Alfred Kubin’s life may be divided into three phases, whose duration is inversely proportional to the importance that the artist and his later biographers have attached to them. First came a troubled youth and adolescence, punctuated by his mother’s death when the artist was ten, a suicide attempt at nineteen, and in 1897, a complete mental and physical collapse during a brief period of military service. Following a year-long convalescence, Kubin entered the second and pivotal phase of his life. Seemingly unfit for practical employment, he was sent to Munich to study art in 1898, a longtime avocation for which he had shown some talent.
In Munich’s hothouse of creative ferment, Kubin blossomed like some rare orchid. Influenced by the German Symbolist Max Klinger and stimulated by the urban environment, he drew as if in a fever dream: nightmares made palpable, fantastical creatures inhabiting shadowy imaginary kingdoms. His rise on the German art scene was rapid. By 1902, Kubin was exhibiting at the prestigious Cassirer Gallery in Berlin. The following year, he exhibited at the Vienna and Berlin Secessions, and a portfolio reproducing fifteen of his spooky drawings was published by the collector Hans von Weber. In 1904, Kubin joined the Phalanx group, beginning a long-term association with Kandinsky’s Expressionist circle. Kubin remained allied with the core Munich avant-garde as it reconfigured itself over the ensuing years, joining the Neuekünstlervereinigung in 1909 and the seminal Blaue Reiter group in 1911.
Yet even during this period of artistic achievement and professional success, Kubin remained troubled and dogged by a seemingly tragic destiny. In 1903, his fiancée Emmy Bayer contracted typhus and quickly died. Less than a year later, Kubin married Hedwig Schmitz, whose subsequent chronic illnesses left her addicted to morphine. And in 1907, the artist’s father died. Thrust into another spiritual and emotional crisis, Kubin turned to writing, producing an allegorical proto-Expressionistic novel, The Other Side, in a mere twelve weeks. In illustrating the book, he forged the style that would, with minor modifications, characterize his work for the remainder of his lengthy career. The hallucinatory dreamworld of his prior drawings was superceded by images that appeared more firmly grounded in reality. Frenetic pen-strokes, sometimes livened with touches of watercolor, replaced the misty “spray technique” of former years. As Kubin phrased it, he had learned that, “It is not only in the bizarre, exalted or comic moments of our existence that the highest values lie, but that the painful, the indifferent and the incidental commonplace contain these same mysteries.”
The most active stage in Kubin’s development had ended by the first world war. Already at the time of his marriage, he felt the ebbing of the fantastic visions that fueled his art. Travel did not have the desired effect of revitalizing his imagination, but rather produced a surfeit of confusing sensations. Kubin began to withdraw from new artistic contacts, and World War I further disrupted his ties to the avant-garde, scattering the Blaue Reiter group and killing several of its key members. The artist’s autobiography, first written as an addendum to the 1911 edition of The Other Side and updated periodically thereafter, focuses chiefly on his youth and early adulthood. Though he lived on for nearly half a century, the third and final phase of the artist’s biography is in most accounts short on personal detail.
By the 1920s, Kubin was well established professionally. In Germany, he showed with such major dealers as Hans Goltz, Fritz Gurlitt and J.B. Neumann, and in Vienna he was represented by Otto Kallir’s Neue Galerie. In 1927, the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich mounted a 50th-birthday exhibition, and a group of prominent Austrian artists and writers published a commemorative Festschrift. Kubin had also launched a lucrative career as a printmaker and book illustrator; in addition to occasional portfolios accompanying his own writings, Kubin illustrated over 140 books by other authors. He still traveled periodically, if reluctantly, principally to attend exhibitions of his work, and he was enough of a personage to command audiences at his rural retreat at Zwickledt. He was also a prolific correspondent, maintaining relationships by mail with numerous far-flung friends. Nevertheless, Kubin led an essentially reclusive existence, with outside contacts pruned to suit his own agenda. When the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, Kubin was taken completely by surprise: for he neither owned a radio nor read newspapers.
Kubin lived out the Nazi years relatively undisturbed in Zwickledt. Unlike some banned German colleagues, he did not have to go into “inner exile,” because he was already there. And in fact, Kubin was not banned; he could exhibit, so long as the works were judiciously edited. Still, he refused to do propaganda and found that there was little demand for his quirky drawings in Hitler’s Reich. Following World War II, however, Austria attempted to reclaim her prewar heritage and hailed Kubin as a national treasure. In 1947, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, he was lauded with a retrospective at the Graphische Sammlung Albertina in Vienna and the establishment of a “Kubin Kabinett” at the Neue Galerie in Linz. Similar accolades attended the artist’s 75th and 80th birthdays. A lifelong hypochondriac, Kubin died at the healthy age of 82, in 1959.