The Zen of Hundertwasser

The Belvedere considers how the famous artist was influenced by Far East Asia


By Melody Ishin Hsiao

At the Belvedere Palace and Museum, it is common to see tourists rushing to see the famous “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt. However, this spring the museum is rediscovering the early works of another Viennese artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

The exhibition Hundertwasser, Japan and the Avant-Garde, at Orangery, Lower Belvedere, examines Japanese cultural influences on the artist and his international peers in the post World War II era, as they embraced Far Eastern philosophy in the midst of the avant-garde movement.

Hundertwasser “found his answers in connection with other artists and in connection to Asian philosophies and religions, and all these things went into his art,” said exhibit curator Axel Köhne.

To obtain a general understanding of Hundertwasser’s work in Vienna, one would expect to go to the Hundertwasserhaus, the quirky signature apartment house that has no straight lines, or the Kunsthaus Wien museum, which houses the largest collection of the artist’s work. The exhibition at the Belvedere is different because it brings a new perspective to Hundertwasser, Köhne said, adding that it is the first such show in an Austrian national museum since 1965. The Belvedere aims to break some myths surrounding the artist possibly best known in Vienna as the man who made an incinerator into a work of art.

“If you asked people to tell me something about Hundertwasser, they probably will answer that he did this very crazy architecture. In a way he is esoteric, and he is doing these kitschy spirals, [but] they were not thinking about where it came from and why,” Köhne said.

For this exhibition, Köhne and his colleague Harald Krejci focused on Hundertwasser’s early paintings, from 1949 to 1961, to reveal his active role in connecting artists involved in the avant-garde intellectual scene in Paris in the 1950s exploring Far Eastern philosophical concepts, like Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

The Kunsthaus loaned the Belvedere six art pieces. The rest of Hundertwasser’s works come from museums in foreign countries and private collections. Some of them have not been shown for a long time in Austria, and others are being shown for the first time, according to Köhne.

The exhibit also intertwines the Austrian’s work with contemporaries from all over the world, like Japanese-born Shinkichi Tajiri or Frenchman Yves Klein, Argentine Lucio Fontana and American artists Sam Francis and Mark Tobey. Some of them had traveled to Japan, and others had gathered in Paris to study art during that time. Each influenced the other; all were taken with Zen Buddhism philosophy.

"The Big Way" (1955) Friedensreich Hundertwasser © 2012 Namida AG, Glarus / Schweiz
"Spiral of Tears with Kito in the Corner" (1962) Friedensreich Hundertwasser & Akira Kito © 2013 NAMIDA AG, Glarus / Schweiz
Friedensreich Hundertwasser with his painting "The First Spiral". Photo © Keisuke Kojima
Exhibition view © Belvedere, Vienna
Exhibition view © Belvedere, Vienna
Exhibition view © Belvedere, Vienna


The exhibition also shows traces of how the artists had been influencing each other. The friendship between the artists is also illustrated in the exhibition, as evinced through exchanges of artwork. Hundertwasser gave Tajiri his paintings, while Tajiri returned the favor with his sculpture. Additionally, Hundertwasser portrayed Akiro Kito, a friend and fellow artist, in his work, “Spiral with Tears with Kito in the Corner.”

The use of bright and intense colors that create strong contrasts, graphic vegetative curves and spirals, and child-like repetitive architectural codes are the signatures of Hundertwasser’s work, but the exhibit wishes to illustrate that his work was more complex. With this exhibition, the Belvedere aims to establish Hundertwasser as a serious artist.

“We tried to show that he is not this crazy, lonely, ego-shooter, but he is a really well-connected, communicative guy. He was part of this really big art scene and intellectual people in Paris,” Köhne said.

Köhne thinks that even today, Hundertwasser’s ideas can still resonate with visitors. Hundertwasser was a vanguard of his time and a strong proponent of issues like sustainability. He understood that world was becoming increasingly complex. These topics did not go away, and they are more pressing now than ever, he said.

Because Hundertwasser witnessed the destruction of Vienna during World War II and its reconstruction after, “he was really thinking about art as other artists did in the 50s…how to react to the problems of that time,” Köhne said. “[For Hundertwasser] art is not just the university thing; you have to go out and do something and not just sit in front of the canvas.”

Hundertwasser looked for solutions and obtained inner peace through artistic expression influenced by Eastern philosophy. “I think if you get close to his work, he really has something to say [about] the problems we have today,” Köhne said.

Hundertwasser, Japan and the Avant-Garde

Orangery, Lower Belvedere 
Through 30 June, 2013
Daily, 09:00-18:00
Wednesdays, 10:00-21:00

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