Alfred Kubin (1877-1959)

Alfred Kubin (1877-1959). Souvenirs d’un pays à moitié oublié Paris, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, from October 20, 2007 through January 13, 2008.

1. Alfred Kubin (1877-1959)
Fright, 1901
Pen, ink, wash, crachis - 27,3 x 27,3 cm
Leopold Museum, Viennea
© ADAGP Paris, 2007

Given the fact that most French people are not really interested in foreign artists, it is certainly brave to organize an exhibition on someone like Alfred Kubin. When adding to that the reticence with which they generally welcome anything coming from “Germanic” countries, it is almost an exploit. Klinger, von Stück, Böcklin are immensely talented artists who are totally misunderstood in France. A truly unique figure, Alfred Kubin’s life and work do not easily fall into a single category. Although many of his texts, some of them extraordinary, are already available in French, this is the first major exhibition on the artist ever staged in Paris and a must for art lovers.

2. Alfred Kubin (1877-1959)
The Guardian, 1902-1903
Pen, ink, wash, watercolour - 32,6 x 30,8 cm
Linz, Landesmuseum
© ADAGP Paris, 2007

Born in 1877, Alfred Kubin belongs, by a year or two, to the Symbolist school and his art is, in fact, systematically presented in publications or exhibitions devoted to this “movement”. His work, just like Kupka’s, begins however more at the beginning of the XXth C. and continues after WWII. By showing all of the periods, (about 130 documents, not counting illustrated books), the exhibition follows Kubin’s development up until the 1940’s, often overlooked. We would like to commend the fine scenography which takes full advantage of the vast and sometimes difficult galleries at the Musée d’art moderne. Fortunately, a wise choice in lighting and structures renders it once again more inviting. The first part of the show arranged along the curved wall features a remarkable group of, we must say, the artist’s most striking works created between the very end of the XIXth C. and 1904. By displaying these classic pieces, with each one on a panel that acts like the page of a book, the show’s organizers have understood how Kubin’s art during this period needed to be replaced in a private and interiorized context. This subtle artifice, which is arranged like an immense “cabinet de curiosités” (the title of one of his amazing books), restores their aura of secrecy to these remarkable drawings. Knowing just how extensive the holdings on Kubin are, the choice of works was not easy, especially as none of the collections offer catalogues (which is intself quite surprising). The drawings, about sixty, in pen, ink and wash belonging to this period are exceptional. These include such well-known works as Fright (ill. 1), The Guardian (ill. 2), Adoration (ill. 3), The Past (ill. 4) or The Vampire (ill. 5) but also many unfamiliar ones some of which are totally unpublished (pictures are not available for the media).

3. Alfred Kubin (1877-1959)
Adoration, 1900-1901
Pen, wash, crachis - 29,8 x 27,4 cm
Linz, Landesmuseum
© ADAGP Paris, 2007

Thanks to this vast ensemble, one grasps the full measure of this young man’s originality. He was only between 23 and 27 years old. A reader of Schopenhauer, with a tormented but cultured mind, Kubin turned to tales and philosophy for sources of inspiration, looking also to Max Klinger, whom he admired, as well as other Symbolists (de Groux, Munch, Redon, Ensor whom he quotes in his autobiography). Looking beyond these “influences”, it is hard to deny the irrefutable singularity of his art. The draughtsman pokes fun sharply at his contemporaries or resorts to images that are distinctively caricatural and denounce modern life (Péladan’s “Finis Latinorum” in Alexandre Séon’s drawing is not far) ;sometimes he creates works that prefigure Surrealism, often more convincingly. But he is at his most outstanding in those works where he operates a totally enigmatic magic : The Swamp, The Intruders, The Rat House or the amazing Night Walker where he blends vision and technical mastery. It is precisely in adapting plastic means to inspiration that Symbolist Art is the most interesting and one cannot help but associate these works, which defy their interpretation, to it. Historical, socio-political or psychoanalytical analyses are of no use ;this art maintains its mystery and therin lies its attraction.

4. Alfred Kubin (1877-1959)
The Past (forgotten-swallowed), 1901
Pen, ink, wash - 25,7 x 32,6 cm
Vienna, Leopold Museum
© ADAGP Paris, 2007

5. Alfred Kubin (1877-1959)
The Vampire, 1900
Ink, brush, watercolour -
31 x 19,2 cm
Oö, Landesmuseum
© ADAGP Paris, 2007

Making use of the various colored walls, the staging highlights the chronological development of Kubin’s art. Starting in 1905-1906, the artist experiments with color for a few years. He more or less gives it up quickly and with good reason. Black lends itself better to the artist’s introspection and these works are a bit weak. Even the Under-water Scene (ill. 6) from 1906, the year when he met Odile Redon, is only partly convincing. By renouncing monochrome drawing, Kubin loses the unity in his dreams and nightmares : he is obviously not a colorist and the anecdotal takes over. The work between 1910 and 1930 also seems less pronounced, not uninteresting but, once again, under the declared influence of early German masters, his drawing is choppy and discontinuous obliterating his vision. Seeming more neurotic than inspired, his art loses its impact. The same applies to many of the illustrations Kubin produced until the 1940’s (E.T.A.Hoffman, Poe, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Trakl, etc…). Nevertheless, the exhibition enables the visitor to grasp the range of his art as well as his ties to the most renowned names in both traditional and contemporary literature (Kafka, Meyring) on whose texts he worked. Congratulations are in order to Dominique Gagneux, commissioner of the show, for evoking a complete panorama of Kubin’s work, without omitting his less interesting periods : the life and work of an artist deserve to be judged in their entirety although the aim of rehabilitating his late works (“a half-forgotten country” ?) is not really achieved. The comparison with his early works is too overwhelming. Frequent quotations from this distraught artist accompany the displays and the moving film shot at the end of his life conclude this well-deserved tribute to one of the great names of Austrian art.

The catalogue is a pleasant surprise, comprising not only learned essays and a useful tool for art historians, but offering also a beautiful object for book collectors. With its pages folded traditionally and not cut, displaying an elaborate layout, printed on elegant paper and, finally, bound in a cover of Japanese influence, this work is among the most refined publications of Paris-Musées. Regretfully, the illustrations are arranged in a different order than the works on display, making it impractical. The essays by Gérard-Georges Lemaire on the relationship text/image, by Annegret Hoberg, who studies Kubin and the Blaue Reiter and by Dominique Gagneux who situates Kubin historically, are among the catalogue’s highlights. A bibliography, chronology and numerous excerpts of writings by the artist are a fine complement to this beautiful edition.

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond

Alfred Kubin. Souvenirs d’un pays à moitié oublié, textes de Peter Assmann, Christophe David, Dominique Gagneux, Fabrice Hergott, Annegret Hoberg, Gérard-Georges Lemaire, Paris-Musées, 2007, 140 pages. 39 euros. ISBN 978-2-7596-0019-9. Buy this catalogue

Visitor Information : Paris, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, 11 avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris. Phone : +33 (0)1 53 67 40 00. Open Tuesday through Sunday 10.00 - 18.00. Friday 10.00 - 22.00. Monday closed. Admission : 6 € - 4,50 € - 3 €. Website of the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris


Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, mercredi 7 novembre 2007

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