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Lady on the Horse (Alfred Kubin, 1938, Pen and ink, wash, and spray on paper)

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.

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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).

 

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The North Pole (Alfred Kubin 1902)

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.

 

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The Pond (Alfred kubin, ca. 1905)

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.

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The Egg (Alfred Kubin, 1902)

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).

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The Government (Alfred Kubin)

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

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Snakes in the City (Alfred Kubin,1911, pen and ink)

 

 

In the Pavilion of the Red Clown (Robert Williams, 2001, oil on canvas)

In the Pavilion of the Red Clown (Robert Williams, 2001, oil on canvas)

Here is a contemporary picture by Robert Williams, the master of low-brow art.  In fact it is so very contemporary that you can still order high quality limited edition prints directly from the artist (who will hopefully forgive me for using his image–considering that I just linked to his online store).  The painting is obviously appropriate for Halloween week because of the masks, the pageantry, and the salacious costume worn by the circus girl (to say nothing of the uninhibited and rampant alcohol abuse on display), but what is the larger meaning?

At first the painting seems like a straightforward representation of an evil clown menacing a damsel in distress—the stock-in-trade cliché of horror films and pulp fiction everywhere. The inappropriate tongue-like nose on the clown’s mask, the rearing serpent, and the clown’s incarnadine garb all serve a rather straightforward Freudian narrative of male perversion and oppression.

Yet the clown grows more sympathetic on closer viewing. His leg is a prosthetic.  He is an alcoholic. It is questionable if he is menacing the showgirl or if she is a knowing part of the act.  The clown’s flamboyant red Pagliacci-style costume illustrates his intensity as a performance, and (as in Pagliacci ) the point of the painting is how thoroughly artists become subsumed into their art.  We the audience are represented by the (vaguely) surprised showgirl and Williams himself is the desperate artist who, like a desperate maimed clown, is trying to get a rise out of us with every old trick in the book. See how desperate and drunk he is! His life has become his art—and it is a bemusing spectacle. The poor clown doesn’t even have his caged bird but just an angry capricious serpent and a drinking problem.

Here is an enigmatic painting by an enigmatic artist.  Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) did not start painting until he was in his forties—around the time his wife Clémence Boitard died.  The couple had six children but only one survived to adulthood (the rest died as infants or succumbed to childhood disease).  Rousseau made his living with a dull career as a toll collector. Later, when he was working as an artist, detractors belittled him as Le Douanier “the customs officer”.  He never visited the tropics or saw a jungle, but painted from illustrations, taxidermied animals, and Parisian hothouses. Initially ridiculed as childlike and flat, Rousseau’s works commanded the attention of a new generation of modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, and Brâncuşi, all of whom were influenced by him (as were several succeeding generations of artists).  However, just as his work began to gain traction, he died.

The Snake Charmer (Henri Rousseau, 1907, oil on canvas)

Commissioned by Comtesse de Delaunay,  Rousseau’s painting The Snake Charmer (above) was finished in 1907.  The painting features strange snakes made of empty space gliding out of a fecund jungle towards a nude musician also composed of darkness.  A spoonbill stares at the scene with a crazy empty smile.  Behind the figures, a green river ripples under the tropical sun.  Rousseau was not trying to titillate his audience with an exoticized picture of an oriental snake charmer (like the exquisitely crafted picture below by the great French salon artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose work was the pinnacle of French art a generation earlier).

The Snake Charmer (Jean-Léon Gérôme,1870, oil on canvas)

Instead of Gérôme’s ethnic stereotypes and off-putting eroticism, there is a sense of true menace and mystery in Rousseau’s painting.  Within the lush strangling wall of plants there are tendrils of nothingness which move in obedience to some otherworldly music. The universe is not the place we think.  Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer two years after Einstein’s “year of wonders” when the Swiss physicist, then working as a lowly patent clerk, conceived several radical theories which fundamentally changed how we look at space and time.  Whether, by accident or by design, The Snake Charmer captures some of the uncertainties that were winding their way through art, politics, and science in the era just before the first World War.   Unlike many other paintings from that era, Rousseau’s work has stayed fresh and disturbing.  Whenever we think something is certain, we start to see the alien serpents of oblivion wound up in the landscape, belying what we think we know.

Here is a print created in 1516 AD by the gothic master Albrecht Dürer.  It portrays the familiar theme of Prosperine (Persephone) abducted by Pluto (Hades) the god of the underworld—an event which underpins classical mythology about the changing of the seasons.  The print itself is about the capricious suddenness of change—a subject familiar to any inhabitant of late-medieval/early-modern Germany.

Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn (Albrect Dürer, 1516, etching from iron plate)

Dürer was probably the greatest and most prolific of the late gothic artists from Northern Europe.  Over the course of his life (1471 – 1528) he produced countless drawings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and paintings.  Although his paintings are phenomenal, Dürer’s greatest contribution to art may have been as a printmaker. Invented in the 1440’s, the printing press was still comparatively new technology during Dürer’s life. However, as is evident in this iron etching, Dürer had already pushed the limits of what printing could do.  He was Europe’s first great mass-artist.

In this scene, Pluto has cruelly grabbed the naked maiden goddess.  Her distress and misery outweigh her nudity and beauty.  Her face is distorted into a horrified mask. Each element of the print combines to create a powerful narrative about the ominous and unstable nature of existence. The floating/dissolving jagdschloss in the background hints at life’s instability. The sinister presence of Pluto dominates the composition.  Although his body is hidden by Proserpine, the predatory mass of arms, hair, legs, and scowl is all too present.

Even in a wholly fantastic scene such as this, the realistic details are overwhelming.  Pluto’s wild hair becomes a part of the bracken and gorse of the savage woods where the abduction is taking place.  The unicorn is neither a horse nor a goat (nor a gentle purveyor of rainbows) but a one-of-a-kind hellbeast which has just galloped up from the Stygian depths.

The only hopeful element of the composition is the sky–where a beautiful mass of clouds which are piled up like clots of cream or a fallen robe hints at a future less dark and violent.

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