Alfred Kubin and the Tortured Triumph of "The Other Side"

Kubinart The otherside
(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.

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