Alfred Kubin was born in Bohemia in 1877 (Bohemia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Like many people, Kubin could see the direction which Austrian society was taking, and it seemed to rob him of direction. As a teenager he tried to learn photography for four pointless years from 1892 until 1896. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide on his mother’s grave. He enlisted and was promptly drummed out of the Austrian army. He joined various art schools and left without finishing. Then, in Munich, Kubin saw the works of symbolist and expressionist artists Odilon Redon, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, and Félicien Rops. His life was changed—he devoted himself to making haunting art in the same vein. His exquisite mezzotint prints are full dream monsters, spirit animals, ghosts and victims. These dark works seemed to presage the era which followed. Yet throughout the nightmare of both World Wars and the post-war reconstruction, Kubin lived in relative isolation in a small castle.
After Anschluss in 1938, Kubin’s work was labeled degenerate, yet his age and his hermit life protected him and he continued working through the war and until his death in 1958. In later life he was lionized as an artist who never submitted to the Nazis (although possibly he was too absorbed in his own dark world to notice the even darker one outside).
Kubin’s beautiful prints look like the illustrations of a children’s book where dark magical entities broke into the story and killed all of the characters and made their haunted spirits perform the same pointless rituals again and again. Great dark monuments loom over the lost undead. Death and the maiden appear repeatedly, donning their roles in increasingly abstract guise until it is unclear which is which.
My favorite aspect of the works are the shadow monsters and hybrid animals which often seem to have more personality and weight than the little albescent people they prey upon. The gloomy ink work is so heavy it seems to lack pen strokes—as though Kubin rendered these little vignettes from dark mist.
Kubin’s imagery was naturally seen through the psychosexual lens of Freudianism. He was claimed by the symbolists, and the expressionists. Yet his work seems to really exist in its own mysterious context. Kubin’s greatest works seem to involve a narrative which the viewer does not know, yet the outlines of which are instantly recognizable (like certain recurring nightmares).
Gifted in multiple ways, Kubin wrote his own novel, The Other Side, which has been compared to Kafka for its dark absurdity. I certainly haven’t read it, but if anyone knows anything about it, I would love to hear more below. In the meantime look again at this broken world of Gothic horror and wonder. Then maybe go have some candy and enjoy some flowers. There is plenty more dark art coming