Within all of us there is a capacity for morbid introspection, a path of thinking which if unthinkingly pursued can eventually lead to an abyss into which no light will shine. Nearing this fathomless void most of us instinctively pull back in fear, but not Austrian artist Alfred Kubin; he just grabbed his sketchbook and dived right in. It is difficult to think of an illustrator whose outlook is so unrelentingly bleak, yet so beautifully realised. Barely arrived in the 20th century, he looked ahead to its darkest moments and unflinchingly recorded the full horror to come.
It was in New York in November 2008 that I first encountered Kubin’s work, the day after watching the presidential election results from the late P.J. Hanley’s in Brooklyn. While Kubin’s sunless domains offered nothing of the optimism that attended Obama’s (first) election, the grey day and the fog of hangover paired well with the images of despair that awaited me at the Neue Galerie, which occupies a 5th Avenue mansion straight out of a Henry James novel. I was both disturbed and electrified by what I found, and particularly intrigued to read of the artist’s long occupation of a small schloss in Austria. Born in 1877, Alfred Kubin lived in Schloss Zwickledt, an 11th-century manor house in northern Austria near the German border, between 1906 and 1959. He was joined by his wife Hedwig, sister of the German writer Oscar A. H. Schmitz and a noted translator in her own right, until her death in 1948.
This scenario and the extraordinary images forged such an alluring amalgam in my mind that I inwardly resolved to visit Zwickledt one day. And then for my birthday last year my partner gave me a signed Kubin print of the prophet Jeremiah (a kvetching senior; as delighted as I was it was hard not take it a little personally) and it reawakened my desire to visit the point of origin. The print was made in 1919, so this would be a centennial return to the scene of the crime, and it also coincided with the anniversary of Kubin’s death – 60 years ago today.
The intensity and consistency of Kubin’s vision made it clear that he was not chasing momentary shock value, but rather lending expression to the darkest emissions of his troubled soul. He was the most literary of illustrators, and the authors whose works his drawings and etchings accompanied – Trakl, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Nerval, Dostoyevsky, Scheerbart, Meyrink – were all known for their dark, obsessive characters. Kubin even made his own contribution to this canon of disaffection with his dystopian novel, The Other Side (1909).
Kubin met an aging Odilon Redon in Paris, and the influence of the French artist’s monochrome work is apparent, while Kubin himself noted one of his biggest inspirations as Max Klinger, the German artist who bridged Symbolism and Surrealism. The most emblematic Kubin style offers burnished, grey-brown smoky evocations of everlasting doom, but his works on paper reflect other styles as well, such as the vigorously hatched illustrations for his brother-in-law Oscar A. H. Schmitz’s book Hashish. While sexual neurosis is certainly a factor in his works, it is not the same monomania as found in, say, Félicien Rops – Eros is no match for Thanatos in Kubin’s world.
As I noted a while back when discussing Georg Trakl, this dark torment appears to be something of an Austrian specialty; witness also Sissi’s death cult. Like the poet and the empress, Kubin had no lack of devastation in his own life from which to draw, and the grave is a recurring motif in both his life and work. Perhaps the most pitilessly pessimistic variation on this theme is his 1901 image The Egg, in which a supernaturally glowing woman stands next to a freshly dug plot, her otherwise skeletal frame weighed down by a belly grotesquely distended by impending progeny. Kubin had lost his beloved mother as a boy, and as a young man he attempted suicide at her grave, but his revolver failed.
Having originally encountered Kubin in the most Kubinian month of them all, November, it seemed perverse to now be visiting on a hot day in August. But the house isn’t open in November (and who wants to cycle in November?). We take advantage of some rare free time, and find ourselves in nearby Passau, Bavaria’s winningly picturesque “three river” town, with a fort high above the Danube from which you can see south into Austria and north as far as the Czech Republic. My favourite fact about Passau – and welcome light relief from Kubin’s curriculum mortis – is that Germany’s ubiquitous Schlager star and ultra-wholesome supermarket magazine fixture Florian Silbereisen once went nuts at a Christmas market in the town when they refused to sell him more glühwein. They also have a dachshund museum here, and I wonder if we might have stumbled upon peak Germany.
We set out from Passau, cycling down the Inn on a warm, sunny Sunday morning as bells toll beneath onion domes. We soon arrive at a dam athwart the river on which we cross over to the Austrian side, although there isn’t so much as a sign to indicate we have switched countries. We continue down the eastern bank and arrive at Wernstein. Here our Kubinian encounters begin, appropriately enough, in a graveyard. Alfred and Hedwig are buried in a small churchyard in the village. Their grave was designed by Karl Brantl, and stands out from all the simple black slabs; it is also the only one in its section lying in the shade, huddled against the church.
Rather than head up the hill to the house straight away we continue on to the candy-coloured Baroque town of Schärding, which has numerous Kubinian associations (as well as a coat of arms that appears to feature a crimping iron). Kubin’s father lived here in the early 20th century, which is how the artist was originally drawn to the area. By this time he had volunteered for the army, but was soon discharged following a nervous breakdown. Things appeared to be looking up when he met and fell in love with a young woman from Schärding named Emmy Bayer, in the spring of 1903. But Kubin’s career in tragedy was far from over – she was dead of typhoid before the year was out. I mean, thank God Kubin had his art – what does someone like that do without an outlet? He wasn’t just illustrating Poe editions, he was living the life of a Poe protagonist born under a bad star.
We set off from Schärding on the steep route up to Zwickledt, with fading roadside campaign posters for Austria’s goblin-eared child tyrant Sebastian Kurz set against otherwise serene hillside vistas. I feel like my heart might burst – not from the excitement of finally getting here, but the sheer exertion of pedalling perilous inclines. And when we arrive at the house we are sweating not with the tubercular fever more fitting for a visitor to Kubin’s realm, but from the hot sun glaring directly overhead from a cloudless sky.
Kubin had met Hedwig Gründler, as she was then, in Munich in 1904, and they married the same year. Newly widowed, she had contracted the disease that had killed her husband and was now addicted to morphine. But in 1906 the pair at least found the solitude they craved when they purchased the schloss (properly speaking its comparitively diminutive scale distinguishes it as a Schlösschen, but that is a word guaranteed to make you sound like a messy drunk so we’ll stick with schloss). In the company of two servants, a monkey and a domesticated deer, they could work without distraction.
As you step from the pretty, gently overgrown garden into the dim, refreshingly cool entrance hall you notice the smell – they still hang herbs here, the kind of low-tech domestic solution that Kubin favoured over the advances of the 20th century. Apart from a room where local schoolchildren come to make their own prints there is a cosy wood-panelled living room and a decidedly unfussy kitchen.
Upstairs is Kubin’s work room, left exactly as it was in his day, a loving memorial to one of the most celebrated illustrators of the 20th century. From here you pass through Hedwig’s study to the library. Our guide informs us that in the early years after Kubin’s death, visitors could just come and browse the volumes, and I am consumed with envy. What a collection this must be – hundreds of illustrated works, early 20th century literature, history, philosophy, occult studies, Asian religions, natural sciences. The meticulously assembled collection was of enormous importance to Kubin, and standing at the library’s threshold it is difficult to avoid the feeling that you are peering into the artist’s mind.
Here on this hill above the Inn the couple experienced the First World War, the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Great Depression, annexation by Germany (especially perilous for the part-Jewish Hedwig), the Second World War and then post-war reconstruction. These events were never as far away as they wished; in the crisis years of the 1920s they could only afford to heat one room in the house (meanwhile, a recent London auction saw a single Kubin drawing selling for almost a million pounds, about five times the estimate). In the Second World War the clock on the schloss tower was confiscated for the war effort.
And Hedwig was running down her own clock. As the last stages of the war saw bitter combat between American troops and an SS unit around the house, she lay in hospital back down in Schärding, where she died in 1948. In the vaulted cellar you can see extraordinary video footage of Kubin himself, shot a few days after Hedwig’s death. He smiles gamely, but it took over a year before he gathered the strength to visit her grave. He stayed on for over a decade, a familiar figure stalking the surrounding hills in his habitual checked suit; the snippet below comes from further footage shot in 1957 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Apart from his loyal housekeeper Cilli Lindinger, he had the occasional company of a local priest who had wisely decided that the old man in the schloss was, theologically speaking, a lost cause. Having moved out of the marital bedroom after Hedwig’s death, Kubin died in the guest bedroom on this day in 1959.
If you were unfamiliar with Kubin’s biography, it would be extremely hard to reconcile the death metal universe of his drawings with this idyllic hillside – until you get to the bottom of the garden. There you find a fetid pond cowering beneath a copse of trees, its malodorous waters seething with bugs, an evil grey-brown broth that would easily fit into the Kubinian spectrum. It puts the ‘pond’ in ‘despond’ and is adorned with the Kubins’ original, sober gravestone that was replaced by Brantl’s sculpted slab.
We descend the precipitous curves of Alfred-Kubin-Straße in what feels like moments, arriving at Wernstein where we cross over to Germany. As we cycle back towards Passau, the afternoon sun falls through the steep forested hills above us, a golden ladder of celestial light pouring down through the pines. It’s a sight to stop the heart. It bears no relation to the images of mortal doom we have left behind us – but we feel like we’ve earned it.
Photographs: James J. Conway and Miles Staveley