Sunday, 19 August 2012

Alfred Kubin at the Nottingham Contemporary

I found out that Nottingham Contemporary was holding an exhibition on Alfred Kubin just a few days before it opened. I find the Austrian artist a fascinating person and had seen a couple of his works in Vienna years back while I was studying at the University there on the Erasmus programme. Kubin's life, and particularly his childhood, was extremely troubled, but the way this spilled over into his art gives us a wonderful insight into his mind and clearly fueled his creativity.

I went by myself on the first Saturday that the exhibition opened, and then for a second time last week with Mark. The works are a lot to take in - you almost need to see them twice, once to feel the effect of them in terms of their dark, haunting nature, and a second time to really appreciate their artistry.

Kubin lived from 1877 to 1959, but all the works at the Contemporary date from a short period in Kubin's twenties, over the turn of the century, shortly after he suffered a complete nervous breakdown. Kubin's drawings are full of fantastical scenes with a dark, sinister edge. There are distorted figures, depictions of death and destruction, fear and terror. One of my favourites, 'Rapid Journey' features a giant, grotesque slug, carrying a number of well dressed, frolicking people in compartments along its back.

'Epidemic' (1900-1901)

A corner of the gallery, tucked behind a wall, housed the most disturbed and indeed disturbing works in the exhibition. These included the harrowing 'Scenes from Hell', a series of illustrations of extreme torture and dismemberment, and 'The Kiss', depicting a pornographic scene in which one party is a decomposed corpse.

'The Way to Hell' (1900) - another of my favourites. This is always how I always imagined the gates of hell to be, in Dante's 'Inferno'.

But Kubin's work isn't just about the horror or the shock-value. His view of the world may be dismal, but it is presented in such amazing detail and with such wonderful artistic skill. I guess that is why it has endured so well.

Kubin shares the billing at the Contemporary with a current artist, Francis Upritchard, whose sculptured figures contrast with and, in a strange way, complement Kubin. A couple of her older works, including grotesque fur monkey-type creatures, sit in the Kubin galleries, while two of the spaces are given over to her work alone. The first room contains 'War Dance', a number of figures on plinths that appear to be engaged in some sort of war. They are in smart white uniforms, and each adopts a battle pose. But rather than appearing threatening and powerful, they are gangly, puny and almost pathetic looking.

The second room contains the 'Hippies and Holy Fools', colourful figures with a psychedelic feel, who look like they have just wandered out of a late-1960s festival. They are extremes, almost caricatures.

I stared at one of the War Dance figures in the eyes for a long time to see if he would move, come alive. He didn't, but there is something in the figures that draws you in, just like in Kubin's work...something of the unreal. Something that takes you into a new, strange place in your imagination.

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