Since writing The Divided Heart, I’ve been surprised (in a very low-key way) that no-one’s ever asked me who is the male European artist I mention in the conclusion to the book. So obviously you’re not all dying to know — but I’m going to tell you anyway, because he is such an important artist for all sorts of other reasons.
When I was 21 I did the backpacking through Europe thing that us Australians do, and while in Venice, my travelling companions and I decided to take a ferry to the island of Giudecca.
There, in a restaurant, we happened to meet New Zealand painter Thomas Lauterbach and Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), who’s work you probably recognise, even if you do not know his name. (They helped us to order after catching us struggling to communicate with our Italian waiter.) He is probably most famous for his incredible block of flats in Vienna, known as Hundertwasserhaus.
Here is not the place to write about this encounter in any detail, but it meant my friends and I had the great privilege not only of meeting this phenomenal person but also of visiting Venice’s largest private garden, which Hundertwasser then owned. He took us on a walk amid antique statues, along trellised walkways and veiled nooks, to arrive at an old Istrian stone water gate overlooking the Venetian lagoon.
Once a tame English garden, Hundertwasser had let it run free, its knotted undergrowth a wild mass of nettles and brambles, a site for his ecological experiments, including humus toilets. I have since discovered that Hundertwasser’s decision to let the garden become overgrown was controversial, as you can read here if interested.
The garden has a fascinating history — apparently a place that countless writers (Maeterlinck, Proust, Rilke, James) visited and where ‘Alexandra of Greece’ (otherwise known as the Queen of Yugoslavia) famously went mad. The giardino edino, as the estate is known in Venice, was also the location of a famous quarrel between an unknown American and a young school friend of Cocteau called Raymond Laurent, which climaxed with Laurent committing suicide on the steps of the Salute church.
Hundertwasser, as I mentioned in The Divided Heart, treated his whole life as an artistic project. As an environmentalist he was visionary. Central to his work was his rebellion against “the tyranny of the straight line”, which he saw as inorganic, sterile and Godless. He believed in making the world a more beautiful place, and his architectural designs included rooftop gardens and bottle houses and flush-less toilets.
He spent much of his later life living in New Zealand, on a rural property in the Bay of Islands, where he fought hard for the right to be buried in his garden of the Happy Dead, under a tulip tree.
There is so much I could say about Hundertwasser — more than I can fit into a short post here — but I was and continue to be full of admiration for his determination to use the universal language of art to make political statements, whether it be for peace, ecology, against nuclear power, or for buildings befitting humanity and nature. He was an environmentalist well before such a thing as the environment movement existed.
I think Hundertwasser is constantly underestimated — mostly, it seems, because he was considered an exhibitionist and blatant self-promoter. (He was a nudist for a time a la Lennon, in the name of peace.)
But I, personally, feel blessed to have met him.