Leopold Museum opens large-scale exhibition dedicated to Alfred Kubin

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Leopold Museum opens large-scale exhibition dedicated to Alfred Kubin
Installation view of Confessions of a Tortured Soul at the Leopold Museum, Wien | Vienna. Photo: Lisa Rastl.

VIENNA.- The large-scale spring exhibition at the Leopold Museum is dedicated to the fantastical creator of uncanny visions, unparalleled draftsman, mysterious illustrator and author of the novel The Other Side: Alfred Kubin.

In view of geopolitical disputes and military conflicts, the oeuvre of this “organizer of the uncertain, the hermaphroditic, the dusky and the oneiric”, as he described himself, appears more current than ever before. His works, which are shaped by violence, wartime destruction, pandemics, natural disasters, the manipulation of the masses and other abysses of human existence, focus as much on everyday reality as on the enigmas beyond the visible world.

“Exploring Alfred Kubin’s works means traveling into the artist’s innermost emotional worlds, into the labyrinth of his soul, and to follow his exuberant powers of imagination. It also means delving into the art-historical and social phenomena that shaped the intellectual atmosphere of the declining Habsburg Empire and influenced both Kubin’s character and art.” --Hans-Peter Wipplinger, exhibition curator and Director of the Leopold Museum


Kubin’s childhood and adolescence were marred by haunting experiences, setbacks and depression – he was dismissed from high school, abandoned his photography apprenticeship, lost his mother at an early age, attempted suicide at her grave and suffered a nervous breakdown after a short stint in the military. These are only some of the blows of fate that characterize his traumatic biography. Kubin moved to Munich in 1898, where he initially attended a private drawing school and subsequently studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, but abandoned his studies shortly afterwards.

Seeing Max Klinger’s etchings at the Munich Kupferstichkabinett was an awakening for him which caused “a torrent of visions of black-and-white images”, as Kubin described it, and left him “filled with astonishment and ecstasy”. This experience, combined with the hallucinatory apparitions triggered by a visit to a cabaret, led to a creative rush that lasted several years. His extraordinary early oeuvre, shown during his first eminent exhibition in 1901/02 at the Berlin gallery of Paul Cassirer, met both with indignation and admiration.

Over 60 years, Kubin created an extensive, multifaceted oeuvre which, though characterized by essential stylistic transitions, kept its continuity in terms of commanding motifs, themes and visions. On an entire level of the Leopold Museum, spread out over eleven exhibition rooms and grouped around various key themes, Kubin’s work enters into a dialogue with his art-historical role models and contemporaries. Artists like Francisco de Goya, Félicien Rops, James Ensor, Max Klinger, Odilon Redon and Edvard Munch influenced Kubin’s motifs and formal esthetics, while authors including E. T. A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, Gérard de Nerval, August Strindberg and Gustav Meyrink were among his literary sources of inspiration.

“The exhibition aims to explore Kubin’s oneiric worlds, which all too often enter nightmarish-somber spheres, in terms of their relation to the unconscious. His works are placed into a dialogue with works by artists of the 19th century and of Classical Modernism from which he derived inspiration. Kubin’s dystopian visualizations, which carry on from Symbolism and the fantastical art of the 19th century, are composed of actual and imaginary reality: a synthesis, in which the uncanniness of these pessimistic realms is often seasoned with humor, irony and exaggeration.” --Hans-Peter Wipplinger, exhibition curator and Director of the Leopold Museum


Right from the start, visitors delve into Kubin’s explorations of human abysses in the twilight of existence. “Perhaps this is precisely what life is: A dream and an anxiety”, he wrote in 1939 in a diary entry. Around 1900, the view of the world oscillated between a bourgeois-positivistic faith in science and reason, and an irrational, anti-utilitarian belief in fate. The anxiety-ridden artist’s view corresponded to the latter category. In his pictorial motifs, Kubin merged dream and reality, capturing oneiric atmospheres with compositional criteria: “Devoted as a viewer and active as a draftsman, I dissect the visions, build them up anew and thus try to form a clarified dream image.”

The presentation shows how frightening visions of apocalyptic demons, which tormented his existence, became manifest in grotesque and carnivalesque depictions – much like in the pictorial worlds of Francisco de Goya and James Ensor. Some of Kubin’s works reveal parallels with the uncanny and strange hybrid creatures invented by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel, two artists that were appreciated both by Kubin and Ensor.


Kubin’s oeuvre was created against the backdrop of political and social upheaval – the demise of the Habsburg Empire and the horrific events of the two World Wars. While the artist was exempted from military service owing to his feeble constitution, he was still haunted by the fear of being called up and of possibly dying in the war. Works he created around 1900 already show war scenarios filled with torment, torture, chaos and murder. He seismographically anticipated the impending catastrophes and sounded out the borders between fantasy and reality, as illustrated, for instance, by juxtapositions with the work of Félicien Rops. Kubin experienced World War II in the seclusion of his country estate in Zwickledt and adopted a careful and reticent stance towards the National Socialists, who deemed his art to be “degenerate”.


The exhibition further addresses Kubin’s projections of the female which were shaped by early traumatic experiences. At the age of ten, he suffered the tragic loss of his mother. In his catalogue essay, the psychoanalyst and psychiatrist August Ruhs highlighted the sensitive fact that, a year after the mother’s death, his father married Alfred Kubin’s aunt, making her his stepmother: “Having her close in the context of a new oedipal constellation appears to have been particularly challenging for the boy’s libidinal state, particularly as the conflict-fraught relationship with his father had become worse.” A year later, his biological mother’s sister passed away as well, and the father later remarried again. Kubin further received lasting trauma from a sexual assault he suffered at the hands of an adult pregnant woman when he was eleven, and by the death of his first great love, Emmy Bayer.

In the era of the fin-de-siècle, especially, male artists often depicted women either as demonic beings or as mothers and saints. In Kubin’s work, the image of the female as a threat provoking fear and terror is dominant and burdens the relationship between the genders. The art of Symbolism and the world model of Decadence are full of countless typologies of the femme fatale. Kubin, too, availed himself of the male gaze, which was common in the art of the late 19th century, and embedded female archetypes into allegories of fate, power, doom and destruction. His oeuvre manifested the prevailing gender roles of the time, according to which the empowerment of the woman went hand in hand with the disempowerment of the man. Kubin depicted men either as weak victims or – echoing the impending loss of patriarchal structures of domination – as violent aggressors, illustrating male libidinousness and cruelty in motifs of torture, rape and murder.


Another focus is on the crisis of the individual at the turning point around 1900 when the self underwent a critical reappraisal. Sigmund Freud’s ground-breaking publication The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), and especially Carl Gustav Jung’s concept of archetypes, were fascinating to Kubin, who repeatedly addressed questions of birth, life and death. Time and again, he was troubled by dreadful visions from his childhood and adolescence which were accompanied by feelings of anxiety, guilt and inferiority. Both in his drawings and in his literary work The Other Side (1909), he processed these terrible visions and conflicts, among them his difficult relationship with his father who punished him as a child by beating him and withdrawing his affection.

“At a time of rationalism and technical revolutions, Kubin developed a demonic counter-world in which mankind finds itself at the mercy of ominous fateful beings. But it is not only these beastly hybrid creatures that threaten and frighten mankind – the catastrophes of archaic violence are also caused by man himself, for man is the hell of man. With Kubin, this barbarism and the violence associated with it time and again found emphatic expression in allegories of war.” --Hans-Peter Wipplinger, exhibition curator and Director of the Leopold Museum

“Death, nothingness is the fate of the world […]. Each and every one runs down a predestined path, unconditionally, like a machine,” the only 27-year-old artist declared during his time in Munich. In her analyses of the works in this exhibition, the Kubin expert and long-standing head of the Kubin Archives of the Munich Lenbachhaus, Annegret Hoberg, describes this state of helpless subjection to the powers of fate as the “inescapable thrownness of man into a cosmic void” – be it with regards to natural disasters, an image of femininity that is perceived as a threat or a pandemic.


The presentation also shines the spotlight on Kubin’s depictions of women as birth givers within lush primeval nature, and on his general interest in underwater landscapes and primeval beings. Derived from Johann Jakob Bachofen’s theories on the mother as a lifegiving goddess in swampy nature, this mythology of the creation of the world resulted in a dualistic view of femininity which resonated with Kubin. To Bachofen, women not only gave life but also created the prerequisites for death: “The generative power is at the same time the power of destruction. He who awakens life works for death […].”

The last exhibition room uncovers the eerie places in Kubin’s oeuvre which are the venues for natural disasters, floods and storms. His manor in Zwickledt, which for decades served as a refuge to him and his wife Hedwig, appears to have had gloomy facets akin to those in the dream realm “Perle” he described in his novel The Other Side. While Kubin’s fears diminished with age, they never went away completely. It seemed that the most eerie places of all would be the beyond and thus death. Undergoing medical treatment on his deathbed in 1959, he made a statement that exemplifies both his life and oeuvre: “Don’t take my fear away from me, it is my only capital” (Otto Breicha, 1977).

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