“Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka—everyone knows these artists from Austria, but there is another: Alfred Kubin!” proclaimed the famous art impresario Serge Sabarsky to the Austrian art dealers Eberhard Kohlbacher and Alois M. Wienerroither when they visited him in New York in the late 1980s. Although the name Kubin is now widely known—not least due to the seminal exhibition at New York’s Neue Galerie in 2008-09, which was the first major US museum show of the artist—his artistic genius is yet to be fully discovered.
Kubin’s pictorial worlds have the ability to deeply move experienced collectors as well as beginners. One is drawn into unexpected, fantastical images that speak to the subconscious, which is just one of the reasons his work has lost none of its relevance today. These images are profoundly modern: Kubin (1877-1959) depicts the brutal truth of mankind, often with a darkly comical, macabre satire.
He attempted to commit suicide on her grave
The artist’s hallucinatory visions and traumatic life experiences were deeply influential: he lost his mother at the age of ten and nine years later, in 1896, he attempted to commit suicide on her grave. A year later, after brief service in the Austrian army, he suffered a nervous breakdown. His often nightmarish imagery was also inspired by the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Edgar Allan Poe, many of which Kubin illustrated.
Last month Vienna’s Leopold Museum, which houses the third-largest Kubin collection in the world, opened “Radek Knapp meets Alfred Kubin, The Hour of birth” (until 4 September). It is the first time since 2002 that the Leopold Museum has exhibited such a large number of works from all periods of the artist’s oeuvre, and it is presented as a story which one can walk through.
The show comes on the heels of a spate of major exhibitions over the past couple of years including the first major UK show of the artist, “Alfred Kubin: The Other Side” at Nottingham Contemporary in 2012, and “Lyonel Feininger and Alfred Kubin: A Friendship of Artists” at Vienna’s Albertina in 2015-2016.
Renewed Market Interest
Indeed, there seems to be renewed market interest in his oeuvre: in 2014 Der Mensch (around 1903-5)—which is a brilliant illustration of fear and solitude, depicting a figure rolling into a wave of the vast unknown—achieved a world auction record for the artist when it sold for £272,500 at Sotheby’s London against an estimate of £40,000-£60,000. The previous record had been set in 2011 for Angst (around 1902-3), which made CHF330,000 (against an estimate of CHF40,000) at Galerie Kornfeld in Bern.
Another work that flew past its estimate was Der Adler (1903) which sold at the German auction house Ketterer for €137,500 against pre-sale estimates of €10,000 to €15,000 in 2014, while, in March, an arresting image of a dying pope Sterbender Papst (around 1905-6), sparked the interest of several seasoned collectors at Sotheby’s London when it reached £193,700 against an estimate of £18,000-£25,000.
His grotesque images stick like glue
Kubin was fascinated by the Symbolist movement, in which the psyche plays a key role. He was drawn to the disturbing and cruel images of Goya, Odilon Redon, James Ensor and Max Klinger. His grotesque images stick like glue and are not easily forgotten. It is clear that he did not produce art in order to cheer up or “life-coach” depressed souls but to open up the possibility of the unknown.
The artist’s most sought after body of work has always been his early oeuvre, created until around 1908-09 when he published Die andere Seite (The Other Side), a novel about a dream kingdom which, in the end, becomes a nightmare. It is also a journey into the depths of the subconscious or, as the artist himself called it, “A sort of Baedeker for those lands which are half known to us”.
The book was hailed a success by the German Expressionists, many of whom he met during his time in Munich and with whom he became good friends. Yet, while he was a member of Der Blaue Reiter and was very close to Paul Klee and Lyonel Feininger, he always remained reclusive.
The draughtsman, illustrator and printmaker produced roughly around 14,000 drawings and illustrated more than 180 books. He also produced a small number of oil paintings between 1902 and 1910, but his most successful compositions are rendered on paper. (A comprehensive catalogue raisonné is unlikely to be produced, simply because Kubin’s oeuvre is so vast.)
According to Annegret Hoberg, a leading Kubin scholar, most of his drawings were executed on the back of Katasterpapier, land register paper which was used for cartographic purposes by the artist’s father, who was a surveyor. This paper is was particularly heavy and absorbent and allowed the ink to merge exceptionally well with its surface.
Large amounts of the artist’s work are owned by museums such as the Leopold Museum and the Albertina in Vienna as well as the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau in Munich, where the Kubin archive is also based. Therefore his work, including his distinctive early works on paper, rarely come to market. But, when they do, they are highly sought after.
Peers Paced Ahead
In 2002, when Kubin was arguably not as widely known as he is today, Seegespenst (around 1901-1902) was sold as part of the Beck Collection at Sotheby’s London for €314,650. (It is interesting to note that, while the majority of Kubin’s work is offered in Europe, some of his major private collectors are based in America.)
Yet, by comparison with his Austrian contemporaries such as Schiele, Klimt and Kokoschka, prices for Kubin’s work are relatively modest. Egon Schiele’s world auction record for a work on paper, Liebespaar (Selbstdarstellung mit Wally (around 1914-15), is £7.8m (est. £6.5m-£8.5m), set at Sotheby’s London in 2013; Klimt’s Liegender Mädchenakt nach links (around 1914-15) sold for £505,000 (est. £100,000-£150,000) at Sotheby’s London in 2008, while Kokoschka’s top price is $425,000 (est. $70,000-$100,000), for Sitzender bärtiger Mann (1907) at Bonham’s New York in 2016.
The record auction prices paid for paintings by these artists are £24.7m (est. £22m-£30m) for Schiele’s Häuser mit bunter Wäsche (Vorstadt II) (1914) at Sotheby’s London in 2011; $87.9m (est. $18m-$25m) for Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) at Christie’s New York in 2006 (which reportedly traded privately this year for around $150m), and £3.3m (est. £1,600,000-£2m) for Kokoschka’s Orpheus und Eurydike (1917) at Sotheby’s London in March, so Kubin’s paintings are not even worth comparing in terms of price.
Since Kubin’s oeuvre consists mainly of works on paper, which are typically less expensive, and lacks major paintings, his market is simply not as deep. Perhaps, because of their often disturbing nature, his works are also harder to grasp and more difficult to live with. Nonetheless, the growing interest in Kubin’s visionary art and the gap in pricing between him and his peers suggest that the market for this visionary artist has room to grow.