Austria as expression of universal culture

Leopold Sedar Senghor

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It is within this futurity that I have chosen to speak to you of Austria as civilisation, or more precisely as culture, since its rôle has been, and will in the future be even more so, to aid in the symbiosis of the different civilisations of the Danube basin, to make them a general factor in human progress.


To begin with, after recalling the cultural rôle of Austria under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, I shall speak of the same rôle, still important, under the Republic. After which, to support my thesis, I shall present the examples of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of Rainer Maria Rilke, and of Friedensreich Hundertwasser: a musician, a poet, and a painter. In each of these typically Austrian geniuses, I shall attempt to show, first, that he was subject to the influence of several cultures; second, that he assimilated them into a symbiosis; third, that he used this symbiosis to express that human essence, that being of man which is, by definition, inexpressible.

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Friedrich Stowasser was born on 15th December 1928. In 1949 he changed his name to Hundertwasser. Whereas both Mozart and Rilke had each been of German descent on both sides, Hundertwasser is, biologically speaking, a mixture in which two dissimilar characters meet and complement each other.


I have already spoken of the introverted character of the German who, ever following the Weg nach innen, the road inward, returns to his ego, individual as well as collective. Hundertwasser’s mother Elsa was Jewish, i.e. of originally Mediterranean extraction. We know that the Mediterraneans are a fluctuating people, with the same Innigkeit, the introversion and sincerity of the Germans, but explosive. But the history of the Jewish diaspora, so rich in persecutions and battles, has sharpened their already logical thinking, always alert to grasp reality and to transform it. This phenomenon is the more alive in Hundertwasser in that his childhood and youth, until the end of World War II, were bruised by the persecution and exterminations of the Nazi era, which cost his mother’s family an enormous tribute.


It is understandable, therefore, that all the ideas, all the actions and creations of the painter Hundertwasser are those of revolt. Revolt against European rationalism on all fronts – jurisprudence, religion, science, art – but also the elaboration of a new way of thinking, a new theoria: that is, a new way of seeing in order to build a new world.


But before we return to these two aspects of his personality, we should turn again to the influences to which Hundertwasser was subjected, beginning with his roots.


There is first of all the passion in everything he undertakes or says. These bear the marks of his dual ancestry: on the one hand the phantasy in the Greek sense of the word, which – as in the “nude addresses” – reveals a Mediterranean origin; at the same time, however, we find that German spirit of systematising, in which coherent theory, even a coherent process behind the phantasy is revealed. It is this last aspect which we must see in the influence exercised on the young man in 1948 by the exhibitions of paintings by Egon Schiele and Erich Kampmann in Vienna.

To this first aspect, his roots, belong Hundertwasser’s numerous travels to the South and the Near East. They are the expression of the ancient nostalgia of Judaism. Curiously – but not by chance – he followed the footsteps of Rilke, who had been in Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt: Hundertwasser several times visited Marocco and Tunisia. In Marrakesh he even remained six months, and was interested not only in the way of life of the Jews, but also in the “Arabs”, whose music he learned to love.


Pushing on farther, he visited black Africa, more precisely the Sudan and Uganda in 1967. Already in 1951 he had become interested in the Negro, witnessed by a water colour of that year entitled If I had a Negress I would love and paint her. A further proof of his universality – he never liked “ism’s” – is his 1961 trip to Japan and his marriage the following year to the Japanese Yuuko Ikewada. An Austrian but a citizen of the world, Hundertwasser was sailing on his boat somewhere in the Pacific Ocean when in Dakar in Senegal one of his numerous exhibitions was opened. That was in November 1976.

But before that he had experienced the influence of the romanic lands, Italy and France.
His travels in Italy, since that in 1948 with René Brô in Tuscany, are legion. Even today the island of Giudecca near Venice is one of his residences – and studios. What has Italy given him? Certainly it has reinforced in him that “unusual sense of colour and form” which the teachers of the Montessori School recognised in the seven-year-old Friedrich Stowasser; but also a certain creative power to which we shall return shortly.


But it was France, or more exactly Paris, which would inspire him most, and paradoxically just by confirming his dual heritage of passion and of analysis, of rebellion and of theorising, and finally of creation. As he came to France in 1953, for the second time, he remained there – with brief interruptions, like Rilke – for seven years. In 1957 he even bought a country-house on Normandy, “La Picaudière”.

I used the word “paradoxically” because he had not sought, or rather found, that which his two predecessors had, if not sought, then at least found there: the lessons of work, of organisation and of clarity. He found something better: the incentive to creativity itself, which of course already lay in the sense of his character and his thinking. The great lesson which he learned from the Ecole de Paris was the encouragement of his technique and sense of form, but even more his artistic vision and beyond that his “creativity”, as the Americans say: the creative spirit, as André Malraux has defined it in Negro art.


We have arrived at the point where we must turn our attention not so much to Hundertwasser’s aesthetics as to his theory of life, whose various aspects must not be lost sight of: “transautomatism”, “grammar of vision”, “Mouldiness Manifesto”, “Your right to windows, your duty to trees”, etc. In Hundertwasser there is always a revolt and an affirmation or rather a personal obligation to live with and according to Nature.


The revolt, which began at twenty-two against the School of Fine Art in Paris, is directed essentially against the European rationalism inherited from Aristotle and Descartes, more precisely against the “European bluff-civilisation”: against its justice and its religion, its educational system and its art, even against its science, for this last proceeds from discursive reason, from ruler, compass, and multiplication table, which can never attain to the life of reality.


Not that Hundertwasser was against all justice, religion, education or art; he simply believes that a different point of departure was necessary: that of Einfühlung and of the five senses, esp. that of seeing. Nothing reveals this new world-consciousness, this new vision better than his Text for the Exhibit at the Vienna Art Club (1953) and his Letter to a Viennese Critic, also 1953. As his sensibility had been sharpened, it is a matter of recognising the “multitude of symbols” in the “vast planes and spaces” which make us “dizzy” with violent impressions. For each of these symbols has a sense, embodies a form of being. It is all these symbols, all these possibilities of being which the artist ought to capture, interpret, and realise in his works of art. These in turn, as earlier with Rilke, are simultaneously recreation and re-creation: a realisation of God.


To achieve this final goal, the artist must overcome the obstacle of European civilisation by – as we have just seen – sharpening his senses, but also by inventing a new art.


We can sharpen our senses only by cultivating, with our individuality, our deepest ego: in promoting our “true, spontaneous, and varied life”. As those overseas peoples do whom the painter encountered in Africa, Asia, America, Oceania, the peoples of paradise lost.


To invent a new art is to turn one’s back on European rationalism, on its canons of beauty, to go beyond the “visual illiteracy” and the automated gestures of occidental artists. To re-acquire “the visibility of transautomatic creation”. But what is transautomatism? For Hundertwasser, it signifies the reintroduction of the creative into the automated, that is, the rejection of all the achievements of European rationalism – vision, ideas, customs – in order to recover the power of vision, of emotion and of creation of our lost paradise, when the senses, the spirit and the souls of men were yet unspoilt.


As with our musician and our poet, we now ask ourselves the question: what is the beauty of Hundertwasser’s art? The major aesthetic element of his painting, of his poetry in the etymological sense of the word, is, besides colour, the spiral.


The colours in his paintings are important because they are alive, manifold and diverse thanks to their nuances. “I worked with a farmer”, he writes, “when I saw how brown the earth is and how green the grass – so I decided to become a painter.” Thanks to their striking effect and their nuances, they have a symbolical value, a natural significance. It is just this “magic” of the colours which the artist so admires in the Japanese woodcuts.


As for the spiral, it stands at the centre of Hundertwasser’s “poetry” as an artistic means and at the same time an expression of life. It stands in opposition to the geometry of the straight line, from which all evil comes, and so in turn to the rationalism of the Western world. “The spiral”, says Hundertwasser in one of his 1974 writings, “is the symbol of life and death. The spiral lies at that very point where inanimate matter is transformed into life”. It, too, belongs to the art of exotic lands like Mexico.


We have seen that beauty in Mozart and Rilke lay in the harmonious balance of hybridism. With Hundertwasser it is always hybridism; if not always in equilibrium certainly always harmonious – it would not otherwise be beauty – but dynamic harmony because its direction and movement derive from life itself.


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Opening Address of the Salzburg Festival, 1977, by the President of the Republic of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor.