Kubin created a hallucinatory vision in this work through a subtle play of light across a mysterious subject. The flaming cauldron, with its hint of orange, illuminates a floating skull, the centerpiece of an unknown ritual whose diminutive participants are enveloped and obscured by a foggy veil. In his youth, Kubin apprenticed with a photographer, and the dramatization of darkness and light in this drawing is reminiscent of the techniques and chemistry of photography: this scene emerges out of the shadows much like an image appears on paper in the developer bath of a darkroom.
Although most of his adult life fell within the twentieth century, Kubin’s art belongs to the late-nineteenth-century Austrian Symbolist movement. During this era, many artists and writers perceived a cultural decline across Europe and contemplated the future with apprehension and pessimism. The anxious attitude prevalent in these years, as well as the artist’s personal experiences with grief and isolation, including the death of his mother, influenced his unnerving subject matter. Describing his adolescence, he wrote, “From the start I had found keen pleasure in dwelling in imagination on catastrophe and the upsurge of primeval forces; it was like an intoxication, accompanied by a prickly feeling along my spine.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)