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Alfred Kubin: An Avant-garde Painter

Question:

Discuss about the Water Ghost by Alfred Kubin.

The above quoted lines of Pablo Picasso clearly indicates the nature of the painting “Water Ghost” by Alfred Kubin. Painting had its origin in the Pre-Historic times when the cavemen used to draw figures on the walls of the cave (Arnason and Mansfield 2013). However, in the recent times, the genre of painting has undergone much transformation in a bid to incorporate other branches of study within itself. The present definition of the art of painting has been adequately put into words by Orhan Pamuk in his book “My Name is Red”, “Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight” (Pamuk 2010). Therefore, in the present day scenario painting is used to express the silent thoughts of the soul which cannot be expressed by words (Arnason and Mansfield 2013). To express the inexpressible the artists use various techniques like expressionism, impressionism, formalism and other forms of avant-garde styles (Kohle 2012). Afred Kubin was one of the pioneers of the techniques of Symbolism as well as Expressionism and his works are often considered to be potent representatives of these two genres of painting (GLUECK 2018). This essay intends to shed light on the painting “Water Ghost” of Alfred Kubin from its avant-garde and sublime perspective.

Alfred Leopold Isidor Kubin (1877-1959), was an Austrian painter whose works are redolent with the qualities of the avant-garde art movement of his time like Symbolism, Expressionism and others (Galerie-altnoeder.com 2018). Much of his life he suffered from depression with two or three instances of nervous breakdown (Arnason and Mansfield 2013). He even attempted suicide on the grave of his mother. Thus, painting served in his life the same purpose as it did in the life of Frida Kahlo, “I don't paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality” (Art & criticism by eric wayne 2018). However, the real flowering of his art began with the influence of Max Klinger on his art which in his own words, “a new art was thrown open to me, which offered free play for the imaginative expression of every conceivable world of feeling. Before putting the engravings away I swore that I would dedicate my life to the creation of similar works” (Kubin 1973). This can be seen as his formal introduction to the avant-garde art movement of which he was to become a primary preacher. It is to be noted that most of the critics interpret his works like “Water Ghost”, “Gateway to Hell”, “One Woman For All” and others to be rather dark, spectral and full of his symbolic fantasies (Marks, Kubin and Landesmuseum 1977). Some critics even find influences of authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, E.T.A. Hoffmann and others on his art works (Kohle 2012). According to these critics, in his works is found the same morbid reality as well as the infernal ugliness of the present day society as is found in the works of these writers and just like them he also takes the help of gothic machinery to convey his message (Kohle 2012).

Water Ghost Painting: Composition and Interpretation


The “Water Ghost” is often considered to be the masterpiece of Albert Kubin (Marks, Kubin and Landesmuseum 1977). It is interesting to note that he was the only Austrian artists to be a member of the "Der Blaue Reiter" group and many people consider this painting to a product of the influence of that art group (Galerie-altnoeder.com 2018). In this particular painting, Kubin is trying to vent his own personal emotions through the medium of expressionism. This particular painting of Kubin is based on the ancient lore about the storm (Art & criticism by eric wayne 2018). According to the ancient lore, there is one storm in the world and when that storm awakens it destroys everything in its path until its force is spent and it weakens down only to rise up again later when it has regained its strength (Kubin 1973). In this ancient lore, he introduces the figure of the ghost, who is actually the element behind the force of the storm. The ghost seems to be wearing the storm just like one wears a cloak or a garb in everyday life. Many critics believe the ghost to be a representation of the emotional turbulence faced by Kubin right from his childhood and especially after the death of his mother (Arnason and Mansfield 2013). On the other hand, there are others who consider the painting to be mere pastime work of the artist and think that there is no hidden meaning in the work (Arnason and Mansfield 2013). However, Kuhin’s own opinion about the meaning of the painting is significant here, “You might as well ask an artist to explain his art, or ask a poet to explain his poem. It defeats the purpose. The meaning is only clear thorough the search” (Art & criticism by eric wayne 2018). On the other hand, there are some critics to consider this painting to be one of the earliest manifestations of Surrealism (Arnason and Mansfield 2013). Therefore, it can be said that this particular painting of Alfred Kubin represents the characteristics which were typical of the avant-garde movement of his time.

A work of art is said to be sublime when it is of unparalleled beauty or of great excellence. The painting “Water Ghost” of Alfred Kubin is one such art work which reaches the genre of sublime (Arnason and Mansfield 2013). It is a sublime work of art not only because of the beauty of the work or for the fine execution of the work but also for the sublime meaning which the artist has tried to conveyed through the painting. In this painting, the artist through the metaphor of the storm and the anecdote of the ghost used in the ancient lore is trying to portray the inner storm which is continuously going on in the inner consciousness of each individual on this planet  (Art & criticism by eric wayne 2018). The human mind becomes the world in this particular painting and the ghost becomes the representation of the human consciousness. Thus, it can be said that the painting achieves the quality of sublimity by virtue of the meaning which it is trying to portray.

Therefore, from the above discussion it becomes clear that Alfred Kubin was one of the greatest painters of Austria who did not receive much of critical acclaim which was his due within his lifetime. He is often considered to be a pioneer of the avant-garde movement in painting and its related movements like Expressionism, Symbolism, Surrealism and various others. His “Water Ghost” is often considered to be a fine exhibition of his expressionistic techniques.

References

Arnason, H.H. and Mansfield, E., 2013. History of modern art: painting, sculpture, architecture, photography. Pearson.

Art & criticism by eric wayne. 2018. Eerie Alfred Kubin: Forgotten Pioneer of Symbolism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. [online] Available at: https://artofericwayne.com/2018/01/29/eerie-alfred-kubin-forgotten-pioneer-of-symbolism-expressionism-and-surrealism/ [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].

Artnet.com. 2018. Alfred Kubin | artnet. [online] Available at: https://www.artnet.com/artists/alfred-kubin/ [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].

Galerie-altnoeder.com. 2018. Alfred Kubin - Galerie Altnöder Salzburg. [online] Available at: https://www.galerie-altnoeder.com/kubin.html [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].

GLUECK, G. 2018. ART: ALFRED KUBIN SHOW A LESSON IN FANTASY. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/25/arts/art-alfred-kubin-show-a-lesson-in-fantasy.html?pagewanted=all [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].

Kohle, H., 2012. Nightmare–anxiety–apocalypse. The Uncanny and Catastrophic in the art of Modernism.

Kubin, A., 1973. From my workshop . German paperback publisher.

Marks, A., Kubin, A. and Landesmuseum, O., 1977. Illustrator Alfred Kubin: Complete catalog of his illustrations and book art works . Ed. Spangenberg.

Pamuk, O., 2010. My name is Red (Vol. 331). Everyman's Library.

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