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Alfred Kubin (Austrian, 1877–1959)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Austrian draughtsman, illustrator, painter and writer. In 1892 he was apprenticed in Klagenfurt to the landscape photographer Alois Beer. Though learning very little, he remained there until 1896, when he attempted to commit suicide as a result of his unstable disposition. A brief period in the Austrian army in 1897 led to a nervous collapse, after which he was allowed to study art. In 1898 he moved to Munich, where he studied first at the private school run by the German painter Ludwig Schmidt-Reutte (1863–1909) and then briefly at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in the drawing class of Nikolaus Gysis in 1899. In Munich he first saw the graphic work of James Ensor, Goya, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon and Félicien Rops, finding Klinger’s work closest to his own aesthetic. He also read Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy, which he found attractive, and befriended many artists, including the Elf Scharfrichter circle around Frank Wedekind. His work of the period largely consisted of ink and wash drawings modelled on Goya’s and Klinger’s aquatint technique. By their inclusion of fantastic monsters and deformed or maimed humans, these drawings revealed Kubin’s abiding interest in the macabre. Thematically they were related to Symbolism, as shown by the ink drawing The Spider (c. 1900–01; Vienna, Albertina), which depicts a grotesque woman-spider at the centre of a web in which copulating couples are ensnared. This reflects the common Symbolist notion of the woman as temptress and destroyer.

In 1902 Kubin had his first one-man show at the Galerie Cassirer in Berlin, which was well received by the critics. In 1903 Alfred Kubin: Fünfzehn Faksimiledrucke, a folio of reproductions of his drawings, was published in Munich, and the same year he provided illustrations for Tristan (Berlin), a collection of six novellas by Thomas Mann. Work by Kubin was included in exhibitions organized by the Vienna and Berlin Secessions in 1903, and in 1904 in the ninth Phalanx exhibition in Munich. Kubin retained the dark, symbolist spirit in his work, for example Boy by the Pond (ink and wash, c. 1903; Vienna, Albertina); sometimes he added watercolour to the ink drawings, as in The Cardinal (c. 1903–4; Munich, Lenbachhaus), showing a praying cardinal lying outstretched in a coffin. Although his best works were the ink drawings, Kubin longed to be a painter, and in 1905 he experimented with a colour paste paint technique he had learnt from Kolo Moser; this resulted in such works as the Tsar by the Tombs of his Ancestors (1905; Munich, Lenbachhaus). He also used tempera and gouache, for example in Foreboding (tempera, 1906; Munich, Lenbachhaus).

In 1906 Kubin travelled to Paris, where he visited the ageing Redon, and later that year he settled in Zwickledt. He continued illustrating books, such as Die Tatsachen im Falle Waldemar (Berlin, 1908), the first of several German editions of books by Poe that he illustrated. In 1909 he published his novel Die andere Seite, which he also illustrated. Characteristically fantastic and grotesque, the book describes the travels of a graphic artist in a fictional country in Asia called Traumreich Perle, whose destruction he witnesses. In 1911 a folio of reproductions of Kubin’s ink drawings, Sansara: Ein Cyklus ohne Ende, consisting of works from 1909–10, was published in Munich and Leipzig. Though similar in subject-matter, the works, such as The Ape (1909; Munich, Lenbachhaus), were more sketchy and less solidly executed than those earlier in the decade. For the portfolio Kubin wrote an autobiographical preface, which was expanded in the second edition of Die andere Seite (1917) and expanded and reprinted in later books also. After 1909 Kubin was a member of the Neue künstlervereinigung münchen and exhibited with its successor the Blaue Reiter in 1911, as well as contributing drawings to Der Blaue Reiter in 1912. Through this involvement he became a friend of Franz Marc and, also at this time, of Paul Klee. He continued to illustrate numerous books, including Dostoyevsky’s Die Doppelgänger (Munich, 1913) and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Nachtstücke (Munich and Leipzig, 1913).

Though exempted from service by ill-health, Kubin was deeply affected by World War I. Occasionally he treated the war directly in his work, as in The Mortar (ink and watercolour, 1914; Munich, Lenbachhaus), but usually he approached it more obliquely. In 1915–16 he worked on a series of pen drawings published as Die Blätter mit dem Tod (Berlin, 1918), which reflected the grim prevalence of death at the time. Kubin was also thrown into turmoil intellectually and, in a search for direction, read books by Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as briefly converting to Buddhism in 1916. End of the War (ink and watercolour, 1920; Munich, Lenbachhaus) perfectly expressed his feeling towards the war; it shows a skeleton crowned with a laurel wreath slumped on the ground beneath a black sky shot with a single patch of red. In 1923 Fünfzig Zeichnungen was published in Munich. This was a collection of reproductions of drawings made by Kubin from 1912 for the periodical Simplicissimus. His works of the 1920s were sometimes calmer than before, as in Tree of Life (pen lithograph, 1924; Munich, Lenbachhaus). Throughout this decade he continued to illustrate numerous books, including works by August Strindberg, Hans Christian Andersen, Heinrich von Kleist, Frank Wedekind and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, including the latter’s Drei Erzählungen (Leipzig, 1927). Despite being tied to a specific text in his illustrative work, his choice of book invariably allowed him free rein for his taste for the fantastic and bizarre.

Kubin’s work of the 1930s was generally less savage than earlier but retained a strong suggestive power, as in the dark Meeting in the Forest (c. 1931–2; Munich, Lenbachhaus). The rise of Fascism and World War II was rarely an overt subject but occasionally appeared allegorically, as in The Cobra (ink drawings, 1936; Vienna, Albertina), which shows a vast snake invading and towering above a crowd. During the war Kubin remained in Zwickledt and continued working, although his output decreased. His later ink drawings include the powerful Drought (1948; Vienna, Albertina) and Caliban (1954; Vienna, Albertina), the latter inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. His later illustrated books included E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Märchen (Vaduz, 1947) and also Variationen zu Arthur Honegger, Der Totentanz, Dichtung von Paul Claudel (Vienna and Munich, 1951). There is an archive at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich, containing drawings, paintings and other material by Kubin.

Christoph Brockhaus
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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