Eerie Alfred Kubin: Forgotten Pioneer of Symbolism, Expressionism, and Surrealism

Here a new art was thrown open to me, which offered free play for the imaginative expression of every conceivable world of feeling.~ Alfred Kubin (upon seeing prints by Max Klinger).

Alfred Kubin, The Moment of Birth, 1903.

If this work from 1903 doesn’t seem really weird to you, and in a good way, with its bizarre crab fishing babies out of the water at The Moment of Birth, than Kubin is probably not your glass of stout and you can click away. If you are intrigued, or merely curious (it takes several images to get what is unique about Kubin), and you haven’t already assimilated the artist’s work, than you are about to peer into a crepuscular dream world you never knew existed.

Alfred Kubin is a seriously underrated artist, categorized as a Symbolist and Expressionist, labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis, virtually unknown to contemporary audiences, and yet he unearthed visions more haunting than the more recognized Symbolists (Odilon Redon or Gustave Moreau), and was a deeply probing Surrealist decades before the term was conceived. His work is weird on a scale that competes with H.R. Giger or Zdzisław Beksiński, but his best creations were executed a surprisingly long time ago, before 1905. nevertheless they have an eerie, dreamlike or nightmarish quality that has the stamp of archetypal, iconic, timelessness.

I would consider this guy one of my biggest influences and favorite artists If I hadn’t just discovered him a year or two ago, though it required just one image to hook me:

Alfred Kubin, Serpent God, 1902-03

This Serpent God from the shadowy underworld of the imagination was completed in 1903. It looks like a snaky, sluggy, eel-like Christ with some sort of reptilian flaps on his head. Notice the weird, speckled, fishy flesh of the compressed tubular section where his legs would otherwise be.

W.B. Yeats, in his Second Coming of 1919 wrote:

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Yeats discovered this beast a bit late, as he’d already slithered his way over a rocky precipice more than a decade before. Notice how the tip of the reptilian savior’s tail hangs over the cliff edge, indicating he’d triumphantly scaled the sheer face through a combination of upper body strength and the sticky, undulating, muscular propulsion of his long, sluggish tail. He announced his presence to us, to God, to the serpents. He may be good, sinister, or terrible.

Kubin’s best works are in grayscale – the palette of the Twilight Zone. Some might be nonplussed by the Christian religious imagery in The Serpent God, no matter how ambiguous it is, in which case take a gander at Man, of 1902.

Alfred Kubin, Man, 1902.

It’s been 116 years since Kubin made this simple drawing, and yet, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. A man with arms bound behind his back and feet affixed to a set of wheels plummets in line with the rails of what looks like a primitive roller coaster. One might say, “So what? It’s not real”. But it IS real: it has been imagined, realized in a still image, and stands as a manifestation of the murky human psyche behind the veil of everyday appearances and quotidian reality. Where is the man going? Nowhere? Is he just perpetually racing over hills of track, helplessly, trying to maintain his balance, skating through life without brakes?

I am perhaps an ideal person to write about Kubin because I’ve worked in similar mediums and perhaps tapped into the same broad subconscious netherworld. I may be more sensitive and appreciative of his creations than critics who have never rendered any such imagery, have lost appreciation or understanding for subtle or arcane expressions of visual language, and prefer non-visually rooted conceptual art that fashions objects for spoken/written language contexts (see my article: Dismantling the Dominant Art Narrative) .


Here are examples of B&W drawings I’ve done which demonstrate why I might have a special affinity for Kubin – no promo. A few of them are a quarter century old, and the rest are new (can you  tell which are the old ones? Hint, they’re not digital.)

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Something has been lost in the contemporary, postmodern art paradigm – visual imagination, and visual language itself. There is the familiar notion that nothing new can be said, written, painted, or imagined. My favorite counter to that is, “when was the cut-off ?”.

When the art of Kubin is seen through the postmodern lens, it is merely an artifact of a defunct mentality. Artists no longer strive to imagine something new within visual language, but instead do something altogether different and only tangentially related. They produce objects which appropriate (borrow or steal) from popular culture, recombine and re-contextualize them to create a witty, sardonic, political, irreverent, commentary that signals a presumed higher level of self-awareness.

There is truth in this. I have no issue with imbuing irony, ambiguity, humor, political consciousness, popular culture references, or levels of self-reflectivity in art any more than in literature or film. Cartoons for adults such as Family Guy, The Simpsons, Futurama, and Bob’s Burger are excellent examples of creative, postmodern productions. My mentioning those shows also indicates I don’t make a division between popular art forms and presumed high art forms. Anyone who reads my blog knows I prefer the rock music of the late 60’s to early 70’s to the visual art of the same period, or even the last century (with several notable exceptions).

There’s just no reason that new sources of subject matter have to happen at the expense of the visual imagination/originality, as opposed to just in addition to it. We never needed to discard original visual images in order to appreciate, incorporate, or reference pop culture, etc.

Alfred Kubin, The Swamp, 1903. This is the most popular image by Kubin, or perhaps just the only one I saw in my art history books or classes.

Visual language offers an alternative to, and checks and balances on, the potential tyranny of unchecked spoken language, and the reduction of reality to conclusions formulated in sentences. Today there’s a growing tendency for all of conscious experience to be distilled into ideology; for art to be constricted to political aims; and for meaning to be shriveled to talking points, one-liners, memes, and chants.

Visual language has itself been derailed by conceptualism and the rampant belief that art consists of objects the purpose of which is to persuade people to believe and accept a given political agenda. The idea that all art is political, and visual language is irrelevant to art, or even the enemy of true and radical art, is a lamentable blindness to visual language and the window it opens on the conscious universe outside of language-based foregone conclusions. It is to sew ones third eye shut, so to speak.

Alfred Kubin, Every Night a Dream Visits Us, 1900.

The descending female creature in Every Night a Dream Visits Us, with her sharpened limbs and head covered in cloth could be fodder for a modern horror movie. Why is she masked so that she can’t see? Is it because she glides through the guidance of the inner eye? We can say that Kubin’s art is that of what the inner eyes sees, and I find it fascinating for that precise reason.

Again, it is the fashion today to make something that one can see through normal vision, and which can be captured by a camera, and to herald that as greater, more factual, and more true, even if, or because it is utilitarian, innocuous, or vapid. None of that, on the other hand, requires a vivid imagination, the ability to render it, or a proficiency with visual language. Kubin is veritably the antithesis of the institutionalized form of art of today, as well as a sorely needed antidote.

Some Background on The Artist

[Before I get started, I’d like to share that I generally think the artist’s background is a non-issue, at least when it comes to accessing, assessing, or merely enjoying his or her work. I would judge the artist by the art, and not the other way around, in the same way I would judge the chef by the meal, and not the opposite.

A dominant contemporary art paradigm, however, is to consider the artist in terms of his or her biology, ethnicity, and presumptions made based on those factoids. For practitioners of that particular worldview, the most important thing to know about Alfred Kubin is that his is a dead white male. I’m joking, of course, but they are not.

The way I see it is that his art was made while the artist was a living, immaterial consciousness, and his art is a manifestation of his imagination, in which case the configuration of his genitalia, percentage of melanin in his epidermis, and so on are of tertiary importance, if at all. I care about all of that as much as I care if he was left or right handed, what his astrological sign was, the color of his eyes, or whether or not he crossed his legs, or how, when he sat.

The simple reason I don’t care about any of that is there are millions of people who would share all of those characteristics and only he made his particular brand of art. If you are thinking this little lecture was ridiculous and unnecessary, than not only do I wholly agree with you, I plead in my defense that I’ve only expressed it because the opposite view is so prevalent in the media today, and in my own art education.]

If you give a hoot about what he looked like, there are surprisingly a lot of photos of him online, and we can tell that he lived to a ripe old age. There’s even a death mask.


Biography:

I don’t like to think biographical details are that important, though each individual is necessarily molded by the circumstances in which he or she exists. As with biology, however, there will be millions of individuals who share similar experiences, but who do not turn it into art, or anything like the same art. Excuse the cliché, but, the proof is in the pudding, in which case the artist’s biography only becomes relevant if his or her work is any good.

Alfred was born in Austria in 1877 and died in 1959 when he was 82. He was known as a writer a well as a maker of images, and he illustrated works by Poe, Kafka, and Dostoevsky. His biggest influence was Max Klinger (the other one, not the guy from M*A*S*H), who is really worth looking into as well. Klinger is the technically more impressive artist with obviously superior drawing skills, and while there is overlap between the two artists, Kubin’s art issues from deeper waters, and is more peculiar and resonant. Klinger is for people who are impressed by technical bravado, Kubin for those who go in for a stranger vision.

Max Klinger: Abduction of Prometheus, 1894. Klinger’s technical skill easily eclipses that of Kubin, but for me his work doesn’t have the same magic. I’m likely to reconsider later.

He was also influenced by the all the usual suspect artists: Munch, Ensor, Redon, Bosch, and Goya (particularly his “Disasters of War”). His authors of choice included Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Sigmund Freud (principally, The Interpretation of Dreams). He was married for a long time to a woman named Hedwig (minus the angry inch). The Nazis labeled him a “degenerate” – surprise, surprise – especially considering that according to one source, within his visual repertoire:

The scenes are maniacal and melancholy, demented, and highly sexualized. It was reported that multiple ladies and gentlemen fainted after viewing his work.

Not really the ideologically pure and wholesome diet of the soldiers of the thousand year Reich! His art is likely not much to the tastes of today’s social justice warriors either, as it might be far too difficult to determine if he has the proper beliefs and allegiances, which are much more important to them than his art, or art. In fact, I’m pretty sure the worst sorts of phobias and prejudices could be projected on him in line with foregone conclusions, such as that he is a sexist, because work which is ambiguous can always be seen selectively only from one of its multiple dimensions. You’ll see what I mean when we examine more of his images.

Kubin was more or less a recluse in his later years, living in a small castle. His best work is not his illustrations of other’s writing, but his exploration of his own imagination which took place in the first decade of the 1900’s. Something tells me he likes cats. He may or may not have been allergic to them. His castle may or may not have had mice. I’m guessing it most likely did, and spiders.

We can get an encapsulation of the most sensationalist stories about him in one sentence from Oxford Art Online:

In 1896, he attempted suicide on his mother’s grave, and his short stint in the Austrian army the following year ended with a nervous breakdown.

His mother, a talented pianist, had died when he was 10 years old, and he was so devastated by this that he later recounted, “the countless corpses and dying people I rendered as an artist are also children of that dreadful day.”

A year after his mother’s death his overbearing father (who considered him a failure) married his mother’s sister, who then died that same year while giving birth. Within this same period he was seduced by a much older pregnant woman. Not long after, in 1897, the death of his army commander was what led to his nervous breakdown. To cap off his tragic coming of age, in 1903 his fiance suddenly passed away. Thus we have all the ingredients for a Freudian smorgasbord in which death, tyranny, war, sex, love and loss are all richly combined.

I dislike sensationalist stories about artists, as it tends to make us seem like we’re crazy, eccentric, tragically flawed, or somehow unable to function in society, especially socially. Nah. I’ve held down mundane jobs for years where nobody who didn’t know even suspected me of being an artist, because I didn’t talk about it much, and dressed appropriately for work. Plus, if you cherry pick, most non-artists are going to have a few choice stories that could easily be construed as evidence of core over-sensitivity, a proclivity for self-destruction, or whatnot, rather than just an episode, incident, or phase in a long life. [For an artist that milks the living crap out of the “I am so different” paradigm to the point of hyper-cringe, see my article on Jonathan Meese.]

I prefer to look at the work as evidence of the complex mind of Kubin: his intent, dedication, perseverance, and prescient awareness of the darkness that was encroaching and would come to fruition in the first two world wars, rather than work back the other way from biographical notes.


The Work:

Here I’ll share some more choice samples of Kubin’s drawings/prints and briefly give my impression of them.

I’m not sure I should be starting off with this next one, but, just to let you know how weird he gets, here we go:

Alfred Kubin, Die Sauger (The Suckers).

This is not one of his best images in terms of the overall image quality, but it’s the audacity of it that surprises me. I was going to make a crack about it being realized long, long before the advent of Japanese tentacle porn, and perhaps speculate the latter is the consequence of the overbearing Japanese work ethic and keeping people repressed at work for way too many hours, but my research shows that tentacle erotica in Japan goes back as far as 1814.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, by Hokusai,1814. The same artist that did “The Great Wave off of Kanagawa” (which you have definitely seen)!

So, starting over again: long, long, after the Japanese established the true contours of the Octopus’s Garden, Kubin produced this very weird underwater scenario. My favorite part is the woman’s hands lost in the mouths of the sucker fish, because I can sorta’ imagine this novel sensation, which is a peculiar thing for a drawing of more than a century ago to arouse.

As I look at this image, or the one by Hokusai, a couple things cross my mind. One is that such work is still controversial today and could be the subject of some sort of protest if the works were deemed offensive, as in, let’s say, perpetuating rape culture, or what have you. I’ve mentioned this in other articles, but when it comes to visual art and censorship, or mere opprobrium, things can go very wrong for the artist. Not only can people project whatever they want on an image, Postmodern theory – the deconstruction wing of it in particular – argues (wrongly) that the audience dictates the meaning of art or literature as much as does the author. A simple rebuttal is that my lack of appreciation of Chinese opera, or even the Italian variety, does not really mean that what I hear is an accurate, or more accurate model of the music than the actual composers had in mind.

The second thought I had about the image, which is related to the first, was a question of whether this is a nightmare, fantasy, or underwater erotica. If it is the latter, than is it the sort of thing that some men project upon women, or do some women fantasize about this themselves? Or, more likely, do some men fantasize that some women fantasize about this sort of thing, perhaps only in their nightmares?

When I look at “The Suckers” I don’t presume to know what the artist’s relationship to it was, nor may he have, nor do I think that is the main point. What arouses my curiosity is that he conjured a universe out of his imagination with peculiar sensations, and if it weren’t for the time he spent with paper and drawing implements, it wouldn’t exist.


Alfred Kubin, The Idol, 1903 [Click for larger version.]

The Idol is one of Kubin’s more resolved works with characteristics you’ll find in many pieces. The idol here is a brute beast somewhere between a dog and rhinoceros, with a diminutive woman thrusting up her breasts seemingly as an offer or kind of posture of worship. This is an inverted hierarchy where the human is subordinated to powerful, dark, and indifferent animal drives and undercurrents.

The two standing figures with flames shooting out from their upturned mouths, and crossed arms that end in sinister blades interest me the most. Here we see that Kubin doesn’t rely on extant imagery but always seeks to evolve his own variety.

The woman’s hair flattened over the stairs like a carpet leading to the icon suggests she’s been frozen in place for an unbearable duration.


Alfred Kubin, Adoration, 1900.

In Adoration, of 1900, above, we can see that the ascendant animal is not necessarily male. The pregnant, eight-breasted, ungulate represents fecundity, and the moon behind its head seasons, cycles, and nature. The animal is upright while the human prostrates herself, swinging a thurible and exposing her buttocks. The intellect is overwhelmed and subordinated to basal animal existence.


Alfred Kubin, Male Sphinx, 1901-03

We have a gender reversal in Male Sphinx, of 1901-03. Kubin’s interpretation of this classic theme markedly diverges from the standard, and is elegantly strange. It wasn’t instantly apparent to me that the Sphinx was male, and then it instantly was, because Kubin doesn’t hesitate to include dramatically tumescent animal members in his art (in case you hadn’t noticed), which seems particularly daring in 1901-03, and still may make people uncomfortable more than a century later.

This obviously virile Sphinx is strapped to a pedestal at the upper thighs but his paws are merely fixed with twin, delicate, even feminine pins that might be more suitable for displaying butterflies.

The mostly human female (she has a snake’s tongue, animal ears, and her feet turn into paws) arcs and contorts stiffly but beautifully, with her hair swerving into an energetic S shape. Most peculiar is the way her thighs bend impossibly backwards, and the way her calf separates too much from her shin.

We can see here that Kubin’s vision outstrips his technical ability – the breasts are too high, almost coming out of her neck, stuck together, and otherwise awkward; her tongue looks like she’s got a forked piece of straw in her mouth; and her ear is too high and close to her forehead. The other aberrations of the inverse arching of the woman’s legs, and the Sphinx’ exaggeratedly narrow waist and conversely large rib-cage, are more deliberate. The latter distortion serves the purpose of accentuating the pent-up libidinous energy of the lion-man, which cannot be released.

I’m most drawn to the contrast between the two chimerical beings and their mysterious relationship. She is virtually standing on his head and seems to be performing some ritual exercise. She is bony and pupil-less, while he is muscular and stairs off into space. Is she taunting him, or do they represent a symbiotic relationship: a marriage of opposites that creates a more daunting and enticing whole?


Alfred Kubin, Siberian Fairy Tale, 1902.

Siberian Fairy Tale features a giantess whose head opens on top into a spherical eye that projects an intense beam of light. She picks off people one at a time, dangles them overhead in the penetrating light as if for inspection – at which instant they appear to be incinerated – and then summarily tosses them away expired back onto the snow far below.

The female here is all-powerful, and this is another instance where Kubin is just too unpredictable to pigeonhole as necessarily serving up predictable and redundant sexual norms.

When looking at visual art I am less concerned with the interpretation of the imagery than with the rendition of it. Interpretations happen in linguistics, and if we just want to reduce the artwork to written or spoken statements we could skip visual art altogether and just stick to writing. Interpretation, to the degree it is useful when regarding visual art, is to help the viewer access the non-verbal substance that is another kind of expression of human cognition.

My favorite part of this image is how Kubin handles the emanation of light. Notice how he made the figure currently within the beam dark because we are seeing the scene from above, in which case the figure’s back is in shadow. This darkness, by contrast, makes the light appear brighter.

The shape of the human under examination, as well as the one free-falling in the background have attenuated, angled limbs that are insectoid. It brings back Gloucester’s line in Shakespeare’s King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.

People are subjected by this supernatural giantess to the fate of ants fried in the concentrated beam of the sun aimed through a child’s magnifying glass.


Alfred Kubin, Serpent-Nightmare, 1903-04.

There’s a simple but important thing I want you to notice about Serpent-Nightmare – the snake’s head is too long and unnatural. Kubin didn’t copy a snake’s head from nature, but rather conjured it from memory or out of thin air. When so many artists stress fealty to physical appearance, Kubin isn’t interested in how things appear in everyday reality, but rather in articulating an alternate reality that is part deference to natural appearance (ex., he will use modestly convincing lighting and shading), but at least as much mitigated by the demands/opportunities of aesthetics (the quality of line, shape, composition), and mostly contoured to the expression of his unique vision.

In other words, he didn’t strive to portray an unnatural subject in everyday existence, but to conjure another reality entirely both in terms of subject and appearance.

Here we have another powerful female form, this time with the head of a snake, the overpowering paws and arms of a tiger, and the torso and lower body of a robust woman.

She stands, as his figures often do, in a body of water, waves her broad paws in the air, one with menacingly spread claws, and gazes heavenward with blind eyes. Is the serpent our nightmare, or is this a depiction of the serpent’s nightmare, or both? Do we fear her, desire her, empathize with her, or all of those things?

We see a unique presentation of a being in a predicament, and while at first we might see a monster, we are really looking at a conveyance of the artist’s predicament of being, at a slice of the human condition. While some may reject the snake-tiger-woman as too removed from real humans to represent any meaningful insight into what it is to be human, the contrary is true – it is the peculiarity, idiosyncrasy, and individuality which sets it aside from undifferentiated, banal reality, and signals that a creative consciousness was present and recorded in its making.

If aliens were to uncover this drawing somehow preserved, far in the future, after our species had done itself in, they’d know that we were consciousness, with a highly evolved imagination, and inhabited our own interior worlds.


Alfred Kubin realized imagery that was claimed by the Symbolists, the Expressionists, and which foretold Surrealism, but his style is Alfred Kubinism, a unique voice unto himself.

His imagery from the netherworld of the subconscious still resonates today, and even I wasn’t comfortable discussing a couple of his more shocking pieces in detail (now that I said that I suppose I’ll have to discuss them in the next section).

In the last half century we’ve given non-visual visual art such institutional preference over any deliberate attempt at evocative or original imagery that the likes of Alfred Kubin have been thoroughly buried if favor of the anti-art pranks of Marcel Duchamp and his offshoots [for a more thorough analysis of this see my recent article, Dismantling the Dominant Art Narrative]. My issue here is not that we must choose one branch of art or the other, visual art or conceptual art, but rather that conceptual art has been chosen for us to the exclusion of visual art.

For those of us who are interested in the evolution of the visual arena of human consciousness – which is manifested in the continuation of exploring visual possibilities and producing novel imagery – Alfred Kubin matters. He created never-before-seen images that expanded the range of the visual imagination, and has directly and indirectly influenced scores of following artists, including me (indirectly because I didn’t even know he was the source of certain kinds of images until I recently rediscovered him). 

The remainder of this article is a further selection of Kubinn’s work with captions and brief commentary.


Alfred Kubin, Thou Shalt Not Kill, 1900-1901.

The Gollum-like creature’s crossed ankles are my favorite detail of this image. Judging from the weapon protruding from the woman’s back, and how her left arm is bent backwards with the palm up, I’d guess this creature is the kind of cretin you are if you are a killer.

Alfred Kubin. Couldn’t find a title for this one.

I tried to warn you! This is about tied for his most disturbing image, according to me (the other is coming up). Male frontal nudity is a taboo today in art, let alone a century ago, let alone the priapus is gigantic and has just ejaculated. I’m not sure if it helps at all that the engorged member in question belongs to a dog, or if it makes it worse. Here, male animal lust is an irrepressible force of nature which the woman tries to shield herself from. This is the recurring theme of our animal existence in conflict with our mental picture of ourselves: the Freudian battle between the id and the ego.

Alfred Kubin, Danger, 1901.

Surrealism wouldn’t arrive for about 2 decades from the time this drawing was completed, yet the figure of “Danger”, with his extendable, rubbery neck could pass for an early Dali or Ernst.

Alfred Kubin, Straznik, 1903.

A man-ish creature (a man would likely be clothed) is sitting on a platform in a pool surrounded by a wall of rock too high to climb. The translation of “straznik” I get is “guard”, but whatever he might be guarding is not in the picture. I sense waiting and contemplating.

Alfred Kubin, The Ape, 1903-04.

This reminds me of all the horror movies where the monsters capture a woman and whisk her off to their secret lairs, from Creature from the Black Lagoon to the more obvious King Kong. Most alarming is that the primitive animal has the woman’s head clutched in his mouth, gripped by two fearsome incisors.

OK, OK, some feminists might argue that this represents women as hapless victims destined to be perpetually devoured by toxic male conquest, and that the picture is a prurient trophy intended for a male audience only. The other, more convincing argument, is that the ape represents an unconscionable brutality, and condemns it as sub-human rather than celebrates it.

Alfred Kubin, The Brood, 1903.

By today’s standards this might pass as cute, especially if one had a pet ferret, but my guess is it was intended to be a bit unsettling in terms of biology. If one were to anthropomorphize the weasel, ermine, mink, or whatever it is, that’s a prolific number of offspring. It’s the tyranny of the biological imperative over how the mind might prefer to define reality, and its place in it.

The overall impression is just the odd quality of Kubin’s draftsmanship and choice of subject matter.

Alfred Kubin, The Last Adventure, 1901.

A fallen soldier comes face to face with a coiled white snake with a woman’s face and parted hair. Her visage signifies his adventures have come to an end.

Alfred Kubin, Der Sauger (The Sucker), 1908.

One of his less frequent color works, the elephantine creature has no mouth and its trunk ends in a sucking aperture worthy of a tape worm.

Alfred Kubin, The Symphonies, 1901-02.

A composer and his muse, or something he’s interpreting, desperately trying to fend off, or materializing. Perhaps this is how Kubin imagines a composer might perform the musical equivalent of one of his images.

Alfred Kubin, The Horror, 1902.

A ship has lost its mast and a giant skull with an inflated eye portends what the next wave will visit upon the crew.

Alfred Kubin, The Egg, 1901-1902.

A glowing, pregnant corpse fit to burst emerges from a grave while a wand-wielding, silhouetted statue looms in the background: the sorcery from which life burgeons forth from death.

Alfred Kubin, Epidemic, 1900.

A gigantic skeleton releases a bag of pestilence onto a town.

Alfred Kubin, Oppression.

Trapped under the weight of a lumbering, blubbery fish, a man struggles to elevate himself.

Kubin Alfred, Pocalunek, 1903.

This is the other piece that I find the most disturbing, unless I’m reading it wrong. It looks like a man is performing cunnilingus on a shriveled, rotting corpse with an exposed skull. At first this struck me as gratuitously perverse, not to mention disgusting. But now I am starting to sense a tenderness, and that this may be more symbolic than visceral. Now that I’ve realized some ambiguity I’m going to suspend judgement.

This image is a good example of one in which there’s a real danger in coming to a fixed interpretive conclusion (ex., Alfred Kubin is a necrophiliac!). Recently in the art world there have been demands to destroy work by artists because of offended activist’s insistence on one interpretation being absolute – their own. A lesson here is that we can not presume the artist’s relation to an image, whether it is endorsing or condemning what it depicts, or something in between, or better yet something outside of linguistic formulations altogether.

Alfred Kubin, Heidnisches Opfer (Pagan Sacrifice), 1900.

The 6-eyed head on the right looks like something Neo-Expressionist, Francesco Clemente might have drawn in the 1980’s. Why six eyes and why are the eyes fading towards the top of the head? I’ve been referring to most these pieces as “images” because they are not quite drawings and not quite paintings. He’s used cross-hatching on the body of the man, which is a drawing technique, but the background was made with a splattering technique, which is more in line with painting. It might be more accurate to call these “illustrations”, but that word tends to have a commercial connotation that is on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of expected content.

kubin-marsbewohner

Alfred Kubin, marsbewohner (Martian).

They’re Martians! I only just discovered that, though I thought they looked alien, when I copy-pasted “marsbewohner” into Google Translate. I like to provide the titles and dates of all works I share, if I can find them. I’ve simply got to do an homage to this in the future. As followers of my blog well know, I have a love of aliens which is in part nostalgia for my childhood and the transportive escape that sci-fi offered into imaginative realms beyond my working class upbringing and surroundings in Los Angeles. These aliens also show the influence of Bosch on Kubin.

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

Alfred Kubin, Lady on the Horse 1901 (pen and ink, wash, and spray on paper).

One of Kubin’s more overtly political images – common people are sliced to pieces under the sharpened rockers of an aristocratic lady’s towering rocking horse. She sits stiffly, giving us only her stern profile, cool and indifferent to those “beneath” her.

One Woman For All 1901

Alfred, Kubin, One Woman For All, 1901.

In contrast to the work above, here a woman is clearly the victim, and men are reduced to savage apes. At first this image might seem a sadistic, fetishistic, indulgence in bestial rape fantasies, but I rather think it represents outrage against what it depicts. As critics who’ve written about Kubin like to point out, the darkest nightmares he portrayed were soon overshadowed by the horrors of World War I and II. Some argue that he sensed the potential for destruction, depravity, and chaos at the turn of the century in Europe, which is not a stretch considering he was reading Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Freud.

In this sense the image could be seen as a warning that was not heeded rather than as necessarily part and parcel of the evil that was soon to come.

The Best Doctor; 1901

Alfred Kubin, The Best Doctor, 1901

Death cures a patient by snuffing out life in the ironically titled, “The Best Doctor”. We are so accustomed to the most gratuitously sick horror movies that it might take a few seconds to notice how wicked the head of the doctor is here. The single, long lock of hair on the front of the skull, surrounded by a vast expanse of exposed bone until we reach the back of the head, is a gruesome detail.

The Flower Snake

Alfred Kubin, The Flower Snake.

Here a man swings from the tip of a snake’s tail as his only hope before falling into a dark void. He can neither climb up, in which case he will be devoured, nor let go and plummet into eternal nothingness.

The Past (Forgotten - Sunken) 1901

Alfred Kubin, The Past (Forgotten – Sunken), 1901.

This is a very similar image to Straznik (the Guard) of two years later, which I shared earlier. Here is another image of a figure, frozen, sitting on a slab, and gazing upward or inward. The vulture-headed, stone man represents the past, and perhaps the unlearned lessons of the past which humankind was doomed to repeat, as Goya’s horrific illustrations of The Disasters of War from 1810-1820 would be relived a century later.

In trying to make the figure more monumental and stone-like, Kubin has emphasized lighting and shading rather than using outline to delineate his subject. His shading works best on the fingers of the left hand, but it is working almost in spite of itself. Kubin was a master of neither color (best when not used), anatomy, perspective, nor lighting and shading. A lot of artists with a year of conventional training could make corrections to this work. The front of the slab the figure sits on is in shade, for example, but the man’s front is not.

Just notice how thin and flat his left thigh is, or that the peculiarly protruding line down the center of his chest does not meet up with the center of his vulture neck. I think it’s safe to say that everything is wrong with this rendering by academic drawing standards.

Kubin doubtlessly knows the basics of drawing, but I believe when creating his images he relies on free association, instinct, and impression rather than rules. If everyone followed the rules of rendering, everyone’s art would look the same. No artist can encompass every aspect of art-making, and thus he or she has to make decisions and compromises, prioritizing which things to emphasize.

Kubin is after an overall impression that is a documentation of a fleeting vision, not a painstakingly accurate portrayal of physical objects stationary in quotidian reality.

As the quote at the top of the post made explicit, Kubin sought “the imaginative expression of every conceivable world of feeling”, and not an unimaginative and unfeelingly accurate portrayal of the world as is.

~ Ends


Funding. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per month to help keep me going (y’know, so I don’t have to put art back on the back-burner while I slog away at a full-time job). Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art. See how it works here.

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2 thoughts on “Eerie Alfred Kubin: Forgotten Pioneer of Symbolism, Expressionism, and Surrealism

  1. I am at the Prague national gallery and have just stumbled across an exhibition of Kubin’s work. I am floored by his works. I immediately had to research him. Your writings have been invaluable as I make my way through the exhibit. He is now one of my favourite artists!! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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