Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The artist I met in Venice

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.

15 comments:

Kerry said...

Amazing! Thanks for sharing that. I visited Hundertwasserhaus once, and think about it all the time.

Damon said...

I am Damon's raging jealousy.

Emma Kirsopp said...

Wow, what a privilege! Its always such a wonderful thing to meet the human being behind such great work.

little red hen said...

Oh I am quite jealous. I love his work and often introduce the kids in my art classes to his wonderful houses. They have come up with some fantastic magical art works as a result. My school also has a sustainability focus so it blends beautifully.

Elk said...

What a wonderful story... I rather like hundertwasser house, I had a lovely time visiting his buildings in Vienna and engaging with his work... fabulous that you met him

Damon said...

Oh. I was talking about the garden...

(As intriguing as Hundertwasser is.)

Rachel Power said...

I guessed that, Damon. Ah, to be a garden stomped on by Henry James, hey?...

gretchenmist said...

wow, i don't blame you for feeling blessed! that would've been so interesting to meet him. vienna = art heaven.
i'm surprised too that i didn't actually wonder who you were referring to {strange i think}.

{ooops, wrote this hours ago before leaving the house then forgot to do the word verification, so it didn't publish. thanks for your comment :) }

hedda said...

dear Rachel,
What a keep sake memory! How extraordinary...helping you to order,and taking you to visit his garden!!
I am so curious to read about the... male European artist in the conclusion of your book!!
h

B said...

He sounds very interesting. It's great when the personality of the artist matches the art, isn't it?

Gondal-girl said...

What a fabulous story - when I was at school my art teacher showed us a doco on Hundertwasser - I loved how he said the rain made colours more beautiful

simmone said...

wow - i have a tiny little book by Hundertwasser and for a long time didn't know who he was - just thought he was some kind of outsider artist - the internet can be handy thing ... but I didn't know about roof gardens. Lucky you! I have to go and reread TDH now...

Rachel Power said...

Thanks everyone for those comments. I keep thinking I should write a more detailed article about meeting Hundertwasser--about the fact that he played footsies with us under the restaurant table (yep, plenty of cheek), about his numerous sets of wooden clogs beside his pot-belly stove, and the fact that he chose to live in the workers' cottage rather than the stately home or modern structure that also existed on the property. About his studio with Shiele reproductions and pages ripped from girlie magazines stuck around the walls, about his horror that we were staying in a convent dorm beneath a giant, tortured image of a dying Jesus nailed to the cross above our beds... These are the lovely details I remember.

cristy said...

Oh I only just finished your book and was very curious about who the mysterious artist was. I did think that it must be something that you wanted to keep private though, since you introduce him in the way you do. Perhaps a similar feeling has been behind the absence of inquiries?

I loved the book, btw, and plan to write a review soon... once I can find the time while juggling my toddler and a PhD...

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