“Perhaps that is precisely what life is: a dream and an anxiety,” Alfred Kubin writes in his diary in 1939. At the very beginning of his artistic career, between 1897 and 1909, Kubin draws the anxiety-ridden dreams that haunt him into equally haunting images (such as Dying, above) that stun even today with their violence and troubled sexuality. A contemporary of Sigmund Freud, whom Kubin read only years later, and an early influence on Franz Kafka, who borrowed motifs from Kubin’s illustrated novel, Kubin presents a fascinating case of an artist riding on the very knife’s edge of modernity yet whom most people know nothing about. A new exhibition at the Neue Galerie, accompanied by the catalogue Alfred Kubin: Drawings 1897-1909 (edited by Annegret Hoberg), presents Kubin in all his weird wonderfulness and restores him to a rightful place in the cultural and art history of turn of the century Austria and Germany. Kubin’s “works struck a nerve,” Hoberg writes in the catalogue, “connecting with the mood of upheaval and cultural crisis current at the time and manifested as a catastrophic existential threat to the modern human soul.” By showing how Kubin connected with his contemporary zeitgeist, this catalogue and exhibition demonstrate how Kubin connects with our own times as well.
Kubin’s life story reads like a Freudian case study. Born April 10, 1877 to a domineering father and a passive mother, Kubin lived a largely unhappy childhood. Months after Kubin’s mother dies when he is only 10 years old, he is sexually molested by an older, pregnant woman, setting the stage for years of sexual confusion that would later play out in his art. In 1896, Kubin attempts suicide at his mother’s grave and is saved by the failure of the rusty pistol’s mechanism. After a nervous breakdown during a stint in the army, Kubin’s father grudgingly accepts his son back into the fold and Kubin begins studying art seriously. “Frustrated and disoriented” by the Old Masters he tries to study, Kubin turns to reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and soon forms even a darker view of humanity. Kubin’s early works “are ironic or grotesque,” Hoberg writes, “often Biedermeier-like pen-and-ink drawings in a naïve, caricatural style that presents human drives and fears, social deformations, and the relationship between the sexes in ever-new variants.” Every Night We Are Haunted by a Dream (above), featuring a faceless female torso with blade-like limbs, represents just one of those troubled sexual “variants.” Death Leap, which shows a tiny man diving into giant female genitalia in a possible homage to Courbet’s Origin of the World, may be the most extreme sexual image by Kubin. Kubin, however, finds no catharsis in creating such images. “On the contrary,” writes Klaus Albrecht Schroder in his essay, “Alfred Kubin; or, The Cruelty of Images, Kubin “almost tried to cultivate his obsessions and anxieties so as not to break the spearhead of his creativity.”
Alfred Kubin (1877-1959). Die Dame auf dem Pferd (The Lady on the Horse), ca. 1900-01. Pen and ink, wash, and spray on paper. 39.7 x 31 cm (15 5/8 x 12 1/4 in.). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Kubin-Archiv.
Kubin created an entire nostalgic dream world in his 1909 illustrated novel Die Andere Seite (The Other Side). A Kubin double called “The Draftsman” narrates the fall of the dreamland of Perle into disease, violence, and sexual chaos. Ruled by the mysterious Patera, Perle becomes “a negative utopia,” Schroder writes, that is simultaneously “a reflection on the impossibility of creating such an idyll.” In an essay focusing on Kubin specifically as a writer, Andreas Geyer calls Perle “equally a realm of dreams and of death… as Kubin’s novel circles again and again around these two great equations of decadence.” For Kubin, things always fall apart. Entropy always rules the day. Kubin’s drawing The Last King (above) exemplifies this inevitability Kubin felt was the fate of the world. “Whatever happens, everyone runs down the prescribed path like a machine,” Kubin once said fatalistically. The Other Side soon became an underground cult classic among contemporary artists and writers, including Kafka, who used many of Kubin’s ideas in works such as The Trial and The Castle. Kafka often receives credit for being a wholly original writer who rose from nowhere, but this catalogue reestablishes the lost link to Kubin that resurrects Kubin’s importance without diminishing Kafka’s brilliance.
Kubin himself presents a problem when it comes to influence. “Did Kubin discover for himself” like-minded artists such as Klinger, “or did these worlds of fantastic visual art and literature find him, one who was particularly receptive to them?,” Schroder asks. It’s tempting to read Kubin as a product of Freud until one realizes that Kubin’s earliest work predates Freud’s 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams. Even when Kubin did read Freud years later, he rejected much of it. Only after developing his own style, which spawned from his early emotional misdevelopment, did Kubin discover an affinity with Goya, Odilon Redon, and Klinger and form relationships with Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and others. After the period examined in this study, Kubin reached back further and further into art history, to Durer, Bosch, and Brueghel, for kindred spirits, but despite “borrow[ing] motifs, us[ing] specific compositional elements, or [finding] inspiration in their atmospheres,” Kubin never takes “his orientation from a single art-historical direction,” writes Peter Assmann in “Artistic Sources for Another Modernism: Alfred Kubin and His Visual Work.” In “The ‘Other Side’ of Modernity,” Werner Hofmann points to a 1902 dual exhibition at Paul Cassirer’s Berlin gallery of Vincent van Gogh and Kubin side by side as exemplifying the distance between Kubin and the rest of modern art. Those “two artistic idioms,” Hofmann writes, Van Gogh’s, which “communicates in vital color, overpowering us with its boundless vitality,” versus Kubin’s “contempt for this world and addiction to death,” concisely illustrate how Kubin took the road less taken. Olaf Peters adds a fascinating coda to the discussion of Kubin’s influence and reception centering on Ernst Junger and the “Conservative Revolution” of post-World War I Germany in which the once-shocking Kubin found acceptance from radical nationalists who shared a contempt for German bourgeois society. In one respect, illustrated beautifully in Self-Observation (above), Kubin remained a typical modern artist in his never-ending introspection and self-alienation as he continually stepped outside himself as an artist and measured himself against contemporaries and greats of the past.
Alfred Kubin (1877-1959). Die Promenade (The Promenade), ca. 1904-05. Pen and ink, watercolor, and spray on paper. 31.5 x 40 cm (12 1/2 x 15 3/4 in.). Private Collection.
The fact that Kubin, Freud, Kafka, and so many other unique, yet similarly unique figures all came from the same geographic area at the same time leads you to believe in the idea of a zeitgeist shaping the souls of a generation. Each of these figures takes a different path to approximately the same destination. Kubin’s seems strange in isolation, but almost understandable in context. The Neue Galerie’s exhibition and the companion catalogue hold up Alfred Kubin as another piece of the puzzle of turn of the 20th century German culture. By discovering Alfred Kubin we rediscover part of what went into that early link in the great chain of modern art. Like the strange figures marching in Kubin’s The Promenade (above), Kubin finds a place in line and adds another voice to the twentieth century’s weird and wonderful parade.
[Many thanks to the Neue Galerie for providing me with a review copy of Alfred Kubin: Drawings 1897-1909, edited by Annegret Hoberg, and for the images above from the exhibition.]