Alfred Kubin and the Tortured Triumph of "The Other Side"
(The Neue Gallery's wonderful Alfred Kubin retrospective and Kubin's The Other Side)
This seemed like a good week to write about one of my favorite artists and writers, the Austrian Alfred Kubin (1877-1959), since guest blogger China Mieville has cited Kubin’s fiction as an influence on his novel The City & The City. (I've also posted the entire transcript of my Weird Tales interview with China, excerpted on Omnivoracious yesterday.)
Kubin fits loosely within an Expressionist/Decadent/proto-Surrealist tradition. A highly praised artist, he produced only one major work of fiction: The Other Side, published in 1908. Although still underrated, the novel has managed to retain a cult status simply because it has long been a favorite of a variety of writers and artists. It would be hard to believe, for example, that Mervyn Peake had not read Kubin prior to writing his Gormenghast novels. (The Other Side is perhaps most akin in tone to Peake’s Titus Alone.)
The details of Kubin’s life relevant to his fiction are these: his mother died when he was ten, he had a sexualized relationship with an older, pregnant woman when he was eleven, and his father was a tyrant whose death in part triggered the writing of The Other Side. (Kubin, in his nonfiction, is amazingly frank about all of these personal issues, giving us rare insight into motivation and influence.)
These events, as well as unhappy romances, contributed to his uneasy, melancholic state, which manifested itself in unique visions, which then manifested in his art as the truest way of portraying the nightmares occurring in his head. Kubin had no internal editor telling him “no, this is too much.” Moreover, he may not even have realized that what he was creating might startle people. Did it amuse or horrify him when gentlemen and ladies who viewed his art reportedly fainted?
There's the sense, too, in reading the praise of Kubin’s contemporaries that they found him too rough, too flawed, and yet it’s impossible to separate out the “good” from the “bad”--a condition common to some of the best "weird" writers and artists. As Austrian critic Richard Schaukal noted in a 1903 review, "He has not studied drawing. That is clear at a glance. But what does that tell us when confronted with this stunning oeuvre!" Given these underpinnings of Kubin’s inspiration, it’s perhaps remarkable that The Other Side has as much story as it does; not merely a series of images strung together, it is a true masterpiece of rising tension and horror.
The Other Side tells the tale of a Munich draftsman asked by an old schoolmate named Patera to visit the newly established Dream Kingdom, somewhere in Central Asia. Patera rules the Dream Kingdom from the capital city of Pearl. The wealthy Patera has literally had a European city uprooted and brought to its new location, along with sixty-five thousand inhabitants. The narrator, after some hesitation, agrees to visit and travels with his wife through Constantinople through Batum, Batu, Krasnovodsk, and Samarkand—Samarkand being the last of any identifying landmarks on their journey.
The narrator soon finds that the Dream Kingdom is, well, a kingdom of dreams. People experience or live “only in moods” and shape all outer being at will “through the maximum possible cooperative effort.” A huge wall keeps out the world and “the sun never shone, never were the moon or the stars visible at night....Here, illusions simply were reality.”
Over time, strange rituals and aberrations have sprung up. Pearl also shifts in odd ways, and in this sense has a kinship with M. John Harrison’s far-future Viriconium, which also function from more of a metaphorical than a chronological foundation. This doesn’t bother the narrator at first, but as the city’s changes become more and more grotesque, it’s clear that the Dream Kingdom is faltering, descending into madness.
Despite the claustrophic atmosphere and unseen horrors that form the emotional foundation of the novel, The Other Side is remarkable not just for its vivid imagery, laden with surrealistic subtext, but for how the relatively modern aspects of the novel—American tourists, for example—are perfectly integrated into a timeless, festering milieu. The battle that occurs between the irrational and rational as the Dream Kingdom disintegrates takes on an updated Grand Guignol quality that oddly enough has the texture of modern-day war. It’s almost as if the novel channels Apocalypse Now by way of Hieronymus Bosch.
Where did The Other Side come from, other than from Kubin’s visionary art? Consider this tangle of influence: Kubin had been commissioned to illustrate a book of Edgar Allen Poe novellas by a Munich publisher in 1907. At roughly the same time, Kubin met with Gustav Meyrink to discuss illustrations for Meyrink’s novel-in-progress The Golem. When Meyrink hit a snag in finishing The Golem, Kubin took his preliminary sketches and found ways to use some of them in The Other Side. Not long after publication of The Other Side, Franz Kafka read and enjoyed it, and then later used elements from it in the creation of his own The Castle. (Kubin might have been aware of Kafka’s early work, as well.)
Labels like “outsider artist” aside, Kubin was definitely connected to the creative communities of his day. Indeed, when Kubin arrived in Munich, Germany, to study art as a teenager, who should he be discovered by than the iconic Franz Blei, who was also one of Kafka’s friends.
Blei gives us a semi-amused description of Kubin as a “frail young boy who was always dressed in black and had a pale face that was always straining a little to grow dark and pretending to be as shy as a young world that had been dragged from a hollow into the light. [My friend] brought him and a large portfolio, or rather a larger portfolio and the delicate little Kubin, who acted as if he could not really help do anything about the fact that he drew but was compelled by forces that guided his hand.”
That Kubin was a creator who either “was compelled by forces that guided his hand,” or trained himself to be so compelled, is clear even from his description of his reaction to an exhibition of Max Klinger’s etchings in Munich in 1882: "I grew moody...And now I was suddenly inundated with visions of pictures in black and white--it is impossible to describe what a thousand-fold treasure my imagination poured out before me. Quickly I left the theater, for the music and the mass of lights now disturbed me, and I wandered aimlessly in the dark streets, overcome and literally ravished by a dark power that conjured up before my mind strange creatures, houses, landscapes, grotesque and frightful situations."*
In that context for Kubin’s inspiration, there’s perhaps no finer evocation of the effect Kubin achieves in his art and in The Other Side than this 1903 description from the Berliner Illustrirte:
"This art always dreams of the last things in apocalyptic fantasy; its beings and forms are not of this world, and you cannot measure them by the ruler of correctness or anatomical possibility; they are complete distortion, total gruesome exaggeration; just as their landscapes dream away in the eternal twilight behind time and space. But you will always find one thing in this art, which dispenses with every depiction, every illustration of being, it has a convincing power to make things present and will grip you and sweep you away, conveying to you ideas and moods of uncanny reality that will burn themselves into your brain as if with hot iron punches...the suggestion of this foreboding art of the soul, the rare, the distant, the lustfully dreadful...is always powerful and enduring."
The Other Side still appeals to a modern reader because of these qualities, after many novels initially seen as more enduring have faded from memory.
All quotes not attributed taken from the excellent and highly recommended Alfred Kubin: Drawings 1897-1909 (published by Neue Galerie).
*In counterbalance to this depiction, Andreas Geyer notes in Alfred Kubin: Drawings 1897-1909 that although Kubin might have emphasized the raw, pure nature of his art and inspiration, “It must always be recalled that Kubin had a constant tendency to self-promotion, self-stylizing, and posing.” In pure Nietzschean fashion, Kubin “initially presented himself from the perspective of a ‘most faithful, most trusted friend,’ who ‘because of his high status had to remain [the] anonymous [artist character] Kubin.” This ‘Kubin’ is a genius.” All of these contradictory but not irreconcilable aspects of Kubin’s character presage the antics of such surrealists as Salvador Dali—creators who tap into deep subconscious impulses and desires while at the same time constructing outer personas that seem fake or contrived but in no way take away from the power of their work.