Life and work

1920, May 24 - 2007, May 20


Along with August Walla and Johann Hauser, Oswald Tschirtner was at one time among the most successful Artists from Gugging. He left behind an extensive graphic oeuvre defined by its minimalistic and abstract style. The artist’s best-known motif is the head-footer, an Image of a person in which the torso is missing or greatly diminished and is usually surrounded by four elongated extremities. He developed this form of representation in the late sixties, but first began to use it artistically in 1971. The head-footers are genderless beings with a face based on the standard scheme of eyes, nose, mouth, and ears; their hair is always represented as neatly combed. He drew them in frontal views as well as in profi le, alone, in pairs, in groups, and optionally in motion or within surroundings. Nonetheless they almost always seem passive, as though they were in no way connected with the world around them or one another.

Tschirtner did not create art on his own initiative. Every one of his works was created at the prompting and in the presence of another person. Initially Leo Navratil – and then later primarily Johann Feilacher, the current head of the museum gugging – attempted to find themes that interested Tschirtner, such as religion. His oeuvre consists chiefly of small-format drawings in ink on paper. A small portion of his works, particularly from the years 1971 and 1972, were colored in (usually in monochrome). When drawing, Tschirtner never raised his pen – the drawings were created with a continuous, very delicate, and precise line. He additionally created images of simple subjects like pieces of clothing, utilitarian objects, or plants and animals. The artist characterizes these in a very concise manner. In spite of his lack of personal initiative, Tschirtner was an entirely independent artist. His style was not influenced by contemporary or traditional art, but nonetheless demonstrates its own distinctive formal idiom. He carries out a formal reduction and abstraction of the depicted subject. Thus, for example, Tschirtner used four contour lines to depict a handkerchief in the simple geometrical form of a square. The contextualization takes place by way of the title, which is found at the upper edge of the picture and was always the fi rst thing placed on the sheet.

In 1973 Navratil also began to provide Tschirtner with source material (such as photos, newspaper clippings, or reproductions of artworks) to draw from. The artist sometimes reproduced the given model in great detail, but always according to his own artistic understanding. Here it is possible to speak of a “second” artistic style in Tschirtner’s work – one that can be very clearly distinguished from his works from memory and particularly from the head-footers.

Thus, for example, physiognomic aspects clearly stand out in his depictions of people. Influenced by his original wish to become a priest, Tschirtner internalized the Christian faith and its commandments and committed them to paper with great sensitivity. We thus find works that revolve around the themes of peace as well as the Ten Commandments, which also found their way onto the paper in textual form and with a reinterpretation of their content.

In addition to content of this kind and titles, writing appears in his works in the form of signatures, which sometimes also consist of his initials O.T., and dates. From 1980 onwards, he primarily created large-format works. In 1983 Tschirtner painted monumental headfooters on the facade of the House of Artists. In 1994 he participated in an initiative of the contemporary art festival Steierischer Herbst (Styrian autumn) and created a 4.5 x 15m (15 x 50 ft.) work that features countless head-footers and can now be found in the villa, the event venue of the museum gugging.


Oswald Tschirtner was born near Vienna, in the town of Perchtoldsdorf, on May 24, 1920. He came from a strict Catholic family: One of his aunts was a nun and one of his uncles a parish priest. As a secondary-school student, he attended the archdiocesan seminary in Hollabrunn, which was a boarding school run by the Catholic Church for boys who wished to become priests. He passed his examinations for an advanced secondary-school degree (Matura) with distinction. In 1939 he was assigned to duty in the German labor service; afterwards, he studied chemistry for 2 1/2 semesters, although he had originally wanted to study theology. He was then conscripted into the German military’s signal corps and deployed in Stalingrad (i.e. Volgograd) as a radio operator. He left Stalingrad with the last group of soldiers to be sent on leave. At the end of the war, he became a French prisoner of war and spent a year in a prison camp in southern France, where he became mentally ill. After returning home to Austria, he was admitted to the psychiatric university hospital in Vienna. From 1947 onwards, he was permanently hospitalized. After stays in institutions lasting several years, he moved to the “Mental Health and Care Facility at Gugging” in 1954 and remained there. Tschirtner was one of the fi rst patients whose artistic talent was discovered and also nurtured by the psychiatrist Leo Navratil. The first drawings that Tschirtner made at Navratil’s request are from the early fifties; they were created in the context of drawing assignments that Navratil incorporated into his psychiatric examinations. Later, in 1959, Tschirtner created drawings of people that are already suggestive of his later style, but are still far from representing his well-known head-footers. This was followed by a hiatus of around ten years. In 1968/69 he created several etchings; in 1970 he then took part in the exhibition “Pareidolien” at the Galerie nächst St. Stephan with three of his etchings. Tschirtner’s successful artistic career began to run its course in 1971. He was part of the fi rst generation of Artists from Gugging, with whom Navratil moved into what is now the House of Artists in 1981. In 1990, together with the Artists from Gugging, he received the Oskar-Kokoschka-Preis for achievements in contemporary art. By the time of his death on May 20, 2007, Tschirtner had already become a very esteemed and – particularly in the fi nal years of his life – very successful artist.

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