Outsider Art: The Case of Friedensreich Hundertwasser
Transgressive, daring, devoided of theories, the controversial artist Hundertwasser defined with his art a World already in demise during the outspring of World War II, creating pieces of absolute authenticity. Considering himself an outsider, rejecting all main art tendencies, he subtly developed a particular visual language consciously inherited by his Austrian setting. Spanning from visual art to architecture, he almost prophetically tackled the harmful impact of global change in all its complexity, developing not only a series of daring eco-friendly architectures but even a series of relevant essays that go beyond the pure language of visual art.
Friedensreich Hundertwasser (Vienna,1928), has been working incessantly during a time when art was officially declared at the service of the Nazi/Fascist power. Forgetting theories, far from the central tendencies, Hundertwasser was a self-taught artist whose pieces reflect a world filled with sensations, impressions, and devoided any reference to the natural world or the minimalism when it comes to framing the tendencies which marked the art scenario during the 60s, immediately after the war. He brought, through a "sensual oasis, a breath in an otherwise desert made by theory'' (Harry Rand, 1998), working diligently for more than 40 years. The Viennese-based artist developed a rich, luscious palette where he intermingled his own world of pure sensations at the service of art.
Half Jewish, Hundertwasser, and his mother lived in a basement to escape from the bombardments of Anglo Americans during the end of the war, eventually moving to a factory where the young artist discovered his real vocation when scrutinizing the vast countryside of Schwanenstadt. From those tough times, Hundertwasser undertook his path toward a vocation that was the only one that allowed him to convey a sense of beauty in a precarious, uncertain time.
An impressive self-portrait conceived by the artist in 1947, two piercing eyes faithfully describing his fervent soul quickly sketched with an outstanding command of anatomy can be regarded as the early demonstration of an impressive talent freed from any formal academic training.
Since Hundertwasser made his first step into the art scenario, a profound impact was received when he witnessed the artworks of one of the representatives of Expressionism, Egon Schiele. In fact, more than admiring the ever-golden, glorious, and daring depictions of the Viennese High society painted by Gustav Klimt, Hundertwasser found himself in the introspective piece of Schiele. In particular, during an interview, the artist declared: "The city walls and the houses. These impressed me the most about the pieces of Schiele. They were sparkling in the darkness. To me, the houses of Schiele were like living beings. The first time I felt that the external walls were like skin. These were painted as if it wouldn't be any difference between the skin of a naked girl and the one of a house. It is skin the one he was showing, something that cries, lives, it is extraordinary." (Alan Levy, 1976, Art News).
The year 1950 marks the official entrance to the art galleries with an exhibition in Pairs and the unexpected decision to substitute his surname Stowasser for Hundertwasser, which means 100 water. In whatever idiom, water constituted an element particularly interesting for the artist who has stated that it represented many times as a shelter, a manner of escaping in which he was always willing to enter in. To justify his unpredictable decision, he declared being more than a person. He defined himself as an architect, an ecologist, and a painter, therefore, according to the artist's point of view, his surname didn't fit properly in any category.
In 1951 Hundertwasser set off for Morocco and Tunisia, where he discovered an impressive architectural and visual richness, enthusiastically praising the drawing of many children who, unconsciously, were able to make artworks not so different from the ones of Paul Klee who, in turn, had been struck too by the Oriental atmosphere back in 1914.
An imprint of surrealism, the sense of color inherited from Fauvism, are some of the elements that can be detected when it comes to scrutiny of the Gelbe Kusse, painted in Marrakesch during that stay in watercolor: it is a piece where floating lips freely play around with space, filled with a warm yellow, a style already characterized by the presence of a grid structure, an already recurrent motif in Hundertwasser's art.
His first solo exhibition led him to his native Vienna where during the inauguration, he declared: "My aspiration is to free myself from the universal deceit of our civilization". This rebellion against what Herbert Marcuse was going to coin as "One-dimensional Man" peculiar to an advanced industrial society that creates false needs, these elements were understood by the artist years prior to the release of the homonymous book of the German-American philosopher and sociologist in 1964. The rejection of a straight line in favor of a freer, animated line is encountered in all of his festive colorful paintings, as demonstrated in Bleeding House dated 1952.
The opposition to a straight line, brought him to a fervent interest in architecture, conceived as a space with irregular shapes, most of the times eccentric as much as the pieces of the Spanish Antoni Gaudi.
Furthermore, the use of a series of reconstructions and refinements on old and new buildings made the artist an eye projected on what now is one of the most debated issues of our times: pollution.
Hundertwasser, indeed, thought his architecture should have had a zero impact on the environment, therefore obtaining a surname as "doctor architecture'' due to his strong commitment to ecological issues. He was strongly convinced that human misery and main problems were related to the incapacity to build proper structures which may have helped a psychological each inhabitant of the space, blaming the major architect of that time, Adolf Loos, to have proposed a sterile, monotonous architecture.
One of the extraordinary urban interventions is undoubtedly the Hundertwasserhaus built-in 1986 as a series of apartment blocks in Vienna. Striking is the surrealistic, expressionistic aesthetic and distorted lines echoing those already presented in the paintings' production of the artist. Resembling as a child's puzzle, the facade is characterized by the employment of bright colors, full of energy and wavy lines, but the most impacting solution the artist provided is the introduction of a series of trees in the interiors of the building. Perfectly entuned with his vision of organic, ecological architecture, this concept will be furthermore developed by the next generation of artists such as in the case of Stefano Boeri's residential solutions.
Another superb example of Hundertwasser's architectural complexes results in the St. Barbara Church in Barnbach whose originality resides in the twelve arch gateways introduced by the artist in order to symbolize each religion in the World. Conveying, therefore, a sense of democracy and tolerance, Hundertwasser demonstrates a philosophy based more than ever on the real values that should convey humanity. Under a reconstructive aspect, the original steeple of the church was substituted with the erection of a golden huge clock tower.
All these few examples of Hundertwasser's works demonstrate not only his ingenious imagination, but also his concerns, and opposition against the mass production, materialism, and eventual alienation that still are so much perceived in our contemporary times.
Hundertwasser, furthermore, regarded himself not merely as an academician, but as a magician whose task was to put in evidence all the faults, failures, and decay of the world he was living in. He was strongly convinced of the beneficial effects that art inherently has to open up a deep understanding of reality. By rejecting every sort of consumeristic, wasted approach, since his young age, he used to wear the same homemade outfits in a pure rejection of fashion trends and their consequent over-production.
Moreover, according to the artist's point of view, man can no longer live peacefully with his surrounding, since he is constantly in a war where exploitation is at the central core. Claiming the utter relevance of trees in an everyday context, he used to call them brothers, in an affectionate manner to heighten the importance of respecting the ecosystem.
Retaking his art, Hundertwasser was the creator of a term that eventually was supposed to embrace not only his own pictorial practice but all the Vanguardia of the XXth century: Transautomatism. Although this one may remind of the Automatism approach already developed by Surrealists in the 30s, Hundertwasser wrote about this term in the following sense: "one example of a trans automatic reflection of an image would be misleading and damaging; especially for people, who are used to compare images and titles, because they are being deprived of the possibility of creating their own individually generated sequences not only in regard to the same tao but also to all other faced objects which follow later. This can provoke irreparable damage to the soul. Moreover, no complete example of an infinite creative film can ever be given, but only excerpts of the initial associations, i.e., a small part of the beginning, which can be written down" (Origine, 1955, p.5).
In the terms of the artist, the tao represents the trans automatic object itself, comprising complex developments where titles are regarded to abolish any sense of creative inventiveness on the spectator's behalf. As such, preferring titling all his works from 1950 onwards as Transaumatism, the primary intention was to give the spectator a real protagonist, opening up eventually new perspectives departing from the illusionary world that surrounds this latter.
"The Third Skin 839", painted in 1982, is the result of a series of reflections named "Five Skins'' where the artist seeks a possible connection between the individual, nature, and the social environments that inhabit. In this sense, the theory proportioned is referred to as Five Skins divided respectively in the epidermis, (or the direct link that connects human beings with nature), clothing, or creativity (a turn away from consumerism for a creative diversity rejecting imposed fashion codes), and, finally, the Man's House or Eco-technology (aesthetic reflection on architecture with the refusal of any rational approach to constructions).
The two last skins created by the artist were the ones related to social environment and identity (where individuals had to free themselves from conformism), and, finally, the fifth skin recalled all the environmental concerns the artist had perceived and pointed out throughout his lifetime.
If on the one hand his theories related to the impactful behavior of human beings on nature were welcomed and praised, the controversy resulted from his reproaching of the developments of Vanguardia, regarded as a sort of perversion, an ultimate loss of the real sense of civilization that is an urgent recall to act in defense of an already damaged environment.
In this perspective and under what was analyzed, Hundertwasser emerges in the art of the XXt century as a real activist, critical, with at times cynical intellectualism, whose consciousness went beyond all that was regarded as the surface. His art is not only puzzling and spell bounding due to the triumph of colors, but also it has to be read under the consistent theory he left behind, making us aware of his lucid and still relevant considerations.
In conclusion, these courageous attempts to question society makes Friedensreich Hundertwasser so relevant still these days or as put by the Italian journalist Floridi: "The singularity of the world no longer lies in great meanings that are given to it; it is in the perceptible detail that it can be created at the level of image as well. There is new singularity, contained in the detail, in the fragment of the world. In great classical art there were transcendent scenes, there was spirituality. We have lost it. (..) Art now exists if there are secret things, something that it is not said and cannot be said" (Floridi P. , 2004, p.38).
Bouckaert, L. (2018). Art Spirituality and Economics. University of Oxford.
Floridi P. (2004, January 6). Se l'arte muore per eccesso in La Repubblica. Rome.
Origine. (1955). Arte come Transautomatico. Arti Visivi, No. 2, Rome.
Rand, H. (1998). Hundertwasser, Taschen, Cologne.
The Hundertwasser non-profit foundation. (2022). Hundertwasser - Friedensreich Hundertwasser. https://hundertwasser.com/en
Rhodes, C. (2020, August 29). Outsider art. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/outsider-art
Hundertwasser F. (1947). Self-portrait. [Pencil on paper]. Retrieved from: https://hundertwasser.com/en/early-works/22_jw98_selbstbildnis_959
Hundertwasser F. (1951). Gelbe Kusse. [Watercolor on paper.] Retrieved from:
Hundertwasser F. (1952). Bleeding House. [Tempera on fibreboard]. Retrieved from:
Hundertwasser F. (1983). Hundertwasserhaus. [Photograph]. Retrieved from:
Hundertwasser F. (1987). St. Barbara Church. [Photograph]. Retrieved from:
Hundertwasser F. (1982). 839 The Third Skin. [Mix media]. Retrieved from: