“To paint is to dream. When I paint, I dream. When the dream is over, I don’t remember anymore what I’ve dreamt. The painting however is there. It is the harvest of the dream.”
— Friedensreich Hundertwasser
While visiting friends and family in Germany in December, I was lucky enough to see a fantastic Hundertwasser exhibition in the “Buchheim Museum der Phantasien” in Bernried, Bavaria. I’ve been fascinated by Hundertwasser for a long time. His unconventional forms and ideas, his vivid colours, his closeness to nature and his love of beauty has always intrigued me. Years back in Vienna I admired the Hundertwasser House, a unique apartment building, colourful and strangely shaped that features uneven floors (“an uneven floor is a melody to the feet,” Hundertwasser once said), a roof covered with earth and grass, and large trees growing from inside the rooms, with limbs extending from windows. Hundertwasser never lived there, but with this building he saw one of his many dreams and ideas realized by architects Joseph Krawina and Peter Pelican.
There are other buildings where Hundertwasser was at work, e.g. the train station in Uelzen, Germany, that is known as one of the ten most beautiful train stations in the world.
Oh, I wished I would have met him when in Vienna, or in Hamburg, where he once was invited to teach art at the same Art Academy I studied decades later, though he was uninvited shortly after from fear he might harm Hamburg’s reputation after his nude speeches.
Among artists, art historians and architects, Hundertwasser was not always popular during his lifetime. He was called a dilettante, a pleasing decorative painter, a down player, even a populist. Today we know of course that they were wrong and that Hundertwasser was in fact much ahead of his time, that if we had been brave enough and listened to him, we could have slowed down climate change and might be living in harmony with nature instead. We would have realized that his revolutionary ideas made sense, that he was as much an artist as an art theorist, a philosopher as well as an activist. He was unique, peaceful, even shy and he preferred his artwork speak for him in loud colours and unusual forms.
So who was this man that called himself Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser?
He was born as Friedrich (Fritz) Stowasser in Vienna, Austria, in December 1928. After his father died thirteen days after his first birthday from an appendicitis, Fritz Stowasser grew up with his jewish mother. In 1935 she had him baptized catholic – just in case. When Austria joined Nazi Germany in 1938, both were made to live with his grandmother and aunts and in order to protect his relatives the young Stowasser joined the “Hitler Jugend” in 1939. In 1943, 69 of his relatives – including grandmother and aunts – were deported and murdered.
After World War II Vienna was bomb-shattered. There were ruins and craters everywhere, but Stowasser chose to not see the world in ashes and rubble, he noticed weeds grow from the cracks in the concrete and tadpoles swim in the rain filled craters. He saw life where others saw death.
The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno said in 1949, “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” It was actually the conclusion to an essay he wrote, but this conclusion, though later revoked, pretty much explains how most post war artists felt and related to their work. They kept their focus on the incredible terror and injustices they’d witnessed, questioned civilization and provoked their viewers by showing the ugliness and the mundane. It became almost a rule for the post war artist to despise all kinds of beauty.
Not so Stowasser. He wanted to see and preserve the beauty in life and of nature. As a boy he picked flowers on his walks and pressed them between books to preserve them. But disappointed that their vibrant colours vanished in the process, he decided to paint the flowers to keep their brilliance forever. A talented painter from an early age on, Stowasser enrolled at the art academy, but quit already three months into his studies in order to travel. He wanted to see and understand life and learn everything he needed to paint through painting itself. In 1949 he called himself Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Translated from German his new first name means as much as “kingdom of peace,” his last name derived from the realization that “sto” in Russian means hundred. Hundred water.
Besides preserving beauty and nature, Hundertwasser wanted to provoke his viewers and audience to think for themselves instead of following the norm, he wanted individuals, brave enough to step out of their uniforms and comfort zones and become creative. His ideas of the 5 skins became famous and resulted him to become the artist – architect – activist that he was. Some of his ideas were implemented. Some still wait for it to happen.
There’s a story I’m fond of that tells of Hundertwasser having had a cottage in Normandy, France, but close to his country home ran a mayor highway. Like I would, he disliked that highway. It was loud and disturbed him. So he painted his beautiful house and the gorgeous surroundings and instead of leaving it out, he included that highway as a big red line. He even painted a steamer on it. After he finished the painting, he’d made his peace with that highway and even liked it as part of his cottage life. – Therapists picked up on his brilliant method and still use it with many of their patients.
There’s much more to tell about Hundertwasser, from his ideas of recycling and composting, to his painfully slow – vegetative – process of painting, his invention of new printing methods, to sewing his own clothes, to his unique symbols he used throughout his art.
After he died on February 19th 2000, on board of the ship Queen Elizabeth 2, he was buried in the “Garden of the Happy Dead,” New Zealand, the country where he decided to settle. Like in his theory of the ecological form of burial, a tree was planted on his grave. “In this way one has not died,” he once said, “but lives on in the tree: in one’s own physical self one gives nature back something of what we have taken away from her. Hence the good conscience and the happy dead.”
I encourage you to visit Hundertwasser.com to learn more about this unique man and artist. In the meantime I hope you’ll be inspired by some of his colourful “dunkelbunt”paintings underneath…