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Impressionist & Modern Art

Alfred Kubin Examines the Human Condition in a Series of Haunting Drawings

By Sotheby's
A collection of sixteen restituted drawings by Austrian draftsman Alfred Kubin from the collection of Maximilian and Hertha Morgenstern will be offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening and Day sales this June. Ahead of the sale we explore the motivations of Kubin — and the influence of his visual narrations on a generation of artists.

A complicated and emotionally conflicted artist, Alfred Kubin’s mental anguish is clearly apparent in his beautifully melancholic work. Kubin’s delicate pen and ink drawings of often morbid subjects are an insight into his philosophy that modernity’s excess will take a heavy toll on humanity’s spiritual and subconscious mind.

Kubin was influenced by the art of William Blake and Francisco Goya, as well as the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. Goya’s profound influence on the Symbolist movement of the fin de siècle is well known, however it was Schopenhauer’s text Weltanschauung with its pessimistic view of life and ideas on the futility of existence that resounded with Kubin most resolutely.

Kubin also used his prodigious talents as an artist to illustrate manuscripts. His most famous commissions were for the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Edgar Allen Poe, whose macabre stories in turn had a profound influence on Kubin’s own work.

“The gigantic organisation of the war machinery, the awful acts of destruction, the heroic bravery of the individuals, impressed and rattled me…”

His imagery is rooted in dream visions, nightmarish hybrid creatures, ghostly motifs, spiritualism, and of course, death. Throughout Kubin’s work, some 20,000 drawings, these themes and motifs occur again and again—demonstrating a pessimism, and as testament to the existential fears of the era. Collector and archivist Rubin Leopold suggested that Kubin’s works represent “the sharpest, most poisonous epigrams on the condition of the State, the Church, Life, Love and Death, Fame and Honour”.

A fine example of his fantastical morbidity is found in Die Todesstunde (The Hour of Death) [Lot 304], which evokes Baudelaire’s 'The Clock' in Les Fleurs du Mal. This work depicts a clock tower with human heads at the hour marks, the hand is a saracen sword which lops the heads off into a waiting basket. The drawing suggests that while death is inevitable, its hour is unknowable—time comes for everyone, eventually.

An example of a contemporary fear can be seen in Die Pest (The Plague) [Lot 303] drawn around 1903-04, in which a vampiric robed figure commands an army of rats—the carriers of plague. The idea that rats acted as hosts to the bubonic plague, and that disease and squalor were harbingers of death, was a fairly recent one, only gaining traction in the late 19th century. The mass migrations of farm workers—living under terrible conditions—into industrial cities was a source of dread, as diseases could easily become epidemics.

Des Menschen Schicksal III (The Fate Of Mankind III) [Lot 305] follows a similar vein, but in this piece and others, the creature that represents death is a woman. This is a preoccupation of Kubin, and the idea of a femme fatale occurs repeatedly in his work.

The raking of men from a cliff by a faceless woman could symbolise his fears and sexual excitement toward independent women—a relatively novel idea in the early 20th century—whom he sees attract men with a fascinating mixture of sensuality and deception. Gender roles are questioned—the woman being a giver of life, can also be seen as death—as Klaus Albrecht Schröde explains: “The woman embodies the potential to destroy man and life in general... Death gives birth to the life that leads in the end back to death”.

Kubin’s work is otherworldly and at times unsettling, but it holds a certain fascination, an alluring nihilism. The artist invites viewers to question their own minds, and in doing so provokes fears of the supernatural or unknown.

Kubin inhabited a society headed towards modernity, industrialisation, science and technology – progress at an accelerating pace – however questioning these advancements in his own apocalyptical vision depicting the juncture between reason and imagination, the real and the absurd, and the line between order and chaos.

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