The Shadow World of Alfred Kubin

The Life and Art of a True Original

The characteristic feature of this strange art is that it attempts to depict the extrasensory, to provide symbols for the mysterious forces to which we are subjected in our daily lives but which we do not know – indeed, that is revealed to us only in wild dreams and fantasies, in states of clairvoyant nervous strain. – Extract from the Berliner Illustrirte, 1903

Kubin was born in 1867 in Bohemia in the area that is now part of the Czech Republic. He had a difficult childhood as his mother died when he was ten years old and his father was a cruel man who saw his son as good-for-nothing. He became distant from his family and began play out fantasies of sadism and catastrophes, born out of his hate towards his father and all other men. When he was eleven and a half, he was seduced by an older pregnant woman that he himself admitted “must have cast its shadow on [his] early manhood”. He was not successful at school and went to work for his uncle by marriage who was a photographer in Carinthia. While he did not learn much in the way of an apprentice from his uncle he did see many photographs of things he had never seen that left an impression on him. When he was nineteen he attempted suicide at his mother’s grave after a nervous breakdown, but his rusty pistol failed to fire. Fired by his uncle, he attempted to join the army as a last resort, but another mental breakdown led to four months in an army hospital followed by Kubin returning to his family home.

In 1898 on the advice of a family friend, Kubin’s father finally allowed him to study art in Munich where he first studied under Ludwig Schmidt-Reutte in private drawing classes for a year. He also attended some of Nikolaus Gysis’s classes at the academy, but hated the traditional techniques of drawing still lives and nudes. Instead, he found inspiration in the work of philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who enforced his bleak worldview. He discovered the work of artists that he liked and began to collect it, Klinger, Goya, de Groux, Rops, Munch, Ensor, Redon and other symbolists (who believed in the rejection of the dominant school of naturalism and that art should “clothe ideas in a perceptible form”. Klinger and Goya’s influence can easily be seen in the works of his early period in his heavy use of aquatint and their grotesque and fantastical dreamlike content (El sueño de la razón produce monstrous after all). He would become involved in the Sturmfackel circle of artists (who belonged to a number of different schools) that also included Ernst Stern, Alexander Salzmann, Albert Weisgerber, Gino Finetti, and Rudolf Levy. Through contacts in the group, he was able to organize his first gallery showing at the Galerie Paul Cassirer in Berlin in winter 1901-02, but the content of his paintings shocked the press and caused outrage. Shortly after this, he met Hans von Weber, who as a patron, was crucial during Kubin’s early period. Only a few weeks after meeting one another, he was planning to publish a selection of Kubin’s prints. The portfolio was well-received and gained him recognition in wider circles. Two additional portfolios were planned but never materialised, as it is believed the pair felt the subject matter (one of erotic prints, the other parodying church and state) would be too controversial.

In 1902-03, Kubin’s work became tamer when he met his young girlfriend Emmy Bayer in Scharding and spent many happy months with her. The tone of his work became less disturbing, which he himself in his autobiography claims was due to having a regular sex life for the first time. Bayer would die though in December of 1903 and shortly afterwards he would meet the woman who would be his wife for a life time, Hedwig Grundler, the sister of Karl Wolfskehl who had been widowed at a young age. It was not a marriage without problems though, as Hedwig was frequently ill and became addicted to morphine, spending frequent spells in sanatoriums from 1904 until 1919. The substantial dowry they received was depleted by her addiction and due to her absence Kubin once again was alone without a sex life. In the winter of 1904 he returned to the muted style of his earlier work and produced some of his famous works such as Hunengrab and Sterbende Stadt.

In March 1905, he travelled to Vienna where he learned from Koloman Moser the technique of adding paste to watercolours which would allow him to create unique colour effects and he would experiment with this technique for two years, before deciding to return to tempera. His tempera works would show the influence of Redon, but also the Barbizon school, such as Corot, Diaz, Daubigny and Rousseau. Moving from Munich to Zwickledt in Austria in 1906, he began working on his famous underwater landscapes. Once again this new direction did not stick though, and in the following year he became interested in the work of the successors of Gaugain, the French Nabis. During this time he presented a new collection of thirty-two of his new tempera works at the Galerie Thannhauser in Munich. As the pieces were so different to his earlier work, the audience was confused and as a result his artwork sales dropped to virtually zero.

1907 would see another change in his style as he travelled to Bosnia and Dalmatia where he met his friend Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando. It was during this journey that he began to draw the pen-and-ink sketches that would define the style of his late period. Later in the year, his father died nearby Schalding, which lead to a creative crisis as Kubin found it difficult to draw and produced only a few drawings in 1908. In the autumn, after returning from a trip to northern Italy, he found that he could not draw anything; he was “not capable of putting down coherent, intelligible lines.” He felt the need to work so strongly that he began to write and found that what he was writing came to him so intensely that he had to work day and night for twelve weeks until the book was completed. He spent the next four weeks illustrating the novel, which became his fantastic novel. Die Andere Seite (The Other Side).

Other Posts by Paul Charles Smith on Alfred Kubin:

Themes in the Early Work of Kubin

The Other Side

The following autobiographical sources were used for this article, Alfred Kubin: The Early Work up to 1909 by Annegret Hoberg, as well as Kubin’s own autobiography. Illustrations are from the Neue Gallery’s catalogue, Alfred Kubin: Drawings 1897-1909. All material belongs to its legal owners and is reproduced here under fair usage.

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