Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mendel Nguyen -- Alfred Kubin

Alfred Kubin
by Wieland Schmied, catalogue by Alfred Marks
Frederick A. Praeger

"The Shadow World of Alfred Kubin"
by Christopher Bentley
The New York Review of Books

Alfred Kubin: 1877-1959 
Shepherd W&K Galleries

"Alfred Kubin," Grove Art Online
by Christopher Brockhaus
Oxford University Press

A quick look through the works of Alfred Kubin should leave no doubt as to the reality of his inner demons. Born in 1877, the Austrian printmaker's troubled childhood began with the death of his mother when he was ten years old. His consistent failure in school earned him the disdain of his father, a former military officer, who would beat him and "[talk] to him as to a sick cow." At fifteen, he was apprenticed to a landscape printmaker, but found no success. As for his love life, his affections never found reciprocation. At nineteen, his despair reached a climax: "A dull depression swept over me, and... I left for the faraway town of my childhood, with a cheap, old gun in my pocket, to shoot myself at the grave of my mother." The firearm misfired, and Kubin, unable to pull the trigger again, would live on to create the creepy images to which he was so one-sidedly committed.

I had recently learned of Alfred Kubin through the cited article in The New York Review of Books, whereupon I immediately encountered The Moment of Birth (1903).
The Moment of Birth (1903): Facsimile prints on Japan paper, 229 x 318 mm
What struck me about the work was the understatement of its horror, and the puzzling narrative it presented. Its gray-cast depiction of this bizarre crab/spider-like monster flinging babies from the water gave me the feeling I was a silent observer of this grotesque dream. And what is it even about? Where do these babies come from? Where are they going? 

Such weird (often spidery) creatures are commonplace in Kubin's work. Equally commonplace are distorted depictions of humans, as in Old Man with Pike (c. 1920/25).
Old Man with Pike (c. 1920/25): Ink on paper, 349 x 260 mm
The portrait of the man is accurate insofar as overall shape and proportion are concerned. Instead, the distortions are of the features: deep wrinkles which sort of remind me of the layers of dried lava folded over itself, and a severely indented nose. 

Another common theme of Kubin's work is the entanglement of sexuality and violence. Take, for instance, the gesture-like Strangler (c. 1918/20). 
Strangler (c. 1918/20): Ink and watercolor on B├╝tten paper, 260 x 381 mm
The stray lines animate the actors, making the violence overt and immediate. Similarly there is The Spider (1902), which, in particular, presents another commonly found notion in Kubin: that of a woman as temptress and destroyer. 
The Spider (1902): Pen and ink on paper, 190 x 247 mm
I suspect that the principal source of my fascination with Kubin are the puzzling narratives of his work. They don't always work for me however, and in fact, I don't much care for any but the first of the images I've posted here. But The Moment of Birth and other works of his like it succeed in truly disturbing and confusing me. Looking at these, I feel like Alice in Wonderland, a foreigner in a world where strange creatures and people abound. But in this dark place of the imagination of Alfred Kubin, there is sometimes a sense of haunting familiarity. 


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  2. Mendel, I love this artist! His way of representation is so vivid and so intense, and it is surprising that just looking at his paintings could be like diving into his mind...a psycho's mind... His works distress me and evoke my full consciousness, and he did an excellent job conveying his message by his art.
    I like your descriptions too! It's nice to find there's someone else sharing this appreciation of Alfred Kubin. (kinda weird appreciation, LOL)