Haunting drawings of death, trauma and fantastical creatures inhabiting imaginary worlds sprung from Alfred Kubin’s pen at the beginning of the 20th century. His work, executed in a delicate, atmospheric ink wash technique, anticipated some of the horrors of the First World War, and the following decades, at a time when Europe’s empires were toppling. His exquisite, yet nightmarish black and white drawings came from his own imagination, or from illustrating works by writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Edgar Allan Poe.
Born in Austria, Kubin (1877–1959) is considered an important representative of the Symbolist and Expressionist movement. Nottingham Contemporary presents the first major exhibition of his work in the UK.
Kubin never recovered from a deeply troubled childhood, losing his mother at a young age. Following a failed suicide attempt at the age of nineteen and a complete nervous breakdown at twenty, Kubin was sent to Munich to study at the art academy. This was where he finally found an outlet.
In Munich he discovered the work of artists like Francisco Goya, Max Klinger, Edvard Munch, James Ensor and Odilon Redon, which opened up a world of imaginative expression, igniting a period of fervent creativity. By the early 1900s, just after Freud released The Interpretation of Dreams, Kubin was producing hundreds of drawings exploring the abysses of the unconscious. Death, motherhood, sexuality and paternal relationships are key motifs that feature repeatedly, reflecting his traumas. Influenced by the nihilistic ideas of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer Kubin portrays women as femmes fatales, the destroyers of men.
Despite the explicit and often violent nature of his work, Kubin found early critical and commercial success. His work was admired by artists like Paul Klee and Franz Marc who invited him to join the influential Blaue Reiter group. In 1909 Kubin wrote the disturbing, fantastical novel The Other Side. This portrayal of a dystopian imaginary dream realm, where Kubin’s images were made flesh on the page, was cited as a key influence by Franz Kafka for his classic novel The Castle.
Kubin continued working into old age, but the focus of the exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary is on his exceptional and prolific early period.