NANA HYAKU MIZU - Seven Hundertwasser

Winzinger Franz

This collection of colour prints by Friedensreich Hundertwasser was produced in close co-operation with the best Japanese block-cutters and printers.

The art of woodcut has a much older tradition in East Asia than in the Occident, where the earliest woodblock-prints of devotional images were not produced until the end of the 14th century. The technique of the woodcut was brought to Japan in the wake of Buddhism, and already in the 6th century handprinted suribotoke and ideographic impressions of Buddhist benedictions cut on woodblocks are said to have been printed on narrow strips of paper:

The oldest pictorial design cut on woodblock, representing a teaching Budda and his entourage, was found in 1907 in the “Grottoes of the Thousand Buddhas” at Tun-huang in Chinese Turkestan by Sir Aurel Stein which bears the date 868 A.D. and today is kept in the British Museum.

Hundertwasser has consciously revived the tradition of the classical 18th century Japanese colour print, where the designing artist worked closely together with a woodcutter and a printer.

The designing artist took the most decisive part in the creation of this work, although the value of a woodcut is also substantially determined by the delicacy and smoothness of the cutting and the technical accomplishment and harmonious colouring of the print.

Hundertwasser’s woodcuts, presented here, have been created by the same method. To bring out the richness of the “Valeurs” – shading of colours – up to twenty differently daubed blocks were needed, which had to be most carefully co-ordinated.

The prints in this portfolio “NANA HYAKU MIZU” are based on originals by Hundertwasser. This procedure is perfectly legitimate, for already Old German artists, such as Cranach and Baldung, used their coloured clair-obscure drawings as the basis for the colour print. All the great masters of the classical German woodcut, no matter whether we think of Dürer, Altdorfer, Burgkmaier, Holbein or Huber, had their blocks cut by professional block-cutters like Lützelburger, Andreae or Joost de Negher.

Adolf Menzel laboriously mobilised a whole staff of xylographers so that accurate copies of his subtle drawings could be cut and engraved onto the box-wood.

Although the Japanese block-cutters and printers the last surviving masters of this craft – followed Hundertwasser’s supervision, their contribution adds to his work an exotic flavour, which considerably heightens the charm of these prints. Therefore it is only appropriate that each single woodcut carries not only the signature of Hundertwasser, but also the names and signets of these Japanese craftsmen.

This procedure was extremely laborious. It took seven years of intense work in countless processes, out of which these woodcuts gradually matured. This unparalleled effort in itself makes the prints precious and imparts to them their exceptional position.


Hundertwasser’s world is pagan. Absolutely no traces of the Occident’s Christian past can be found in it. The miraculous lures us into the enticing labyrinths of his pictures, but they are without any promise of salvation. Everyone seeks adventure at his won risk: again and again we meet with pure expressions of the barbaric: there is man’s face, with features distorted into streaks, in fear of demons, reminding us of the sepia-masks from the swamps and jungles of New Guinea or of Chinese T’ao-t’ieh. The dark and cruel are always present in these seemingly joyous feasts of colour. The first of these prints cut in Japan by the old magician Toyohisa Adachi’s best cutters and printers, in long and laborious work, was executed before the production of this collection. It depicts an apocalyptic rain of blood pouring down onto the gables of the houses which are huddled together in a row in a Bohemian village lane. Here and there, hardly concealed, there is threat and danger, decay coming from the dwellings of death. Everything is earthbound, in none of the pictures are there light skies or liberating horizons. This way of painting is an incessant heroic attempt to face all dark temptations successfully, because to Hundertwasser the essence of painting is the expression of pure zest for life.

Many of these prints, such as those which he here calls “Kumo no kankei” (470a) or “Mekura no megame” (563a) seem like ruins of ancient sacred districts seen from above, which stand out mysteriously against the ground which has risen around them. They remind us of the prehistoric Japanese tombs at Uwanabe and Hoshikaka or of the layouts of cyclopic fortresses. And does not the large print (475a), which he poetically calls “Rain of blood dropping into Japanese Waters located in an Austrian Garden” evoke memories of a mythical barbarian king’s underground tomb surrounded by palisades? Like the web of a spider, the passages, long since buried, reach out in all directions from the blue vault: it all seems like a symbol of ruling power spreading itself in all directions.

These secret places appear to be embedded in fertile green soil, and suddenly it becomes obvious that the pictures of the painter are sgraffiti with nature as their prototype. They are forms which are torn from nature, a nature which is pregnant with old myths. Does not the “Spiral Sun and the House of the Moon as Neighbours” remind us of an Aztec pictorial writing, in which the earliest cosmic experiences of man are laid down in a mysterious code?

Not without reason has Hundertwasser been regarded as the legitimate heir to a distinct Viennese tradition. It is beyond doubt that the “Sezession”, the works of Klimt and Schiele, or the early works of Kokoschka, constitute an essential starting point for his development. And who of all those that followed could have completely escaped the influence of Paul Klee? Hardly ever before – unless one goes back to early Ottonian manuscripts – has colour of greater lustre been applied more boldly or more expressively than in the pictures of Hundertwasser.

With almost revelling pleasure does he create a completely new and unique world. Therefore his pictures have the same effect as the records of a bold conquistador, who relates the yet unseen marvels of a terra incognita: an intoxicated and sometimes unbridled fabulist for whom reality and imagination interweave, again and again, into a naive and subtle pattern.

His ability to allow his highly developed intellect to lead him, - like a pointer put on a leash – is exciting. He follows it into the spellbound realms of shadowy Amazon forests, into a world of exuberant splendour of colours, sumptuous fertility and poisonous beauty.

In many of these pictures there is the magic and the mystery of the Orient. Here and there memories of the secluded gardens of Shiras, of the lustrous shimmer of turquoise tiles in the mosques of Isfahan are evoked, the domes of which occasionally appear in Hundertwasser’s pictures. Then again a tinge of Angkor, devoured by the jungle, of something exotic from the South Sea, of the patterns of Oceanic bark-painting hovers over them. And finally there is the unsurpassed beauty of the woodcuts by Harunobu, Utamaro, Sharaku and Hokusai, which the painter admires so tremendously. And here the cycles closes. Having already had close ties with Japan through an earlier companion, Hundertwasser in these works has associated himself with the artists of the Far East in order to create these most precious prints.