TAPE-RECORDED LETTER BY HUNDERTWASSER TO THE STUDENTS OF THE MASTER SCHOOL AT THE ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS IN VIENNA
Today is May 12, 1982. I am in New Zealand.
It is already pretty cold here by now, May being about what November is in Europe. It is now a quarter past ten in the evening; in Vienna it is a quarter past noon. Here everything is the other way round. Here you see the Southern Cross, warmth comes from the north, cold from the south. You are surely wondering why I am staying away so long, but the main reason for it is that I don’t think one can learn anything at the Academy; only the weak go to the Academy; only the weak think they can study art, that they can learn art.
Either you have it in you like an inspiration which suddenly comes, or you look and look and usually don’t find it. Either you have the gifts you have been endowed with already as a child, from birth, or you don’t. But if you have these gifts, you run the greatest risk at the Academy or at any school or any association with other people of losing the most precious of all the assets in your possession: of losing your own self. But if you have not found your own self or have lost it and want to recover it, the Academy is the worst possible place.
For there you are exposed to influences which do not fit you, and there is a very great danger of adopting something which you then imagine to be yourself, as it were, that you recognise yourself in the knowledge and actions of other people, that you identify with something that is not yourself, with something you would like to be but aren’t and then suffer from it all your life. It is as if you had put on a false skin or donned clothes which don’t fit and now wanted to grow into these clothes, so to speak.
That is why I told you at the outset, as you’ll recall, to bring in your own childhood drawings. Everyone should begin at the point where he was still himself, before he was inundated, before he was alienated, by his parental home, by the system of upbringing, by school, by the customary ways of our civilisation. For one can only continue building from the ground up. That is the only solid, secure, unshakeable basis, one’s own origins. It is irrelevant what these childhood drawings look like. One can only build on this basis; otherwise it is a castle in the air, a house of cards which will collapse. You can’t build by putting heavy bricks on flimsy matchboxes.
Since you of course don’t want to go home – just as I experienced once before, when I taught briefly in Hamburg – I want each of you to remember who you are by having your own berth, your own world, your own house in the Master School, where you come into as little contact as possible with what is around you. You should then regard this berth, this world, as your origin, around which everything will be built. That is the centre of activity, so to speak. This berth should be closed off from external influences, from influences of your neighbours and in particular from my own influence.
For nothing is more dangerous than to try to subject yourself to my influence, to the influence of the master, in the parlance of the Master School. That is extremely dangerous. You must go your own way, and I must stress once again: if anyone paints similarly to the way I do, or even vaguely approaches it, he must leave; then there is just no point to it. For me it is embarrassing, and for the person who does it, it is a death sentence.
The next question is why I put trees in the classrooms. It is perfectly clear: art and nature have a lot to do with one another. Art is the bridge between man and nature. Art is not the bridge between people. What art is, must be worked out by everyone for himself in a dialogue with nature. Man cannot be creative the way creation was, the way God creates trees, nature, plants, brings forth flowers, brings forth worlds which then go on existing of their own accord and, thanks to an incredible diversity, have a raison d’être of their own and form an interlinking clockwork: man cannot do that, no matter how much he exerts his intellect.
On the contrary, the harder he exerts his intellect, the less progress is made. Man only makes progress when he lets other things work, apart from his intellect. His intellect should only be a cause for him to control himself, but not to be haughty towards nature. Man achieves nothing by force; the artist, in particular, achieves nothing by force. The era when the artist was a dictator is coming to a close. The artist can only be a mediator between man and nature if he has special antennae, if he is a medium, as it were, a receiving station, if he can listen, if he can be a tool for this certain something which comes from somewhere else. If he can throw open gates to another, better, more beautiful world, to a more genuine world.
And that is a parallel world. That is a world which we sometimes get hold of in dreams. Of course it would be completely wrong, in turn, to take drugs to reach that world. You don’t reach that world with drugs, and if you did, it wouldn’t do you any good because you would destroy yourself in the process. You can only enter that world with the full consciousness of your spiritual powers and as a go-between, that is to say as a very gentle, careful listener. If one has observed and listened well, with humility, so to speak, then it is possible to know that world and impart that fantastic world which is inside one and also all around one, and when one gets hold of that world, one is overwhelmed by a feeling of great happiness. Then one feels not only satisfied with oneself – for painting is not only a self-healing activity, after all – but should in addition also be able to have an effect on other people.
But if one wants to arrive at greater truth in larger dimensions, one which also concerns other people, one has to listen more deeply, of course, and set one’s own ego aside, put one’s own intellect even further away – but not criticism of oneself. Dalí said a very good thing: “la méthode paranoya critique”, that is, one should be abnormal, but at the same time have a self-critical attitude towards this abnormality. This seeming contradiction is very important in painting, however. On the one hand one should and must let oneself go, drift and flow, as it were, the way a cloud drifts along and a river flows, and the way the grass grows and a flower opens up; on the other hand one must be critical of oneself.
As art is a bridge between man and nature, it is of utmost importance that one compares what one does with the achievements, with the creativity of nature. If what one does oneself can withstand a comparison with nature, comparison with a leaf, with a tree, then one can be very content. The growth of plants is an amazing thing. The plants yawn and stretch, wrinkle their leaves if something happens that they don’t like, and they smooth themselves out, turning this way and that – and not just towards the light, but also towards things they like, and turning away from things they dislike, and from people they dislike.
But this happens in such a slow rhythm that the human eye does not register these things as movement. Art has estranged and removed itself from nature so much in the last hundred years or more and has become so arrogant, dictatorially arrogant, that it is really high time for it to turn back. Artists must once again be able to think in terms of biology and plants and vegetation.
Organic thinking – a correspondence with organic growth – happens on many levels. That is not so simple; indeed, there are many ways to get closer to nature. One way is to copy it down, similarly to the way Dürer did; the other way is to perform actions on paper or in the painting which correspond to the growth of plants, that is, one tries to paint the way the plant grows. Something comes into being in and of itself. And that is true creation. As I said, one can also copy things down. By copying I mean not only the photographic copying down or artistic drawing, similarly to the way Dürer did it when he drew some grass or a rabbit. That is not photographic, there are a lot of other things in it, as well. By copying down I also mean when one copies down one’s own dreams, one’s inner world. The Surrealists, the Vienna School, that is, tries to copy dreams down to the minutest detail. One has a vision, one sees something with one’s own eyes, and wants to eternalise it. That is copying down, too.
The next step is to make something come about very slowly. That requires a lot of concentration, of course, and is only rarely successful. Very important is the love of eternity and the love of paint and material. The love of eternity – well, that brings me back to plants. The movements of plants are so slow that they are not seen by the naked eye, but only with the aid of time-lapse devices. If the artist paints quickly, the painting will only endure as long as the moment lasts in which he paints it. The viewer of the painting will only derive pleasure from it for a moment and then turn to other things. A moment-painting is like a flash photograph: taken in a moment, quickly made and quickly forgotten.
The longer the period of time the painting embodies, the longer this painting will endure. One need only think of the “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. It is said of this painting that Leonardo worked on it for twenty, thirty years, that he began it as a portrait of a young girl, who then slowly became a mature woman. Maybe he even changed the model, or he portrayed himself; perhaps the features of several people are interwoven in this portrait – but in any case, a great deal of time was painted into it.
The slower one paints, the more, the deeper one penetrates the secrets of paint. For painting is like prayer; painting is a religious activity. That cannot be done quickly. A great deal of devotion is needed to accomplish such a thing. A person who produces something offhandedly or thoughtlessly is himself the first to suffer. But by this I do not mean the attempts by Tachism to eliminate the intellect and let the laws of nature take their course, similar to the way Wols did, or Pollock, or in some ways Mathieu and Arnulf Rainer, too.
All these people tried with really great conscientiousness to eliminate the intellect by blindfolding themselves, for example, by painting with their left hand or by taking drugs. That is an attempt to find oneself. It is also a drastic attempt to put oneself on an equal footing with nature, to get closer to nature.
Now I just mentioned several methods of getting closer to nature on various levels. Of course the Tachists failed to eliminate the intellect completely; only death can do that. Say you climb up a ladder with a bucket of paint and put a bullet through your head at the top and then fall down with the bucket of paint; then a genuine painting by nature will indeed result. That is, this splotch will really correspond to the laws of nature, and man will really have had little to do with it. But if a man climbs up the ladder and lets the paint fall from the top, a splotch will result, but it is something different after all. At any rate, that was a very dangerous activity, and we must be grateful to Tachism for having provided us with this wisdom, this milestone, this turning point in the history of art, without which we would be much poorer today.
Next is the love of paint, the love of the material. If you don’t love the paint and material with which and on which you paint, the painting cannot amount to anything. It is totally impossible to use paint, paper, canvas and brush only as means to an end.
Paint is a living thing. Paint is something sacred – as are the brush, canvas and even paper, even the pencil, whatever – you have to be a kind of fetishist about all these things. You have to revere these things like gods. The pencil is a god, paint is a god, the brush is a god. Paint is like a piece of bread; it is something sacred. Just as you should not throw away bread or waste it, you shouldn’t throw paint away or waste it, either.
One doesn’t paint arbitrarily, but purposively, for one knows very well that paint which isn’t right, paint that has to be removed, paint that has to be thrown away, is a sin. By not throwing paint away I mean first of all that you don’t throw paint in the garbage, partly used or even used-up tubes of paint, that is. Secondly, that you also shouldn’t regard the canvas as a dustbin you can throw your paint away on, thinking it isn’t worth anything anyway because it’s just a study and will be thrown away: bad paints on bad paper, sketches on bad material which are thrown away afterwards and don’t need to last anyway.
The idea of a sketch is really something quite perverse. Making sketches for something which would be made later only emerged quite recently. I don’t know whether it was two or three hundred years ago; in the history of mankind or even in the history of art, that is a tiny period. Either one made something pleasing to God, one created something, formed something, or one didn’t. For that, no sketch or draft was needed beforehand. Whether you have a sketch or draft and then do it in larger or smaller format afterwards or do it again and better, in any case something is lost in the process, unless the sketch becomes a work in its own right, and the independent work one does afterwards is quite different from the sketch. That is also possible, of course.
So don’t throw paint away! Not in the dustbin, not on the paintings, and don’t smear the walls without any aesthetic meaning or purpose, either, and don’t wipe it on your smocks, on your own clothing or on cloths and rags! Paint should be treated as if it were your most valuable asset. Only as much paint should be taken out of the tube or prepared as will actually be used. I do it by measuring out the paint precisely – preferably a little less than too much. If I do prepare too much paint, I use the left-over paint for the next painting, for a second painting which is in progress, as it were. Often I paint for days with a single colour. I prepare blue often and paint everything that is blue.
Not every colour is suited to everything. If one looks at the paintings of earlier centuries, there were colours which were used specifically for certain purposes, for providing certain hues, for setting off certain figures, for the sky or nature. Lapislazuli was only used for clothes, but not for the sky. Certain greens were only used as an underlayer for skin and flesh. It was impossible for a painter to take any kind of red and daub it here or there, the way it happens today, like a madman groping in the dark without knowing where he is going, smearing it here and there in the hope that somehow something unified will result. Nothing deep comes about this way, no nearness, no depth of vision and nothing tangible, nothing substantial. Although many colours are often used that way, the result is null and void.
When I started painting I really had no money to buy paints and made do by just going to the Academy – I was not at the Academy at the time – and retrieving the paints thrown into the dustbins, whether in tubes or powder form, and then preparing them carefully and using them. A discarded tube of paint still had so much paint in it that I could paint with it for one or two years. One only need unfold the tube carefully at the rear and open it with a razor blade. Behind the tube’s threading is a space where a lot of paint can be found. And inside the tube there is still so much paint left, too; you’d be surprised.
This throw-away business is a sin; something’s got to change. The painter is not only a painter; he must also be an ecologist. The painter must be a revolutionary; he must stand at the vanguard of what will help human progress, and that can’t happen in this day and age without nature and ecology. Without ecological awareness and without combatting the throw-away and consumer society, positive creativity is not possible.
It is completely inappropriate and must by all means be condemned when a painter, who should be in the forefront of the fight for a better world, blindly imitates the throw-away society by being a paint consumer, as it were, the way a housewife is a consumer of detergents and other people are consumers of cars. The first step is for the painter to look on paint as his most precious asset. Dearer and more precious than gold. In earlier centuries, until almost a hundred years ago, the preparation of a painting, the prime ground, took longer than painting the picture itself. The wood the picture was painted on took a hundred years to grow.
There were painting books which described that in detail, the painting books from Mount Athos, the painting books by the painter-monk Theophilus and by the Italian Cellini. There are also modern books which are very good, such as one by Doerner, whose German title translates as “The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting”, and many others. In any case, the trees were split after drying and divided up with the tips pointing inward – the way a cake is cut. From the resulting segments the painting panels were very painstakingly split off, whittled and cut with utmost care, so that no veins in the wood were disturbed. It is thus no wonder that the panels have endured to the present day. Today, in contrast, they take wood, saw it up while paying no attention to the veins and structure of the wood, and then they are surprised that it doesn’t last, that it cracks and twists, that it warps in all conceivable directions.
The preparation of the ground also took up a lot of time, because the material also took decades to prepare. The lime for frescoes was a generation old, lying at least twenty-five years in the pit. It was inconceivable for lime to be slaked and immediately used or stirred with powder. The more fast-moving our civilisation becomes, the faster it will go to the dogs. Only he who thinks far into the future will survive long. I myself take a lot of time to produce the grounds for my paintings. Much more, I must say, than for the painting itself. First you have to make the frame, the “chassis”, that is. Now it is done by buying any old chassis, putting it together, stretching something over it, or by buying something which already has its canvas stretched over it and then painting away merrily. That is like today’s clothes: nice and pretty on the outside and very ugly on the inside.
Somebody should take the trouble to undress, take off his trousers, his shirt or take off skirt and blouse and then turn the trousers and shirt or skirt and blouse inside out and put them on again. Then you’ll see how horrible that is. Take any painting, with which an artist wanted to achieve some ingenious feat, and turn the painting around and look at it from behind: it is an absolutely horrifying confusion. Then you see how bad the material is, how poorly the wood has been treated. The wood has not been stained, nor formed, nor whittled. Tatters are hanging down on the back. I always look at the reverse sides of paintings: only if they are beautiful at the back do I look at them from the front. It is interesting that all the paintings by the great masters, that is the Siena School, by Dürer, Breughel, are as beautiful from the back as from the front.
The paintings can actually be looked at from behind and exhibited this way. The former director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Vincenz Ludwig Oberhammer, exhibited the paintings in his care, the Breughels, Dürers and all the others from that approximate period, so that the visitors could walk around the paintings and look at them from the front and the back as well. The paintings were placed right out into the room, so that no detail of the reverse side was kept from view. The reverse side of the paintings is really more significant for the character of the painter than the front. That is why it is really important what the chassis looks like. The chassis must be visually and artistically and organically shaped, in its colour and form. The chassis must be a sculpture, in a way. And the canvas stretching over it must be perfect. If one hasn’t woven it oneself, it must at least be stretched over it with care. And the ground should be perfect. What you consider perfect is left up to the individual.
Painting is a religious activity. Therefore one should be dressed as if for a sacred, very solemn occasion. Painting is a very solemn matter. That is why one should be dressed in tails, in one’s best suit, not in a smock, for painting is not an activity where one gets dirty. Painting is an act of devotion, of harmony with oneself and the world, of self-discovery, of seeking and inspiration, of insight.
It is now midnight in New Zealand. In Vienna it is two in the afternoon. And now I’m going to bed; I’ll continue tomorrow.
Today is May 13.
The active pursuit of art should not just be self-therapy, that is, a therapy with whose help one cures and discovers oneself, which, as I have seen, is mainly the case with you. For those who are serious about it, it is mainly self-therapy, which means that many of you are lost and are trying and hoping to find yourselves with the aid of painting. Beyond this self-therapy, art should be more, by which I mean it should contribute something not just to the painter, but to the environment. So one must first find the bridge to oneself, after which one must find the bridge to nature and creation. That is the whole secret of art, a metaphor of art, finding the bridge to nature.
The further away one is removed from nature, the more art fails. One of the most important secrets of nature is how it works, that is, how the cycle works, the cycle from life to death. That is why I used the symbol of the spiral, for example, which is a symbol of life and death, of expansion and concentration. Its origin from almost nothing and its vanishing in infinite space, the origin from infinite space and death at the smallest point. But I only mention this in passing.
Everyone must find his own way. The artist has the most important task to fulfill in our society, since all other fields are apparently a failure. By that I mean the gardeners are a failure; the doctors no longer know what they are doing; the architects are creating chaos, as we all know; the urban developers, the politicians are at their wits’ end; the priests are confused and embrace false dogmas. That is why the artist must ensure and contribute to the world’s renewal. Humanity needs to be shown a new way. But this new way cannot be ugly, which is what contemporary art has shown thus far, unfortunately.
Contemporary art has thus far mainly shown what is negative; it was the mirror image of the negative consequences of our time, as it were. Art must not present merely the negative. Art must warn; that is its duty, but it must at the same time find a solution.
By only warning and showing negative things and ruminating over the negative, by living in the vale of tears and shedding one’s own as well, so to speak, you will not help humanity.
People long for freedom, for beauty, for justice and for peace, within and without. That is why the artist cannot just be focused on his own therapy and try to keep himself out of the general misery. He must work for the others, and then he must show his way. The way must be one that can be taken, and it must be beautiful.
That’s why I am planning to have a way made from one entrance on the left side of the Academy to the classroom, with each of you helping to shape it, be it by designing a step, be it by embellishing part of the way with a mosaic or wood on the floor or wall, a way that can be walked on, a way that is beautiful, a way through nature, like through the forest, a way shaped so that one can tarry, where one can meditate.
This Academy was built about a hundred years or more ago and is now a protected monument. Actually people shouldn’t live and work in buildings which are protected monuments. Humans must be able to develop while at the same time respecting and preserving the old. That is no contradiction. It was possible with the old cathedrals, the old buildings, where the old part was preserved and added to or very slightly changed without destroying them. That could be done here in this Academy, too. It is of course depressing for someone who wants to work creatively to come into a building which is already finished. Nothing can be changed in its structure, when it is only natural to let a person change something about the structure he lives in, the house he lives in, on the wall, the masonry, the floor, the ceiling, the window, to widen or narrow the openings which serve as sources of light. So shape your work area! If this work area is like a mosque or a piece from the Garden of Eden, people will believe you are also capable of shaping the environment, and then they will let you tackle bigger things. But first you must begin at the micro level.
The artist has the greatest task, so he must bear the greatest responsibility, as well. He must have the greatest intelligence, and he must be stronger. He must be a giant, in contrast to the other professions, which, as I have just said, have failed completely.
Next: the artist must be independent. He must be able to think critically and look for a positive solution in a creative way. It is totally wrong to devote oneself to the politics of the day; those are all transitory things. What is at stake today is the attitude of the world in general. We must conclude a peace treaty with nature. The artist is in a unique position to prepare this peace treaty with nature, because art is, after all, the bridge between man and nature. This is no longer a matter of petty quarrels among people, of religion or capitalism or communism. These are ridiculous disputes between people which distract attention from the core issue, namely our peace with nature, which must be restored at all costs if we are to survive.
Next: art cannot constantly depict our vale of tears. Art must find a way to a more beautiful world. The fine arts – the beaux arts – must be beautiful or else they cannot exist. If the fine arts are ugly, they are not art. Fine art can indeed and must be critical and severe and show blood, but it must at the same time have substance and show a way which everyone can follow. A painting must be something like a cathedral, like a chapel one can repair to in order to find comfort and consolation, but also a way out. A way for everyone must be one that can be taken, and only the ways one likes to follow are such ways.
People don’t like to walk down an ugly path. Only when one has no choice does one walk through industrial areas, for example, where everything is straight and where it stinks. That is an ugly way. People like to walk on a winding path lined by trees, not a monoculture, but a variety of natural growth. So don’t be copycats, don’t run after some ideas or games which others have come up with; don’t become devotees of something which already exists, but create something yourselves from inside. You can only do that if you lay bare your origins. Then you can go on from there.
The artist must be strong and self-confident, he must be beautiful, and he must make an impression. That must express itself in your clothing and in your surroundings, which you must shape, and in your works, too. When you go out on the street, people must already realise that a light, a radiance emanates from you. If that is the case, this strength will also find its way into the painting, to the flat surface you are painting on. That will happen entirely of its own accord, you don’t need to worry about it or torture yourself. Then a mighty stream will flow directly onto the canvas, so to speak, which can’t be held back.
Another thing to consider is that you should paint flat, flat on the table, and not upright on easels. That is also a preparation for the peace treaty with nature. Everything horizontal belongs to nature. Nature can only be understood if confronted horizontally. The vertical is the domain of man.
So everything horizontal under the open sky belongs to nature. We have misappropriated territories from nature which we must give back to her. Every individual can begin doing this by laying the painting horizontally on the table and trying to create something similar to nature’s horizontalness, a painting, that is, which has no top and no bottom, but which is looked at from above.
That is, as it were, a sacrificial offering to the sky, to nature, to the universe. Paintings which are upright, easel paintings, are nothing more than mirror images of man’s ineptness. Man wants to recognise himself in the painting. Easel paintings are more or less poorly painted mirrors. The easel painting has only existed in human history for a short time.
Before that there was no such thing as paintings at all; there wasn’t any art, either, for if one is in union and harmony with nature and the environment, one has no need for art, one is art, one is nature, one is in everything one does, in thinking and actions and deeds, in unison with the eternal laws of the cosmos, and one needs no substitutes, one of which is, unfortunately, art.
Protokolle. Zeitschrift für Literatur und Kunst. ed. by Otto Breicha, Vol. 2, 1992, Vienna, 1992, pp. 96-116 (German, complete version)
Walter Schurian (ed.), Hundertwasser, Schöne Wege – Gedanken über Kunst und Leben. [Beautiful Paths - Thoughts on Art and Life] Schriften 1943-1999, Munich: Langen Müller Verlag, 2004, pp. 158-171
Schmied, Wieland (ed.): Hundertwasser 1928–2000, Catalogue Raisonné. Vol. I: Schmied, Wieland: Personality, Life, Work. Cologne: Taschen, 2000, pp. 31-41. (edited version in German and English)
Hirsch, Andreas (ed.): Hundertwasser – The Art of the Green Path, Exhibition catalogue KunstHausWien. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2011, p. 173 (excerpt)