The work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser is one of Austria’s most significant contributions to art history in post-war modernism. In spite of his immense popularity, which the skilled networker and ambitious artist attained early in his career, the myth of the lone genius and eccentric outsider prevails to this day. In the exhibition Hundertwasser, Japan and the Avant-Garde the Belvedere has set out to rediscover the artist’s early work. A thematic approach places Hundertwasser in the context of the avant-garde movement, aiming to counter this myth and reveal new ways of looking at his art as a whole. In doing so, the exhibition explores the artist’s connections with Japan in the 1950s and his significance within the international avant-garde movement. For the first time in Vienna the show is bringing together masterpieces by Hundertwasser and works by Shinkichi Tajiri, Akira Kito, Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, Pierre Alechinsky, Constant, Corneille, Sam Francis, and Mark Tobey. Another first is that these artists are being shown with Hundertwasser from the point of view of the Far Eastern influences on their work.
A Nonconformist Pioneer of the Avant-Garde
As revealed by the many documents that were researched for this exhibition, Friedensreich Hundertwasser was an adept networker and determined artist, who achieved high prices for his work on the international art market even in the mid-1950s. At the same time he was seen as a mysterious and misunderstood outsider as his attitude toward art and life, which he wanted to see closely linked, did not conform to traditional Western ways of thinking.
Far Eastern Wisdom as a Source of Inspiration
In the 1950s many artists approached their metier in an unprecedented way by defining the relationship between artist and viewer and work and world in a new and abstract manner. Far Eastern philosophers became a vital source of inspiration – the holistic view of art at the time often looked toward process-oriented ways of thinking from China and Japan. In addition, Zen Buddhism provided a welcome stimulus for many artists in North America and Europe. Hundertwasser was able to combine this age-old Far Eastern wisdom with Europe’s scientific and analytical traditions of thought to interpret these in his own way for his art. His key work The Big Way from the Belvedere’s collection is a classic example of the interplay between Far Eastern philosophy and Western abstract art.
The Cult around Art and around Life
The exhibition is divided into six themes – Architecture, Garden, Japan, The Line, Journey – Way – Process, and Freedom and Abstraction. Architecture addresses Hundertwasser’s plea for individual creative freedom – everybody can, should and must build –, while Garden illustrates his early interest in Japanese garden culture and the ecological awareness this awakened in him. The Line focuses on how Hundertwasser introduced the vegetative spiral, embodying the processes of nature and life in his art, and Journey – Way – Process as well as Freedom and Abstraction demonstrate how the processes of painting, living, and reflection always coincided in his work and free thinking took precedence over art’s formal criteria. For the first time the exhibition is uniting works by Hundertwasser with those of his companions and colleagues, who also found inspiration for their art by studying Far Eastern philosophy.