- Alfred Kubin: Drawings, 1897-1909
- Prestel USA, 212 pp.
In the works of the Impressionists, the trustful relationship between man and the world introduced by the Renaissance reached its final, entirely optimistic phase. Then a paradigm shift followed. As early as 1881 Émile Zola, the movement’s spokesman, noted: “That the human spirit is suffering a crisis, that the old formulas are dead, that the ideal is changing.” Suddenly reality became dubious and moved into the ambiguous domains of metaphor and symbol. Paul Gauguin gave this uncertainty its exemplary formulation when he asked in the title of one of his paintings: D’où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Qù allons nous? (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? 1897-98 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). For someone like Zola, such questions must have represented a loss, since they abandoned the clarity with which the Impressionists had endowed the factual world. They painted, in Burke’s words, “clear ideas,” and now in the twilight a more elaborately graduated world announced itself in which dreams and premonitions transported all relationships into the uncertain.
This turn occurred everywhere in the Western world, although in different ways. Whereas in Paris it played out beneath the sign of an unbroken culture of painting—it suffices to recall Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and the Nabis—in Munich and Berlin it reached for a vehement, grotesque, fantastic linguistic means, for a wild primitive-sounding syntax, from which an “other modernism” gradually emerged. Kubin helped create this anarchic opening, which ignored the norms of taste of peinture and ultimately still avowed the ancient Horatian delectare—that is, an experience of the moment in which we recognize a variation of Lessing’s “pleasure.” Kubin had something quite different in mind: with his hallucinatory incantations he was seeking to disturb the viewer; he felt driven to solve the riddle of humankind and creation in a spellbinding act. In the process he exposed himself to the anxiety that Worringer wrote had been controlled by the Oriental peoples, since they see “in the world nothing but the shimmering veil of Maya.” Kubin’s studies of occult doctrines and Buddhism did not provide him with the refuge for which he had hoped, however. As early as 1908 he was warning his friend Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando against Buddhism: “a watertight but sterile system” that “is incompatible with an artistically creative existence.”
Whereas Parisian Symbolism had followed the commandment of homogenous stylistic registers, the “other modernism” worked with provocative mixtures, displaying its disregard of formal categories: Kubin reached for the “most extreme opposites”: he mixed the Bruegheiesque with the Japanese without abandoning his own style as the dominant element: “so the most interesting things come out…, the crudest and decoratively most delicate element.”
—from Werner Hofmann’s essay “The ‘Other Side’ of Modernity”