Alfred Kubin, Austrian Expressionist, Galerie St. Etienne (1983)



 Alfred Kubin, like Edvard Munch, "heard the scream in nature," suffering too early and too often the loss of loved ones and other assaults of life. Death of his mother at 10 resulting in savage repression by the father; death of stepmother at 11; attempted suicide on his mother's grave at 19; nervous breakdown at 20; death of fiancée at 26; death of father (with whom he had become reconciled) at 27 in 1904.


 Kubin's (1877-1959) attitude toward life and death is expressed by the drawing of a giant, entitled "The Mountain," 1902, symbolizing the brute, uncaring power of life, very similar to Goya's humanity-trampling "Colossus." Standing on the titan's thigh, a tiny, pick-wielding man chips away at the monster's kneecap. The paunchy leviathan has a good chuckle at mankind's expense, his insignificance, helplessness and dullness of condition and awareness...while preparing a good-natured, fatal swat like the impersonal, incidental killing blow delivered to a pesky mosquito.


 The basic theme in Kubin's work (essentially a draughtsman in the graphic media rather than a painter) is man attacked by life itself, a life that by its nature is monstrous. A lesser, secondary theme, appearing more in later years, occasionally humorously, is that man also victimizes himself through his own foibles, while being churned in the great vat of life and death.


 Kubin, Freud, Schiele, Kokoschka and other Austrians seem to have been destined by the effects of personal and collective inevitability to have been the consciences of their trying time, spokesmen of psychic rot and social decay.


 Contrary to the passion of these figures, much of today's response to similar conditions is characterized by weakness, weariness, a watered-down aesthetic and absence of emotion; a vapid, often cynical rehashing of no longer vital theories and ideas by artists without the creative, moral or spiritual fiber evidenced by the psychic and spiritual struggle in Kubin's work and the early 20th Century masters.


 But Kubin is only one, however clearly unique, example of the psychic tension so evident from the last years of the 19th Century to the present.


 The Pre-Raphaelites sought escape from modern angst in the past; Art Nouveau in murkily organic over-embellishment; Monet in comforting mists and his "Garden of Eden" in Giverny. Gauguin tried to find it in Tahiti; Van Gogh in Arles; Munch in Germany; the Germans in each other and their medieval tradition. And modern artists, without regard to nationality, sought salvation in the spiritual haven of non-objective color and abstract design (or, if superficial, in decoration)...anything to survive contemporary madness (personal and societal) and the still-continuing period of excruciating spiritual, psychic and social transition.


 While obviously related to romanticism, symbolism, expressionism and surrealism -- those explorations of inner man -- Kubin is also connected, at least in part, to the rise of psychology and psychological insight in the 20th Century. The latter were secular substitutes for dealing with the mysteries of existence, replacing or reinterpreting God with the concept of the unconscious, and in Freud's case, according to Jung, filling the void created by God's demise with the new 20th Century god -- Sex . With that other divinity of this century's worship -- the Machine -- they are the royal ruling couple of today.


 The substance of Kubin's work is clearly that of the unconscious and his battles with the monsters and monstrous forces residing there. They are no longer quiescent in the darkness, as in most of us -- if we're healthy or lucky -- but lunging, devouring, sucking his life's blood because of the disastrous early experiences compounded by the hysterical, nerve-wracked time in which it was his misfortune to live.


 In the early work, "Exorcism," 1900, Kubin, in the form of a crucifix-presenting wizard, seeks to control a roaring, fanged monster. Though unavoidably present in the work of all artists by reason of the very nature of humanity's relation to life and self, it is difficult to recall other artists (aside from Goya) using symbols so clearly and specifically those of the unconscious as Kubin that signify a plunge into the unknown, "foreign" depths of self and soul.


 Kubin's cast of characters includes fabulous monsters, apes, reptiles, mammoths, pits, caverns, treasure, water, jungle, foreign or exotic subjects and settings, haunted or vacant houses, a gnomish earth mother ("The Great Grandmother," 1926) and Goliath (another monster representing brute, unconscious forces conquered by the ever-renewing power of life and consciousness personified in the youthful David).


 The artist's struggle with the unconscious for survival and personal growth is the (not so) leitmotif uniting the fifty-two works in this striking exhibition at the Galerie St. Etienne. "Fear," 1899, evolves to late works like "Fisherman's Luck," 1935, where a grinning angler pulls an equally benign fish monster from the water's depth. The latter work, like "David and Goliath," 1929, indicates at least an attempt at the unification of consciousness and unconscious, a coming to terms on Kubin's part with life and self. The exhibition's latest work created five years before his death, 1954's "Neptune, Woman and Animal," represents almost archetypal components of the psyche.


 Partially dependent on his choice of media, Kubin's style explores a broad tonal range of blended greys to black, with relatively simple, clear-cut design shapes, to an almost scratchy pen and ink technique which in itself is nearly mythic. While his work is clearly illustrative, without absolute density of breadth of form and pictorial construction, it can't truly be called illustration because the depth of content is so strongly linked to the throbbing nerve of modern existence and sensibility.


 While later denying as too extreme his work done prior to 1908, what, we may ask, is any more edifying about suicide, death, theft, the theme of outcast, and work that expresses the often mindless, automatic brutality of 20th Century humanity...all post 1908 subjects?


 In 1925's study of infanticide, "The Baby Killer," a sturdy peasant woman, at a fence gap leading to eternity, apprehensively scratches out a hole in which to hide the already mouldering body of a dead child.


 Other modern artists, expressing this century's enmity toward life, have abstracted, deformed, distorted and obliterated the female (human) figure in both a conscious and unconscious attack on the life force, the fertility and renewal of nature she represents. Kubin's response, in "The Baby Killer," is a literal, realistic expression of the power of death; of psychological and spiritual, as well as physical, murder...a dark Madonna and Child, fitting symbols of the 20th Century's love affair with death and destruction.


Copyright by Don Gray


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