Hundertwasser in New Zealand is a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated with paintings, drawings, sketches, and photographs. Written by his lifelong friend and curator Andreas Hirsch, it is the story of the last three decades of Hundertwasser’s life spent in New Zealand, his ‘promised land’.
Austrian artist Hundertwasser arrived in New Zealand for the opening of his exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1973. Visitors to the gallery were entranced by his magical colourful artworks with their peaceful environmental message. The catalogue, itself a work art, sold thousands.
For Hundertwasser coming to New Zealand was a turning point in his life. Raised in Vienna he and his Jewish Mother narrowly survived the holocaust. She had conjured up a romantic picture for him of a country on the other side of the world called New Zealand, a place of untouched nature where there was no war.
After the exhibition he travelled extensively through New Zealand in search of this paradise. Not finding it, but undeterred, he created his own in the Kaurinui valley and with the help of neighbours and new friends planted 150,000 trees on around 190 hectares.
In this forest, inspired by vernacular architecture, and his belief that it is the right of all people to design and build their own dwellings, he converted a cowshed into a bottle house in which the walls were built of recycled transparent glass bottles. On its roof goats could graze.
Here he pursued his ideal of living and working in harmony with nature, created artworks, designed architectural projects, and composed some of his most important texts.
His 1974 Poster, which he was commissioned to create for Conservation week, was hugely successful and was the spark which inspired him to create more posters to disseminate his concerns.
In 1983 he designed a new Flag for New Zealand, featuring the koru of an unfurling fern. ’It combined NZ age-old heritage of nature and the history of Māori history with the growing future of a new nation’. Despite wide acclaim it was not accepted. Many of us still deeply regret this decision.
In 1998 Hundertwasser accepted a request from the Kawakawa business community to design new public toilets in the hope that it would encourage tourism. It was an opportunity to bring his architectural vision to life for new Zealanders, albeit in a small space, and to give something back to the community. Numerous visitors have since been entranced by the colourful columns, the bottle walls and its grassed roof.
Hundertwasser was simultaneously working on numerous larger architectural projects which he had been commissioned to design overseas. It is a real strength of this book that Hirsch also tells these stories so giving us a much bigger picture of Hundertwasser’s achievements.
Hirsch also elaborates on the philosophy and the thinking behind Hundertwasser’s art such as his metaphor of five skins which enclose each human being, his concept of rent paying tree tenants, why he rejected perspective in his paintings preferring instead to adopt a bird’ eye view, and why water played such a significant part in his life and his paintings.
Ships are a recurring motif in his paintings. His beloved yacht Regentag was brought over more than 15000 nautical miles before it was anchored in the Bay of Islands. Hirsch writes that it brought three things essential to him that all relate to his childhood together: his affinity to water, his enthusiasm for ships, and his longing for a protective sheltering dwelling.
A chapter is dedicated to the recently opened Hundertwasser Art Centre and Wairau Māori Art Gallery in Whangārei. a dream realized posthumously. It took nearly 3 decades, thanks to the persistent commitment by a group of people, often through turbulent times, that a rough sketch by Hundertwasser on a piece of A4 paper finally came to fruition. Since opening its doors, it has already become a hugely popular destination.
Hundertwasser in New Zealand is a fascinating story and an inspiring read. It is a wonderful tribute to Hundertwasser, a unique individual and artist who made Aotearoa his home for 30 years, living his life in harmony with nature and spreading his urgent message of what humankind must do to create a peaceful world, far and wide.
Reviewer: Lyn Potter