Stalinist with reassurance

It is an event as strange as it is memorable. The small Barbara Chapel of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna will receive a sculpture of a beatified nun this Wednesday: Restituta Kafka. At the church-politically exciting appointment, the cathedral priest blesses the work; the artist, who likes to call himself a "Stalinist", is expected with great anticipation: Alfred Hrdlicka. And at the end the amateur brass band of the Viennese trammen will make music.

All this has its meaning. The sculpture by the internationally renowned artist Alfred Hrdlicka honors the Franciscan nun Restituta Kafka, who was beatified in 1998. The Nazis had the nun executed in 1943 at the age of 48 for "aiding the enemy and preparing for high treason". This is how Sister Restituta died between communist streetcar drivers. Cathedral priest Toni Faber says her martyrdom stands as a testimony against the brutalization and inhumanity of the 20th century. Century. And in addition to the streetcar drivers of the present day, relatives of murdered resistance fighters will also come to the cathedral. The fact that the 81-year-old Hrdlicka now created the sculpture, the first modern work of art in the "Steffl" for decades, has a prehistory. It says much about the tense dialogue between church and art, which is far less intense in Austria than in Germany. On Hrdlicka's 80th birthday. On the occasion of Alfred Hrdlicka's 50th birthday last February, the Vienna Cathedral Museum presented a show entitled "The Religious in the Work of Alfred Hrdlicka". A picture from the exhibition "Santa Maria delle Grazie – Lionardo's Last Supper, restored by Pier Paolo Pasolini" was removed from the show after a few weeks – at the request of Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, who judged the work to be "blasphemous or pornographic" in a statement. But cathedral priest Faber managed to get the cardinal into the studio to talk with the artist. From this long conversation grew the commission to make a martyr of the church the subject of a work of art. A martyr – that fits with Hrdlicka's work. The work of Austria's most important living artist revolves around the suffering and maltreated human being. In 2007, a 400-page publication of his own was entitled "The Crucified Man in the Work of Alfred Hrdlicka". Vienna tourists know his Holocaust monument in front of the Albertina in Vienna, the street-scrubbing Jew. In Berlin, the pain of the "Plotzenseer Totentanz" speaks for itself. But Hrdlicka and the Church? The sculptor, in failing health, often refers to himself as a Communist or Stalinist, and occasionally as an atheist. Cathedral priest Faber, however, sees him "one hundred percent as a Christian". When the artist speaks of himself as a Stalinist, it is not in rejection of the metaphysical dimension of man. On the contrary, Hrdlicka's work is always characterized by a deeply religious sentiment. The artist, who had a deep interest in the Bible, was with his whole manner and charisma on the pulse of life and "in this sense also pious, because he faces the fractures and questions of life and is not bigoted in doing so". There is an anecdote from Hrdlicka's childhood. A childhood friend put a Bible in front of his door, rang the bell and ran away. Hrdlicka took and read, and to this day he sometimes seems obsessed with the Bible, finding it the most exciting book of all time. In an interview book on the occasion of his birthday in 2008, published by "Neues Deutschland," he discusses the transgressions that occurred to the church in the course of time. And yet praises the speculative thinking of Christianity "as self-protection against the mindlessness that is so very seductive". Companions report that Hrdlicka crosses himself in certain situations. And his wife calls him a "reinsurer". Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral receives a very Viennese work this Wednesday. And the trammen send the brass music.

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