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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Twisted Visions: The Life and Art of Alfred Kubin


Introduction


"I always found our world to be ghostly through and through." - Alfred Kubin


Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) hit rock bottom in the autumn of 1896. After an argument with a colleague, he fled his apprenticeship in a Klagenfurt photo studio and traveled north to Zell am See in Austria. Somewhere along the way, he got hold of a rusty old revolver. The plan was simple: Go to his mother's grave and blow his brains out in dramatic fashion. He scratched an X on his temple to help him point the barrel in the right spot. Good thinking. There's nothing more regrettable than surviving a botched headshot. 


It didn't go as planned, like everything in his life up to that moment. Arriving at the cemetery, he just sat there, stalling, praying to his mother for the strength to do what he came to do while hoping for some divine sign so he wouldn't have to do it. 

But when none appeared from the cold and indifferent universe, he lifted the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. 


And then...click, nothing happened.


Misfire. A second attempt was out of the question. Shaken that he'd actually gone through with it and was still alive, he became violently ill and collapsed to the ground sobbing. Sometime later, after calming down, he got up, dusted himself off, and returned to his father's in shame. 


Who knows? Maybe that jammed revolver was his sign? 


This near-death experience didn't come out of nowhere. Kubin had a rough childhood. His first encounter with mortality was that of his mother, Johanna, who slowly wasted away from pneumatic tuberculosis. When she finally succumbed in May 1887, little Alfred looked on in horror as his grief-stricken father picked up his mother's limp and emaciated corpse like a ragdoll and ran around the house "weeping and as if crying for help." (1)


Alfred Kubin - Mother's Death - 1930
Alfred Kubin - Mother's Death - 1930

After a year of mourning, Friedrich Kubin married Johanna's sister, making the boy's aunt his stepmother. It didn't last long. She died in childbirth about a year later, adding another dead woman to his childhood. 


Life at home was unhappy. A shadow hovered over the family during Kubin's teenage years. His father, now twice widowed, grieved hard and ignored his son, shipping him off to attend a grammar school where he failed out after the second year. Next, he enrolled in a Salzburg trade school before again dropping out. Each failure returned him to the frigid disapproval of his father. 


Motherless and shunned, Kubin retreated further into himself. Sometime between his eleventh and twelfth years, an older pregnant woman sexually molested him, though he didn't elaborate on the nature of the abuse. "I was just eleven and a half when I was involved in sexual games by an older woman, which upset me beyond measure and cast a shadow well into my manhood years." (2) Whatever exactly those "sexual games" were, the experience left a deep impression on the boy's already-troubled personality and his view of women. 


Otherwise, during this time, he read voraciously and wandered the countryside. However, it wasn't Austria's breathtaking vistas that inspired him. On the contrary, his inclinations tended toward darkness, death, decay, slaughterhouses, and butcher shops. He even befriended the local gravedigger who "often dragged decomposed bodies out of the lake." (3)


You know, like all normal kids do.


The aftermath of the suicide attempt ended his apprenticeship at the photo studio. He was nineteen and back at home a third time, but with no trade to earn a salary, no prospects, and overall, not much hope of getting any. It was going to get worse.


Not knowing what to do with himself, he joined the Habsburg Army in 1898. Of course, his father, a former officer, thought this a splendid idea. The discipline of military life would make a man out of him and teach him responsibility or something like that. But this went about as well as you might expect. Kubin didn't last long. The rigors of barracks life soon became too much for such a sensitive and troubled fellow like him.


While his many neuroses and anxieties later became the creative fuel for his art, they made him a poor soldier. After a mere eighteen days - not quite a month - he experienced a nervous breakdown at his division commander's funeral and had to be hospitalized. He spent the next four months in a military hospital recuperating before returning home again, a failure.


But this time, his father didn't respond with abuse. He'd tried everything for his son: grammar and trade school, beatings, brow-beatings, an apprenticeship, the military, but nothing worked. He had dished out vast quantities of tough love to nudge the lad into making something of himself, but that did not work either. 


Something about the suicide attempt and the nervous breakdown happening so soon after seems to have awakened the father to his son's precarious psychological state. He eased up and gave him some space. Kubin took a gap year from adulthood and was left to himself.


The sources are silent on whether he reignited his friendship with the local gravedigger. But we know one thing: This was when he began to focus more on drawing and painting.


While drawing pictures might have initially appeared to be a pointless hobby to his practical-minded father, it turned out to be the key to his son's salvation. He could do one thing very well: draw. And his painting wasn't bad either. Best of all, he loved it. His father took note and came up with an idea. 


How about studying art in Munich?


Why not?


What did he have to lose?



Alfred Kubin - The Gateway to Hell - c1900

 

Kubin Finds His Tribe


Kubin spent the next eight years (1998-1906) in Munich, eventually enrolling in the prestigious Munich Academy of Art. Of course, that didn't work out like everything else; Kubin hated the Academy's rigid structure and soon dropped out. It didn't matter this time. He was on his way, immersed in one of Europe's most flourishing art scenes (1880-1914) since the Renaissance. 


A dogmatic adherence to tradition was giving way to innovation, the results of which fill our museums to this day. Experimentation was encouraged, with talented artists like Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Franz Marc, August Macke, and Wassily Kandinsky pushing aesthetic boundaries in different directions. Impressionism, Expressionism, Art Deco, Cubism, Symbolism, and Abstraction all blossomed during this period. 


Another bonus to living in Munich was access to several world-class museums. Munich's Alte Pinakothek exposed Kubin to dozens of masters like Franciso Goya, Hieronymus Bosch, Felicien Rops, Odilon Redon, and Max Klinger, all artists whose work tended toward the macabre and grotesque. 


Max Klinger's dreamy Handglove series shook Kubin to his core and gave him a style to emulate. After seeing Klinger's illustrations for the first time, he experienced a "torrent of visions," the description of which sounds a bit like a manic episode. 


"With my heart filled to bursting, I walked through the city and went to a variety show that night because I was looking for an impersonal yet noisy setting to free myself of a growing inner pressure. Something psychologically very strange and highly significant happened to me there. To this day, I do not quite understand it, although I have thought about it a lot." (4)


Reality shifted, sensory images flooded in, and hallucinations appeared: "The faces around me seemed animalistic-human; all sounds took on a strange quality as if they were divorced from their source; and a mocking, moaning, and rumbling language that I could not understand seemed to have an eerie meaning that reverberated through me." (5)


Alfred Kubin - The Hour of Death - 1903
Alfred Kubin - The Hour of Death - 1903

Remember, this was after looking at some Max Klinger illustrations. Sure, they're good, but that good? Average, well-adjusted normies don't respond like this to mere pictures in a museum. No matter; well-adjusted and normal don't describe Kubin. He was a weirdo, sure, but for once, this was not an embarrassing liability but an asset. 


When the initial euphoria wore off, the emotional pendulum swung to despair. How could he ever match such sublime visions as he had just witnessed? Impossible! In an act of intellectual masochism for someone already prone to whiplash mood swings, Kubin turned to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for consolation. He claims to have read all of their works in a few days. After this philosophical boot camp, he concluded that Schopenhauer's pessimistic worldview was "the only correct one," though he found much to admire in Nietzsche. (6)


As a quick reminder, a melding of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer vibes something like this: God is dead. Each of us is little more than a pulsating Will, striving to survive and dominate in an indifferent universe trying to kill us. And sooner or later, it will. Death always triumphs, the meager little self is annihilated, and that's it; into the abyss we all go, but not before the strongest among us, the Supermen, stare into it without blinking. 


Klinger provided a pen and ink style he could emulate, while Schopenhauer and Nietzsche offered the philosophical backdrop to build a unique, personal aesthetic. He didn't waste any time. As if some creative constipation had finally released itself, he poured out hundreds of drawings over the next few years. 


Kubin soon realized he had discovered a "marked personal style." Indeed, he had. His friend, fellow artist Paul Klee, once noted that Kubin saw the world as "poison." That's not far off. His early works are dark, weird, grotesque, nightmarish, unnerving, and often misogynistic. The ideas came faster than his hands could draw them. By taking the contents of his dreams and other macabre fantasies and drawing them on paper, he created what can only be described as a "Kubinesque" style. 


What did some of those early images look like? 


Each Night a DreamAlfred Kubin - Each Night a Dream Visits Us - 1900 Visits Us
Alfred Kubin - Each Night a Dream Visits Us - 1900


 

Early Themes in Kubin's Art (1900-1906)


Like contemporary Edvard Munch, Kubin sought to capture the anxiety many felt living in an increasingly post-religious world. Take the austere simplicity of The Man (1902), for example, as an apt metaphor for our lack of agency in the universe, not to mention the nightmare terror that comes from imagining ourselves strapped buck naked to that bi-cycle spiraling into endless emptiness. Dark and gloomy pictures like Man in a Storm (1903) and Angst (1903) also tap into deep-seated feelings of anxiety. Each Night a Dream Visits Us (1900) is one of Kubin's most iconic works, showing a spectral female figure with shadow blades for limbs striding across a barren and bleak night landscape. 


Alfred Kubin - Into the Unknown - 1900
Alfred Kubin - Into the Unknown - 1900

Kubin also enjoyed tackling big cosmic themes, and these are some of his best. For example, Into the Unknown (1900/01) has a naked and obedient horde of humanity marching in an orderly fashion into the black maw of some giant beast. Our All Mother Earth (1902) portrays a cold but voluptuous Gaia sowing the seeds of life before her while leaving a trail of severed heads in her wake. The Fate of Mankind (1903) has a towering, blindfolded nude woman raking a multitude into the abyss. 


And then there's the misogyny. Kubin's troubled past and the sexist culture he lived in haven't aged well. Good luck finding a positive portrayal of women in his art. They are destructive femme fatales, temptresses, and predatory emasculators of male power. We see this in The Spider (1901/02), The Last Adventure (1901), Snake Demon (1905), The Male Sphinx (1903), Slaughterfest (1900), Lady on a Horse (1901), and Downfall (1903). 


Alfred Kubin - The Male Sphinx -1903
Alfred Kubin - The Male Sphinx -1903

And then you have the flip side, where women are passive objects of male lust, such as Rape of a Moravian Peasant Woman (1900), Pagan Sacrifice  (1900/01), One Woman for All  (1901), Death Dive (1902), and The Ape (1903). 


Or, they are reduced to moist and slightly revolting fertility symbols, as in Primeval Slime (1904), Fertility (1901), The Swamp (1903), and The Egg (1900). 


One can't help but think of his boyhood experiences: the female deaths in his family, the romantic rejections of his teen years, not to mention that incident of molestation. Then again, how much reflected the garden variety misogyny so typical in Europe at that time? Truisms about female inferiority were still accepted as common sense. That was changing, but not fast enough, and not yet. Kubin's portrayal of women reflects the gender norms of his time, making it fascinating in that regard, if a little disturbing at times. 

Alfred Kubin - Primeval Slime - 1904
Alfred Kubin - Primeval Slime - 1904

Kubin's hero, Schopenhauer, was an infamous misogynist. Nietzsche was too, and Sigmund Freud and Otto Weininger, to name some of the most prestigious members of that epoch's bourgeois He-man Woman Haters Club. Women had little value beyond their reproductive and child-rearing capabilities. That, or they served as treacherous vessels for male pleasure. But as equals? Ha! I can almost hear the typical late-Victorian man chuckling condescendingly through his whiskers at the very thought. 


But you get the idea. Kubin was no feminist. Moving on.


However, his fascination with death has aged better. And why not? The one unpleasant fact that unites every person who has ever lived and ever will is a primal fear of our demise. The haunting specter of death looms large throughout his six-decade catalog of drawings.


Sometimes, Kubin's portrayal of death is grim; other times, as in The Best Physician (1901), it's humorous. Either way, he took Momento Mori to another level in his art. 


Alfred Kubin - Death on Horseback - 1906
Alfred Kubin - Death as a Horseman - 1906

My favorite is Death as a Horseman (1906), which remains one of Kubin's most haunting scenes. Here, he envisions Death as a relentless and unstoppable entity. It was painted in dark, thick colors, not pen and ink, as in his earlier works. The scene is bleak, somber, and swirling, as if in a tempest at late twilight. 


We see a skeletal figure leaning forward on the back of a black horse. Below are drowning figures. Their fate is sealed; Death can ignore them. His work is done here. 

Instead, he looks straight ahead into the distance, where we see a crowd on the shore trying to escape the approaching rider. But that's not all going on here. Note the single, solitary figure standing on a promontory at the top left of the frame. His pose is confident, defiant even. And why not? He's safe from the chaos below. 


Or is he? Death's gaze says otherwise. 



 

Professional Success and Personal Tragedy


Two of the time's most important German art patrons, Paul Cassirer and Hans von Weber, soon took notice of Kubin's talent. In 1902, the Cassirer Gallery in Berlin hosted an expo of his early works. The reviews were mixed. The Berliner-Zeitung wrote, "Kubin of Munich has spent too much time looking at Goya and Rops. He lives in a realm of sick fantasy. But he does not even have the remotest means of expressing his fantasies; his drawings look almost like those of a student." (7)


Ouch. 


Negative reviews be damned, Weber knew talent when he saw it, and this mattered far more than the write-up of some pedantic newspaper critic. To help out financially, in 1902, Von Weber bought 48 of Kubin's drawings and published a portfolio of fifteen others. (8)


Wassily Kandinsky, the renowned abstract artist and a leading figure in the Munich art scene, was impressed enough with Kubin's work to invite him to show twenty-four drawings in the Phalanx Club's 1904 exhibition. Things were looking up. Kubin began earning a steady income from his art, enough that he no longer needed his father's financial support. 


In 1903, Kubin at last found romance. Her name was Emmy Baer and the two met at a boarding house and fell in love. The relationship became serious, and the two soon announced their engagement. The plan was to marry, start a family, and live happily ever after. But it wasn't to be. When she came to visit Kubin in Munich, she became ill and died ten days later, on 1 December 1903. 


Alfred Kubin - Memorial for my Bride who Died in 1903
Alfred Kubin - Memorial for my Bride who Died in 1903


"When I stood in front of her lifeless body, I suddenly realized my happiness was gone, once and for all. In my boundless despair, I wanted to scream, but I could utter no sound to ease my pain. My life seemed terribly desolate and empty; I lost all desire to live and dissipated my savings, for everything seemed pointless now." (9)


It was a crushing blow, and another bout of suicidal depression followed. First, his mother died, then his aunt, and now his fiancé: all gone. Kubin wandered in a black fog for several months before the sun came out again in the form of a new love, this time to a young widow named Hedwig Grundler. 


Another whirlwind courtship followed, and the two married in September 1904, only nine months after Emmy's death. This one stuck. The two remained together until Hedwig died in 1948. The marriage was happy enough, if not blazing with passion. 


Hedwig's chronic health issues and drug addiction became constant sources of anxiety for her nervous husband. Nevertheless, she cared for him when she could, ensuring life's little inconveniences were handled behind the scenes so he could focus on his art. She offered the kind of motherly support he had never enjoyed. 


Kubin biographer Phillip Rhein described the marriage as "...perhaps based more on friendship and understanding than on passionate love." (10) That sounds about right. The two never had any kids of their own.



Alfred Kubin - Angst - 1902
Alfred Kubin - Angst - 1902

 

Kubin's Creative Crisis: 1906-1909


In 1906, the couple bought a small country estate in a remote part of Austria called Zwickledt, where he lived until he died in 1958. In 1907, his father died, precipitating another emotional crisis exacerbated by the health issues that kept his wife away for long periods. All the stress caused a creative block.


As usual in times of personal turmoil, Kubin traveled and read in search of answers. This time, he immersed himself in the teachings of the Eastern and Western mystics. We can still find echoes of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, though some Buddhism slips in. He lamented "the meaningless contradiction of the world, which becomes grandly and profoundly significant only through true mystico-artistic contemplation. The transitoriness of earthly things is a sublime horror, to reflect on this and to see the good in it demands true heroism." (11)


Note here the mix of Schopenhauer's pessimism, Nietzsche's heroic embrace of life in a godless universe, and Buddhism's reminder that all worldly things are transient, including us. 


By 1908, Kubin was at a crossroads. Professionally, he had done well and was relatively known in European art circles. He garnered a stable income from book illustrating projects and selling his prints to collectors like Weber. At home, a devoted, though often ill, wife cared for him. Last, he had a peaceful rural sanctuary far from the sensory saturation of the city. For a nervous guy like Kubin, these were all positive for his mental health.


Yet he struggled to end his creative block. He brooded, sulked, and wrestled with ideas that felt too big to process. After experimenting with colors for a few years, he reached an impasse. It's not that these experiments were terrible. They weren't. In fact, it showed he had a range that went well beyond drawing with pen and ink. It's just that he found them to be deviations from the style that had made his art unique and distinct in the first place. 


Alfred Kubin - The Idol - 1903
Alfred Kubin - The Idol - 1903

 

The Other Side: Kubin's Bizarre Masterpiece


To resolve this impasse, Kubin did something extraordinary for a graphic artist: He sat down and wrote a novel called The Other Side, published in 1909. This remarkable book, written in twelve short weeks - eight to write the book and four to sketch the illustrations - lays out Kubin's ideas of art that are worth exploring in some detail. 


The book cemented Kubin's reputation as one of the leading artists of his time. It also helped him work through an artistic vision that recognized the illogical power of dreams and how they represent a necessary balance between the conscious and the unconscious.

The person trapped in only waking reality is a stunted and impoverished creature by comparison. But an artist who can tap into the subconscious dream world gains access to insights and mysteries otherwise unavailable to us in the waking world of reason and logic.


Think of The Other Side as literary graphic art; it is filled with bizarre scenes that alternate between the surreal nature of a dream world and the maddening terror of a nightmare. There was nothing quite like it at the time. It combines psychological horror, dark fantasy, and some supernatural elements. Over a century later, it holds up, and I encourage readers to grab a copy of this marvelous little novel. It will leave an impression, I promise. 


Pen & Ink Illustration from Kubin's novel The Other Side
Pen & Ink Illustration from Kubin's novel The Other Side

Phillip Rhein describes the novel's narrative arc as a movement "from consciousness to sleep, to the experience of the dream, through the dissolution of the dream, to a return to consciousness," all told in the first person. (12)


The story starts simple enough. A graphic artist (a barely fictional Kubin, of course) gets an invitation from a former classmate, Claus Patera, to move to Pearl, the capital of a so-called Dream Realm he's built in a remote corner of Central Asia unknown to the rest of the world. But this isn't just any kingdom but something entirely different.


Patera used his vast wealth to transport entire buildings from Europe to build Pearl from the ground up. He also targeted the recruiting of Pearl's citizens, preferring "creatures of extreme sensibility" and those "whose nature had been strangely twisted by some dark fate." In other words, emotionally unstable creative types who resemble the author. 


Few children live in Pearl. Everything in the city, the structures, the fashion, the technology, was at least fifty years old, all pre-dating 1860. Nothing modern was permitted. Time stood still in the Dream Realm and progress was shunned. The place had a certain dark and moody ambiance. The sun never shined; it was always a cloudy, foggy, or gloomy twilight. 


But Pearl's superficial familiarity hides some darker secrets. The Lord of the Dream Realm, Patera, has a mysterious psychological hold on his subjects and keeps them enthralled in a semi-dreamlike stupor. 


"Patera remained unfathomable, just as no one could comprehend the power that turned us into puppets in the Dream Realm. We felt it at every turn. The Lord possessed our wills, he clouded our minds, he exploited his puppet-like subjects. But to what end? We had no taxes to pay, we didn't bring anything in for him. The more one tried to think about it, the darker it became."

Pen & Ink Illustration from Kubin's novel The Other Side
Pen & Ink Illustration from Kubin's novel The Other Side

As the story unfolds, the author-narrator notices how things don't quite make sense, yet people don't realize it or even care. He finds the standard rules of society don't apply in Pearl. That's much as it is in dreams. No matter how bizarre the dream is, we accept it unquestioningly. 


Take a few examples: One morning at five am, a bricklayer with a bucket of mortar shows up and says he's come to brick up the windows in the living room. Why? We're never told.


Another time, two men clad in black deliver a coffin to the narrator's apartment. Why? Again, we're never told. Nobody has died there...yet. Their servant, Ann, appears first as a young woman, then as middle-aged, and finally as an old lady, all over a few weeks. The narrator and his wife only notice this after some time, and the realization creeps them out. 


When walking the streets of Perle at night, wailing and moaning can be heard from inside the dark buildings, "evoking thoughts of strangling and crime." Does the narrator investigate? No, he only comments on it. That's the way it is in Pearl.


But dreams can't last; a city built on them is a castle in the sky. It cannot endure. Kubin understands this and turns the novel's second half into a harrowing tale of collective madness and societal disintegration. This begins when an American tycoon, Hercules Bell, arrives with nefarious intentions. Bell's arrival is like malware to a society whose operating system only functions when everyone lives in the same semi-conscious dream state. 


Bell is the antithesis of Patera. He personifies the rational, calculating, waking world and has come to destroy the Dream Realm's irrational status quo and open it up to commerce and industry. What use is it otherwise? What money does it make? Progress leads to the future, not clinging falsely to the past as Pearl's citizens did. How can Patera keep out the modern world like this? By sheer willpower? It's an abomination! Bell intends to tear it all down and build it back up as a capitalist paradise connected to the broader world.


The novel's grand finale has everything falling apart as the Dreamlanders descend into orgies and violence. It's worth quoting one lurid scene at some length to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Amidst the chaos, the narrator comes upon a teeming mass of naked Dreamlanders sprawled about in the grass as if in a trance. He observes what unfolds from a peephole. 


Brace yourselves!


"All around there was grunting and groaning, interspersed with shrill screams and the occasional deep sigh. It was a quivering, heaving sea of naked flesh. Being completely unaffected myself, I was sensitive to the meaninglessly mechanical nature of this crude act. I couldn't help seeing something grotesquely insect-like in the convulsive performance. There was a haze of blood over the whole area and the glare of the camp-fires flickered over the tangle of frenzied flesh, picking out this or that group. I still have a vivid picture of a bearded middle-aged a man squatting on the ground staring between the spread thighs of a pregnant woman and muttering mindlessly to himself. It was like a mad prayer. Suddenly I heard loud screeching nearby, of both exultation and pain. To my horror I saw that a blonde whore had castrated a drunk with her teeth. I could see his glassy eyes as he writhed in his own blood.


Suddenly I heard loud screeching nearby, of both exultation and pain. To my horror I saw that a blonde whore had castrated a drunk with her teeth. I could see his glassy eyes as he writhed in his own blood. Almost in the same moment, an axe descended; her victim had found an avenger. Masturbators withdrew to the dark of the tents while from farther away came cheering: our pets, caught up in the frenzy, were mating. But what made the deepest impression on me was the half-asleep, rather blank expression on all the faces, whether pale or flushed, which suggested that these poor people were not acting of their own free will. They were automata, machines which, once set in motion, continued to run on their own. Their minds must have been elsewhere."


The whole second half of the novel goes on like this, page after page of macabre scenes that would make the Marquis de Sade blush. 


As things get worse, Patera and Bell wage a cosmic struggle for ultimate control; Patera to keep his Dream Realm intact, Bell to "wake" it up and make it profitable. It's reason against irrationality and sanity against insanity. But the two forces cancel each other out.


You can't have one without the other. Each is necessary in its place. The apocalyptic finale has the Dream Realm collapse in a cosmic cataclysm. Patera dies, and Bell escapes empty-handed with nothing but his life. Our protagonist lives to tell the tale. 


Before this epic showdown, however, Kubin takes the readers on a revealing digression. The narrator, in his wanderings throughout Patera's kingdom, comes across a strange tribe of blue-eye old men. 


Pen & Ink Illustration from Kubin's novel The Other Side
Pen & Ink Illustration from Kubin's novel The Other Side

"The old men sat for hours, unblinking, staring into the distance or bent over some trifle, stones, feathers, bones. Never laughing, scarcely talking to each other, the blue-eyed tribe was the incarnation of complete equilibrium. That was shown by their measured gestures, the stamp of spiritual power on their furrowed faces. Their almost more-than-human detachment made them appear burnt-out. Unconcerned concern, that is the contradictory expression that always comes to mind when I think of them, and they cast a spell over me which I will not forget to my dying day."


He admires their indolence more than anything, their ability to sit and do nothing but contemplate a flower or stone or person. It sounds like a contradiction, but it's not: By doing nothing, one can better reflect on the world. Hidden truths are revealed; beauty emerges in the commonplace, even in stones, trees, animals, and people. 


The frantic fetish to be constantly busy acts counterintuitively like a narcotic for those living in Pearl's dream stupor. They are continually doing things, going about their days hither and thither, but are at best sleepwalking through their lives. They exist on autopilot, as if in a dream, Patera's dream. The author believes the blue-eyed men are onto something with their saintlike detachment from human affairs. Their indolent focus grants them some untranslatable access to higher truths. 


These realizations transformed the author's artistic perspective. Never mind the dichotomy between Being and Becoming, a recurring theme in modern philosophy: Being is what matters here. Each thing in the world exists on its own terms. It is. The trick is to stop long enough to contemplate its significance. "I came to see mere being, things being the way they were and no other, as a miracle." For Kubin, Becoming isn't just a movement toward wisdom and enlightenment but also toward decay and death. 


The meditative focus on one thing at a time allows the author-narrator to zoom out and view how everything is ultimately united. Whatever enlightenment is achieved is thanks to our imagination, that critical means of tapping into the hidden realities around us. 


In other words, imagination wrestles meaning from the void of dead, meaningless reality. This is why dreams matter so much to Kubin, including the irrational ones that govern the lives of the Dreamlanders. To dream means tapping into pure subjective imagination, into that hidden world in our heads where wonders both mystical and primal exist. " (THS).


Yet the one single self that ponders all of this is an illusion. No such thing exists; no indivisible "I" is at the center of it all. The blue-eyed men know this. Indeed, we are a myriad of selves: a public and private self, and a dreaming and a waking self. 


All these various selves tell truths about who we are without containing any singular Truth. In a strange, paradoxical way, the "I" is also plural. It doesn't exist at once but is manifold. Our various selves vanish into the shadows of our subconscious, where only dreams can bridge the divide. That's where our hidden shadow selves conjure revelations impossible to grasp in the waking world. This was one of Kubin's central insights about creativity.


Kubin's narrator proclaims, "To my horror I found that my 'self' was composed of countless 'selves', each one lurking behind the other, each one seeming bigger and more taciturn than the one in front. The last ones disappeared in the shadows, beyond my comprehension. Each of these selves had ideas of its own. From the point of view of organic life, for example, the concept of death as the end was correct, but on a higher plane of understanding the individual did not exist, so that there was nothing to come to an end."


What's good won't last, but neither will the bad. One extreme leads to its opposite and back again, a pendulum swinging back and forth that creates its own predictable, comforting equilibrium. When you finally accept this, when you give up trying to pretend the arc of history must bend toward justice or that you have any immortal personal destiny other than the grave, then you've reached the inner peace of the blue-eyed men. The bad isn't evil; it's necessary for the balance. Life and death are intertwined; the irrational dream world and the rational waking world need each other; it couldn't be any other way. Just accept it.


Kubin ends this revealing chapter: "At the end of this development man as an individual disappears, is no longer needed. This path leads to the stars."r



Alfred Kubin - Funeral March - 1910
Alfred Kubin - Funeral March - 1910

 

Final Thoughts


The Other Side changed everything for Kubin. He later wrote that it was "a turning point in my psychic development, and many passages indicate this overtly and covertly." (13) You understand what he means once you read it with that in mind. It was as if giving his imagination free rein to write down any and all of his fantasies had served as a catharsis.  


Something was different in Kubin after this. The psychological turmoil of his youth, including the frequent episodes of depression and crippling doubts, began to fade. The book's popularity sealed his reputation as an influential artist with something to say. This gave him self-confidence in his talents, proving once and for all he wasn't just another wannabe in an art world filled with them. He'd made it. 


At the same time, he recognized his limitations as an artist. He'd never be a precision painter of bright colors and tight, meticulous lines like his contemporaries. Simple black ink on a white page became his trademark going forward. The template that had worked so well in The Other Side - illustrating a novel - became his preferred means of expression. He made a career illustrating the works of Poe, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Mann, Kafka, Flaubert, and many others. The "frozen nightmares" of his early years that had first captured the public's imagination didn't entirely disappear, but they became much less frequent in Kubin's mature work. 


Zooming out, Kubin's work can be seen as a bridge between Symbolists like Klinger and Redon and later Surrealists like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. Indeed, some of his drawings like Starvation (1903), appear as if they came from a Surrealist exhibition.


Alfred Kubin - Starvation - 1903
Alfred Kubin - Starvation - 1903

After 1909, Kubin retreated to Zwickledt and lived a quiet, content, semi-hermitic existence for the next five decades. The world went on while he remained isolated at his rural "ark," writing letters to friends, wandering the nearby woods, and composing illustrations for book projects. He had finally found some semblance of inner peace. Now and then, the world intervened and threatened his tranquility, as when his friends and fellow artists August Macke and Franz Marc fell on the Western Front during the First World War, or when the Nazis labeled his work "Degenerate" after the Anschluss in 1938, or when his wife died in 1938.


But otherwise, he did his best to become more like the blue-eyed men and leave the real world behind.


Alfred Kubin - Buddha in the Forest - 1907
Alfred Kubin - Buddha in the Forest - 1907


 

More Art by Alfred Kubin


Alfred Kubin - The Man - 1902
Alfred Kubin - The Man - 1902
Alfred Kubin - Angst - 1902
Alfred Kubin - Angst - 1902
Alfred Kubin - The Horror- 1902
Alfred Kubin - The Horror- 1902
Alfred Kubin - Danger - 1901
Alfred Kubin - Danger - 1901
Alfred Kubin - Slaughterfest - 1900
Alfred Kubin - Slaughterfest - 1900

Alfred Kubin - Deathdive - 1900
Alfred Kubin - Deathdive - 1900
Alfred Kubin - The Spider - 1902
Alfred Kubin - The Spider - 1902
Alfred Kubin - Downfall - 1903
Alfred Kubin - Downfall - 1903
Alfred Kubin - The Male Sphinx - 1903
Alfred Kubin - The Male Sphinx - 1903

Alfred Kubin - Snake Demon - 1905
Alfred Kubin - Snake Demon - 1905
 
Alfred Kubin - One Woman for All  - 1901
Alfred Kubin - One Woman for All - 1901
Alfred Kubin - The Ape - 1903
Alfred Kubin - The Ape - 1903
Alfred Kubin - The Witch - ca. 1900
Alfred Kubin - The Witch - ca. 1900
Alfred Kubin - The Last Adventure - 1901
Alfred Kubin - The Last Adventure - 1901
Alfred Kubin - The Fate of Mankind - 1903
Alfred Kubin - The Fate of Mankind - 1903
Alfred Kubin - The Best Doctor - 1901
Alfred Kubin - The Best Doctor - 1901
Alfred Kubin - The Swamp - ca. 1903-1905
Alfred Kubin - The Swamp - ca. 1903-1905
Alfred Kubin - Infanticide - 1901
Alfred Kubin - Infanticide - 1901
Alfred Kubin - The Egg - ca. 1901
Alfred Kubin - The Egg - ca. 1901

Alfred Kubin - Death Enters the World - 1947
Alfred Kubin - Death Enters the World - 1947
Alfred Kubin - The Moment of Birth - 1902
Alfred Kubin - The Moment of Birth - 1902
Alfred Kubin - Heathen Sacrifice - 1900
Alfred Kubin - Heathen Sacrifice - 1900

Alfred Kubin - Man in a Storm - 1903
Alfred Kubin - Man in a Storm - 1903
Alfred Kubin - Lady on a Horse - 1901
Alfred Kubin - Lady on a Horse - 1901
Alfred Kubin - Rape of a Moravian Peasant Woman - 1900
Alfred Kubin - Rape of a Moravian Peasant Woman - 1900


 

Supplementary Materials


Unfortunately, I was only able to hit the wave tops of Kubin's life and career in this essay. There's so much more. The videos below go into more depth and include many other works of art from this incredibly prolific artist.




 

End Notes


(1) Hans-Peter Wipplinger, editor. Alfred Kubin: Confessions of a Tortured Soul. Verlag Der Buchhandlung Walther Und Franz König, 2022, 43.

(2) Ibid, 26

(3) Phillip H Rhein. The Verbal and Visual Art of Alfred Kubin. Ariadne Pr., 1989, 6.

(4) Wieland Schmied. Alfred Kubin. Translated by Jean Steinberg, Frederick A. Praeger, 1967, 10.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Rhein, 10.

(7) Schmied, 11.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Rhein, 13.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Rhein, 29

(13) Schmied, 14





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