The Uneven Path
Hundertwasser in Vienna
Humans have more than just eyes to enjoy beautiful things and ears to hear beautiful sounds and noses to smell beautiful smells. Humans can also feel with their hands and feet. The flat floor with straight lines has been recognized as a real danger to humans. The uneven path becomes a symphony, a melody for the feet. This path makes one vibrate with joy.
I was in Vienna, sitting in the cafe of the KunstHausVien which must be the most disorienting museum in the world. When I looked at the floor, I saw it rise and dip like sand dunes, and when I looked at the multi-colored ceramic pillars, they tilted dangerously. Yet, this uncertainty delighted me for I had made a journey of 12 thousand miles and 24 years to get here: the museum designed by and devoted to the art of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, one of Austria's best known artists and architects.
I was living in New Zealand, when I first heard of Hundertwasser. In 1973 he brought an exhibit of his extraordinary prints to Wellington's Dominion Museum. Tall and bearded, in a flannel shirt and hiking boots, Hundertwasser looked like a woodcutter returned from the forest. I had no idea at the time then that he would become an Austrian icon, referred to reverently as "The Master," and that his museum and the buildings the designed would be listed as important Vienna landmarks, top tourist attractions, listed just below the Spanish Riding School and the Schonbrunn Palace.
At the exhibit I fell in love with Hundertwasser's shimmering fantasies with intriguing titles: "Blood Flowing in a Circle and I have a Bicycle" or "The Painters Have Houses to Pray but Do Not Use Them." I bought a small book, about the artist, and over the years have returned to it, each time gaining new insight into the mind of an extreme non-conformist who rails against the de-humanizing of our environment. Hundertwasser celebrates the handmade and the organic, but he also reveres that which is childlike and rebellious. Calling himself an "architect doctor" Hundertwasser has both shocked and delighted his compatriots by turning mundane buildings into colorful toy-like fantasies. In Vienna, the Spittelau Garbage Incineration Plant, for example, was transformed by Hundertwasser into psychedelic mosque-like creation with a dazzling gold minaret The Bad Fischau Highway Inn, a pre-fab 1950's diner, 45 miles south of Vienna, is now topped by Hundertwasser's blue octagonal observation tower which in turn is topped by a live fir tree. The artist has also painted rainbow colors on an old twelve-ton freighter which he calls "Rainy Day," and which serves as his second home on the Danube. However, there's, no better example of his bold spirit than the Hundertwasser Haus, a Vienna public housing project he designed in 1983. The HundertwasserHaus was actually a rather dreary gray-brick apartment building until Hundertwasser decided to "return dignity to the dweller" by re-designing it inside and out. I was so eager to see this structure that when I arrived in Vienna I headed straight for it, completely forgetting to bring my map. Yet, in the trim middle-class neighborhood of Hapsburg-era houses, I couldn't not find it. Pundits have remarked that a Hundertwasser building looks like circus clowns were let loose with giant crayons. I stood on the sidewalk opposite the apartment building, astonished by blue, orange, yellow white and brown walls, wavy roofs, planted with mini-meadows and crowned with gold onion towers, a concrete arch decorated with unevenly distributed mirror fragments, multi-colored tiles that float over the walls like party streamers and hundreds of gaily painted windows, so small and unexpectedly placed that they looked like a stamp collection dropped from Heaven. On the cornices, windowsills and gables of the apartment rise an odd assortment of statuary: bright yellow bowling pins, Greek goddesses, lions, red Santa hats. And as if all this weren't enough, trees sprout from the windows. These "tree tenants," as Hundertwasser calls them, exemplify his philosophy of returning greenery to the city. The tree tenants cleansing the air and purifying the water is their "rent."
Now sixty nine, Master Hundertwasser is as eccentric and rebellious as ever. He has written numerous treatises railing against drab color and the "godless straight line." In one, called the Manifesto of Tenant's Rights he recites his idiosyncratic philosophy of human liberation, a tract that reads like a collaboration of Karl Marx and the Mad Hatter:
Renters must be able to lean out of their windows and scratch off all the plaster within reach. And they must be permitted to paint everything pink within reach of a long brush so that it can be seen from a distance, from the street that a human lives there!
If the exterior of the HundertwasserHaus would make Gaudi look dowdy, the interior is just as fanciful. The staircase weaves as in a fun house. The trail to the apartment house cafe leads over pieces of a gravestone, and a play center, called the "Adventure Room," has a floor that not only sports a window, but undulates so much, kids use it as a slide--- that is -- when they're not drawing on the walls for as the Manifesto declares:
"Children must be able to scribble, paint and scratch all public walls as high as their arms can reach."
Wildly painted bathrooms abound with pelicans, cacti and butterflies and the "tile graffiti" of the individual tilers. Most curious, each bathroom has an elaborate toilet flushing system by which the occupant must flush their empty toilets a required number of times a day to water the "tree tenants."
Walls that roll in and out like sea waves, an underground garage where each parking space is marked by a different flower mosaic, and coats of arms from demolished buildings and a small shopping village from an old tire factory are just some of the eye-tickling features of this unique dwelling.
The HundertwasserHaus whetted my appetite for more things wild and witty. I was in luck for the KunstHausVien, Hundertwasser's four-story museum dedicated to himself, is just two streets away.
As unconventional as the apartment, the museum also houses temporary exhibits and serves as a gathering place for artists. The November day I visited though it was crowded with school children and tourists. I squeezed my way through them to buy a ticket and saw that it was made of very thick cardboard, hard as wood, and on both sides of its odd shape, showed a picture of the museum that twinkled in the light. I stuck it in my purse to keep as a souvenir, then proceeded upstairs to the first floor which holds a spectacular joyous mural and many of the original paintings and prints I had so loved in New Zealand. Hundertwasser's paintings are characterized by Oriental decorativeness, luxurious color and rich texture --- paintings that seem influenced both by Austrian Baroque and Vienna's early-twentieth century Jugendstil artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
Born in Vienna in 1928 as Friedrich Stowasser, the artist, at the age of 22 gave himself the name "Hundertwasser" (Hundred Waters) and had his first exhibit in Paris. Early on, architecture played a large part in his paintings; its relationship to human welfare and the dignity of life. One of his best known paintings "The Houses are Hanging Underneath the Meadows" for example, conveys his idea that the "horizontal belongs to nature; the vertical to man." The picture shows a ziggurat planted with gardens and a building with each floor and roof turned into a meadow. His idea was that if humans were to build like this, an aerial landscape would show an unaltered terrain --- every horizontal surface planted with greenery. Railing against the grayness of most architecture, Hundertwasser's paintings show worlds that contain hundreds of colors; he believes that diversity of color is symbolic of paradise.
In the early 60s Hundertwasser collaborated with Japanese master woodblock printers in Tokyo, learning to employ traditional Japanese perspective and calligraphy into his works. Eschewing store bought paints, he makes his own by grinding inorganic materials: bricks, volcanic sand, earth, coal, and white lime then mixing them with egg or acrylic or wax. The result is paint that's rougher in texture and contains what he calls, "more soul." Hundertwasser's technical originality challenged the very printing process itself. In the late 60s, he introduced into graphic printing the use of phosphorescent and fluorescent colors as well as metal embossing, techniques which have now become his signature. Hundertwasser used these techniques to the utmost in one of his most famous images, "Irinaland Over the Balkans" (1969.) The image shows a woman's face floating over the countryside, her omnipresence symbolizing an obsessive memory for a lost love. This print not only pushed the envelope of the printing process at the time, but must have pushed the printer to a nervous breakdown for 31colors had to register perfectly and two of the colors were phosphorescent so that Irina's eyes and lips shine seductively.
Because Hundertwasser believes that even prints must be "original," he painstakingly primes each sheet with an egg tempera colored with brick dust that he applies with a palette knife to the sheet before printing so that many of his lithographs, are, in fact, both a print and a painting. This method was no small feat for "Good Morning City: Bleeding Town" which was produced in a run of 10,002 --- each sheet different from every other.
I wandered through the museum, gradually hypnotized by the prints' brilliant colors and luminescence. Surrounded by over-wide black mats and deep black frames, and strategically spotlit, the pictures appear to float in space. The effect is dramatic, even theatrical. The pictures gleam and glitter. Their dazzle is no accident for Hundertwasser believes:
"The arts should be positive free, romantic, beautiful, something like a jewel..."
The top floor has yet more drawings and a garden fountain that recycles its own water. There's also a display of the flags Hundertwasser created as well as the stamps he has designed for Senegal and the United Nations. Here too you can see his models and designs he has done for a host of other buildings such as the grain silo of Krems, the Rupertinum Museum in Salzburg, the Rosenthal factory in Selb, and the Beaux Arts Museum in Brussels. His most recent design is a fairy-tale resort that opened this year in May in the small town of Blumau, an hour and a half drive south of Vienna.. Called Rogner-Bad Blumau, this spa-resort bills itself as "the world's largest habitable work of art." and features Hundertwasser's signature design elements --- undulating walls, bright colors and onion domes --- as well as golf, swimming pools and a variety of health treatments.
I had wound my way up and around the museum but at last, leg-weary, I made my way down the steep spiraling stairs to the cafe to have a coffee. By now I was certainly feeling the magic. Yet still, I found that sitting at a table on an undulating floor has one distinct disadvantage. My chair wobbled madly, without warning, tipping me backward or pitching me forward, and sloshing my coffee into a saucer puddle.
On my way out I stopped by the museum gift shop which is filled with Hundertwasser objets d'art, both kitschy and classy. Here one can buy Hundertwasser umbrellas, earrings, necklaces, mugs, scarves, pens, puzzles, post cards, calendars, key chains, tea sets and ties. I contented myself with a large book about the artist, an advent calendar ( you open the little windows of the Hundertwasser Haus) and Hundertwasser stationery made for computer printers.
I walked out of the museum, turned a corner and came again upon city streets lined with Hapsburg-era houses that now seemed to me as gray and somber as a row of soldiers.
That night I began to read my new Hundertwasser book and so learned too late that the museum tickets were designed by the Master to serve as wedges under the cafe chair legs.
Postscript. Fredenreich Hundertwasser died aboard the QEII on February 19, 2000 and is buried according to his wishes in harmony with nature on his land in New Zealand in the Garden of the Happy Deads, under a tulip tree.
Seeing Hundertwasser's Art
The KunstHausWien is at #13 Untere Weissgerberstrasse and is open daily from 10:00am to 7:00pm. Admission is $8.00) and $3.50 for students and seniors. Guided tours are available Sunday, Monday and public holidays from 11:00 to noon and upon request. The telephone number is (1) 712-04-91. Take streetcar N or O to Radetzkyplatz.
The HundertWasserHaus is at the corner of Kegelgasse and Lowengasse. Subway stop: Schwedenplatz, then streetcar N to Hetzgasse. The apartment is open to the public by appointment only through the KunstHausVien. Vienna offers visitors a "Hundertwasser Tour" on a river boat, the "MS Vindobona." The boat sails up the Danube with a full restaurant on board. An all day ticket costs $12.00 for adults, and $6.00 for children 10 to 15. Children under 10 ride free. The 90 minute tour on the Danube Canal is a relaxing way to see Vienna's oldest church, the Rupechtskirche, the Spittelau Incineration Plant, and various beautiful Jugendstil (Austrian Art Nouveau) buildings. The tour starts at Schwedenplatz, sails up the Little Danube and then back down to the Hundertwasser KunstHausVien and the Hundertwasser Haus. Coffee and cake are included in the tour and it is said that the boat can "dance the waltz" on the water. Departure times are 11:00, 1:00, 3:00 and 5:00 from the DDSG Station in Schwedenbrucke at Schweden Platz.
For information/reservations at the Hundertwasser-designed Rogner-Bad Blumau resort-spa south of Vienna, tel. 011-43-1-802-2341, fax 011-43-1-802-2477.
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Photos: Hundertwasser Haus; Rogner-Bad Blamau.
Below: Hundertwasser paintings
1972- Green Power
1974- Conservation Week