The artist and prophet Friedensreich Hundertwasser saw himself as nature’s advocate

Friedensreich Hundertwasser was an Austrian pacifist, cosmopolitan, painter, traveler and a champion of protecting nature all rolled into one. He saw nature as our most precious asset and the source of universal harmony. Small wonder, then, that his work was inspired by nature and that Hundertwasser put himself in nature's service. He rejected straight lines, because these do not exist in the natural world. This attitude shaped his paintings and the buildings he designed. Hundertwasser devoted himself to protecting nature from being abused by humans and damaged by industry. He wrote manifestos and organized happenings and protest campaigns. He published his manifesto "Dein Fensterrecht -- Deine Baumpflicht" (Your Window Right -- your Tree Duty) in 1972. In this, he argues the case for the planting of rooftop vegetation and individual facade design. Previously, he had published the "Verschimmelungsmanifest gegen den Rationalismus in der Architektur" (Moldering Manifesto against Rationalism in Architecture), a fundamental statement on the sociology of habituation. He saw mold as a kind of ally that collects in the corners of rooms, softening or rounding off the rationalist architecture. He discussed plant-based sewage plants and humus toilets, designed environmentalist posters and had planted 60.000 trees world-wide by the year 1998.

A universal harmony

Hundertwasser was born Friedrich Stowasser in Vienna in 1928. He survived the Nazi annexation of Austria thanks to his mother, who made him wear a swastika armband and enrolled him in the Hitler Youth in 1942. She was Jewish but he had had a Catholic baptism: "I was safe because I was classified as a half-Jew, and my Jewish mother was safe because she had a half-Jewish son." In the post-War years, he swapped his stamp collection for food parcels. He nurtured contacts all over the world, to Ceylon, Zanzibar, Algeria and the United States, writing letters in German, English and French (later on he also spoke Italian and some Japanese, Russian, Czech and Arabic). He kept a copy of every letter he wrote and every letter he received.

The postage stamp saved his life again in his later years, when it became the bearer of his message -- universal harmony -- spreading this message across the world by mail all by itself. Hundertwasser designed postage stamps for Austria, Cuba, Senegal and even the UN. In 1990 he wrote, almost lovingly: "A real stamp must feel the tongue of the sender when he moisturizes the glue ... a stamp has to experience the dark interior of a letterbox. The stamp has to endure the rubber stamp at the post office. The stamp has to feel the postman's hand when he hands the letter to the recipient. The stamp that hasn't been sent to someone on a letter is not a stamp. It has never lived." (in: Pierre Restany: The power of art: Hundertwasser, The painter-king with the five skins)

No straight lines

In 1948-9, Stowasser enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and in the subsequent period started to sign his paintings as Hundertwasser. He did not, however, study intensively in Vienna, as he travelled to Italy three months after matriculating and from there on to Paris. Travelling remained important to him throughout his life. He travelled to Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily, bought a farm house in Normandy, married and got divorced. In 1959 he was made guest professor at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, but this connection did not last very long either. He painted the endless line together with his students in his classroom. He was dismissed from the university during this performance. He travelled to Japan, where he married again. Four years later he divorced, again. In 1973 he discovered New Zealand for himself, and in the following time he spent half of every year here. He built a house in the midst of nature and lived almost entirely self-sufficiently. 1980 was an important year for him as the model for the Hundertwasser house was presented in Vienna, marking the beginning of his career as an architect. Some of his buildings can be marveled at in Frankfurt and the surrounding area, too: the kindergarten in Heddernheim, Darmstadt's forest-spiral and the "In den Wiesen" housing estate in Bad Soden.

Hundertwasser's buildings are unmistakable -- there really is nothing else like them. Even in architecture, Hundertwasser refused to use straight lines. He wanted to live in harmony with nature, which is why he advocated an architecture that was humane and in unity with nature, an organic architecture.

Laid to rest under a tulip tree

One of the symbols we encounter in Hundertwasser's work again and again is the spiral. It is a symbol for the artist's worldview and his relationship to external reality. Hundertwasser says that humans have five skins: their natural skin, their clothing and their dwelling, the skin of social environment (a person's family, friends and nation) and a global skin. This outer skin is affected by the biosphere or air quality. In the context of this notion it is not surprising that Hundertwasser painted his "Bleeding Houses" paintings in 1952, commenting on these later on as follows: "the organism house lives, feels joy and pain. Its skin, the outer walls, bleed like the human skin."

Friedensreich Hundertwasser died on his return journey from New Zealand to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 2000. He was buried under a tulip tree in New Zealand, without a coffin, naked and wrapped in a koru flag, according to his wishes. He had designed this flag in 1983 as an alternative to the existing New Zealand flag, which many see as being a mere reminder of the British colonial rule.

P.S. Those who encountered Latin at German schools or universities know this book: “Stowasser” the German-Latin school dictionary. Friedensreich Hundertwasser re-designed the book cover in 1994, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the dictionary’s publication – in 100 different versions, of course. The identical names are no accident, either. Joseph Maria Stowasser, an Austrian teacher, ancient philologist and the dictionary’s founder, was one of his ancestors. But how did Friedrich Stowasser arrive at his artist’s name, Friedensreich Hundertwasser – which, translated to English, means peaceful kingdom hundred waters? His first name came about in the early 1960s in Japan, when he translated Friedrich into Japanese using the characters “peace” and “kingdom”. From then on, he called himself Friedensreich. And “sto” is Slavic for “hundred”.

Find out more about “Artists and Prophets” in the film on the exhibition: