Embracing an organic modernism


At one of the extremes of 20-century architecture there were the modernists Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier and Bauhaus’ Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. They made impersonal and cool buildings in the “International Style” in vogue at the time that celebrated whiteness, straight lines and steel and glass as primary building materials. The descendents of the style — the box-like apartments and skyscraper office blocks that are ubiquitous in any modern city — function as the architectural emblems of capitalism.

At the other end was the environmentally aware Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000). His current retrospective, “Remainders of an Ideal: The Vision and Practices of Hundertwasser,” is currently showing at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto till May 21, and will travel to the Musee d’art Mercian Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture as of June 10.

A heretic in the face of modernism’s high seriousness, Hundertwasser stood for pretty much everything that the puritanical approach of his fellow Austrian Loos (1870- 1933) and his heirs did not. When Loos wrote that “ornament is excrement,” Hundertwasser opined that “shit is our soul” and adopted the undulating lines and expressive distortions of the waning Art Nouveau movement. When Le Corbusier affirmed that “by law, all buildings should be white,” the guru-architect would abut uneven planes of vermilion, mustard and cerulean on his exteriors. While van der Rohe indulged in minimalist aphorisms like “Less is more,” Hundertwasser would actually discard his clothes to promote flushless, ecologically-friendly toilets.

Hundertwasser had a semi-enduring relationship with Japan that included the design for the exterior of Osaka’s Maishima incineration plant and five year marriage to Yuko Ikewada. The commission for the incineration plant was a ploy to spruce up the image of the man-made island Maishima and its sports facilities in 1997 when the city prepared for a bid to host the Olympics in 2008. As the design adopted environmentally friendly treatment processes, and the Osaka government hired an architect who practiced along similar lines. The building, completed in 2001, is a popular destination for school field trips — particularly for witnessing how the drab business of waste-disposal can be housed in something akin to the wonder world of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

But though Hundertwasser is best known for his building designs, his paintings and prints first brought him international attention after he won the Mainichi Prize at the 6th International Art Exhibition in Tokyo in 1961 and was given a retrospective at the Venice Biennial in 1962.

Artistically, he was first introduced to Japan via Edo Period (1603-1867) woodblock prints of the “floating world” when hitchhiking in Italy prior to the 1960s. Hiroshige’s and Hokusai’s landscapes made such a strong impression that they led to a lifelong commitment to print mediums such as woodblocks and silkscreens.

Hundertwasser was the first European artist to actually have his work cut by Japan’s master carvers, and in the early 1970s, he completed his “Nana-Hyaku-Mizu” series after an 11-year collaboration with Japanese woodblock-cutters and printers. He adored the idea of the Japanese prints’ formative process being the cooperative and successive work of many hands — the designer, the carver, the printer. His prints, though, resemble nothing of the artistic style of his Japanese forebears, except for the traditional kanji seal — Hundertwasser’s is a literal translation of his surname, “Hyaku Mizu (Hundred Water).” Japanese reactions to the works, particularly in his free use of line, were generally favorable, and his first one-man show in 1961 at Takashi Yamamoto’s Tokyo Garo in Ginza sold out.

His style, which he called “Transautomatism,” combined spirals, florid patterns and flamboyant color with influences from European Symbolist and Expressionist painters such as Egon Schiele and moderate doses of Surrealism. He preferred the organic over the mechanical, and eschewed, above all, straight lines, thinking them “godless” as they all looked the same. These tendencies are still visible in late works like the 1980 protest poster “Plant Trees, Avert Nuclear War,” in which a hillside morphs into a human face.

The communal work he discerned in the printmaking was one he thought should be more prominent in architecture. For Hundertwasser, the architect, bricklayer and tenant was a trinity akin to a religious order. The role of the architect was to be that of an adviser, and tenants should be directly responsible for the aesthetic choices and also the actual construction.

Hundertwasser also thought that mankind should not shrink from the human sacrifice that such a new mode of building would entail. But, all that was too much for a modern, functional, and safety-conscious world to accept, and anyway, the Bauhaus lineage had already won out.

Not that Hundertwasser seemed to mind. He passed away in 2000 in his adopted home of New Zealand. The cohabitation with nature he advocated reached its zenith when his remains were buried beneath a tulip tree in the Garden of the Happy Deads.