body in a space littered with nails and other sharp objects, before engaging in what appeared to be a sex act, while she sat, still and impassive.
“In our partnership, in our common work, this was never a question,” Ms. Brus said. “In our work we were Comrades, friends, and it was a very natural relationship,” Mr. Brus added immediately.
Eva Badura-Triska, curator of several past exhibitions on Vienna Actionists at Mumok, Vienna’s museum of modern art, said that when you looked at Mr. Brus’s art “you are facing the truth.” She added that watching a work like “Zerreissprobe” was “not a pleasure,” in the same way it was not a pleasure to watch the bloody experience of birth, or to see somebody dying or defecating.
“But when you look away,” Ms. Badura-Triska said, “you are getting into moral territory that may turn out to be problematic for society.”