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FRIENDSHIP AND PATRONAGE: KUBIN AND MORGENSTERN
Executed circa 1905, Alfred Kubin's two works on paper, Türkenschanze (lot 129) and Kamelreiter (lot 130), have remained, until this day, in the family of a man who was not only a collector, but also a patron and friend. Maximilian Morgenstern was a successful Jewish textile merchant who had a factory in Silesia; he lived in Vienna and is believed to have met the artist around 1910. Morgenstern soon became a frequent correspondent and began to accumulate what was probably the most significant collection of Kubin's works assembled during his lifetime. Morgenstern is believed to have acquired several of his pictures as repayments of debts and as marks of gratitude as well as through direct purchase. It is a tribute to their relationship and the importance of his patronage, that Kubin inscribed several of his works to Morgenstern and also created a number of very personal works that portray Morgenstern with a halo and in the guise of St Martin of Tours and himself as a willing supplicant or beggar.
It was in 1905, following a period of artistic crisis, that Kubin had visited Vienna and, during a brief but frenetic trip, had met a vast range of the protagonists of the Jugendstil that was so crucial to the artistic developments in the Hapsburg Empire on the eve of its decline. Indeed, sometimes these artists are considered the chroniclers of that decline, and Kubin's pictures, in this context, take on an even more potent atmosphere of prophecy. The technique used by Kubin in Türkenschanze and Kamelreiter, which has resulted in the fascinating iridescence, was itself the fruit of that visit. For one of the artists he met was Koloman Moser, who would instruct him in a new method, as Kubin himself would later recall:
'In Vienna, Kolo Moser had shown me a technique that consisted of mixing watercolours with paste and made it possible to achieve very striking colour effects. I devoted myself wholeheartedly to this new procedure and succeeded in producing a whole series of pictures that shimmered and glowed' (Kubin, quoted in A. Hoberg, 'Alfred Kubin: The Early Work up to 1909', pp. 13-39, Hoberg (ed.), Alfred Kubin: Drawings 1897-1909, exh. cat., New York, 2008, pp. 32-33). Thus the medium itself of Türkenschanze and Kamelreiter reflects one of the great new spurs in Kubin's career, which led to a brief explosion of polychrome works in which the various colours often serve as highlights to images that remain enshrouded in his predominantly black-and-white palette.
These two pictures avoid some of the nightmarish territory which so many of Kubin's drawings, products of his fevered, highly-sensitive and angst-ridden imagination, occupied. In Türkenschanze, the remains of violence are clear in the monstrous discarded heads, while the camel rider presents us with a scene which, while exotic, is nonetheless not entirely fantastical. However, these works retain the strange, even sinister atmosphere of whimsy that permeates so much of Kubin's work. In particular, Türkenschanze takes its title and subject matter from the fortified redoubt at the centre of the Ottoman Turkish positions during the second siege of Vienna in 1683, schanze translating as sconce. Its site was turned into a Viennese public park officially opened in 1888, however the artist preferred to reveal in Türkenschanze a deliberately sinister and exotic backdrop to the urban environment of his day. These pictures both show a deep interest in character and strangeness that perhaps owes much to his fascination, on visiting what is now the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, with the paintings of his artistic forebear, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. A glorious range of the details of life, captured with such vivid vitality, has been translated through Kubin's unique filter. Likewise, there are echoes in the camel-riding figure of some of Honoré Daumier's images of Don Quixote, as was also the case with Kubin's related Verendetes kamelartiges Tar from the same period and now in the Oberösterreichische Landesmuseen, Linz; in Kubin's hands these have been transformed, skewed and warped into new visions of a mystery world devoid of comedy but filled with brooding darkness, anxiety, absurdity and strangeness.
In part, this strangeness, this exoticism, was a reflection of the vast breadth of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself. Stretching from West to East through a wide panoply of cultures and nations, it is the variety to which the inhabitants of the Empire, and those in Austria especially, were exposed that is in part reflected in both Türkenschanze and Kamelreiter. The time that Kubin spent as a youth during his brief spell in the army and, more pertinently, as an apprentice to his photographer uncle, whose pictures of his various peregrinations Kubin would often develop, helped to fuel the artist's later unique iconography. Crucially, this shows to what extent the variety of life within the Empire, while influencing Kubin, was merely a contributive factor: both Türkenschanze and Kamelreiter are the products of his idiosyncratic vision, his tormented imagination, signs not only of the times but also of his own unique and lyrical visual universe.