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Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Sad and Strange Life of Alfred Kubin

Recently, a friend of mine went to New York City on business and returned with a magnificent catalogue art book on a retrospective show on Alfred Kubin. If you are wondering who this artist might be, and why you potentially have never heard of him, don't despair.... I had no recollection of his name before my friend presented me with this great gift, despite the fact that I have read nearly every single Kafka biography known to the entire English speaking populous. The sad truth is this: there's no knowing Alfred Kubin without knowing Franz Kafka, and there's a sincere irony in it as well.

Kafka is known around the world as the master of the nightmarish narrative. Many people still refer to Gregor Samsa when they have a bad dream, or they get up on the wrong side of the bed and, instead of turning into a bug, they step into a "bad hair" day, or a "I-wish-I-didn't-have-to-go-to-my-boring-job" day, or a "I- think-I'll-drive-to-Mexico-today-and-forget-my-wife, kids, pets, mortgage-and-other-obligations exist" type of day. It is true, and in all fairness, Kafka gave Kubin the credit he deserved. Kubin was, after all, the elder artist with vast more experience than the young writer just starting out. There is, however, such an intricate tie between what the eye sees and what the eye reads in both Kafka and Kubin.

There is much that is lost to the naked eye here.

To be sure, one would have to go word by word and seek the similarities. But that would be losing the battle against what is written on the page and the seemingly schizophreneic themes Kubin aimed for. Kafka no doubt drew inspiration, but again, it might be more complicated that just a plain connection between them. For example, the bug sketch above is clearly tied to "The Metamorphosis," right? To assume it at that level would probably leave behind the fact that Kafka in fact had that dream before seeing the Kubin drawing, and it was the drawing that elicited the recall of the nightmarish plot the young writer would later throw into the page.

Little mention is made of Kubin in the numerous Kafka biographies. One, however, making reference to Kafka's diaries, cites the initial encounter. Kafka writes that Kubin is "very strong but rather monotonous in his facial movements, he [Kubin] describes the most dissimilar things with the same muscular expression. He varies in his apparent age, size and strength according to whether he's sitting or standing, wearing just a suit or an overcoat." Apparently, the two men shared another more embarrassing interest: constipation. Out of the initial encounter, Kafka recalls that at the end of the evening, when some other friends were trying to coax him and Kubin to a brothel, Kubin having refused called out to Kafka from the distance, "Regulin." (Apparently the name of a common constipation medication at the time).

Okay, so enough of the personal details. The two sketches that I have included here obviously have a connection to Kafka's work. I'd like to hear from some of you. Aside from the bug, I want to see how many of Kubin's images we can interpretatively tie to Kafka's works. I'll post some more images soon.

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