HUMANS AS ANIMALS: Madness, Ligabue, Kubin and Kafka
Occasionally I watch movies several times and may then be surprised by the fact that I have completely forgotten several scenes, how they disappeared from my mind without leaving the slightest trace, this even if only a couple of months may have passed since I last saw them. However, quite the opposite may also be the case. Decades may have passed before I watch a movie again and then it happens that I become quite by astonished how well I remember certain scenes. For example, the misty banks of the Italian river Po, Emilia-Romagna´s vast dampened fields and sparse poplar forest from a film about the wretched life of Antonio Ligabue, which I watched on Swedish television sometime in the late seventies.
I recently revisited that film on the web while I here in Prague am babysitting my five months old grandchild. I was looking for that particular movie since I a week ago in Rome visited an exhibition of Ligabue´s art and once more became impressed. Seventeen years have passed since I last saw his paintings, that time in Rome´s closed-down prison, which had been turned into an art gallery. Since then I have read quite a lot about Ligabue and even seen one of his paintings in a private home in Rome - a cat with a rat in its jaws.
The film Ligabue, especially the first part in a series of three sections, produced by RAI in 1977, portrays in a contemplatively and poetic manner an outsider´s difficult existence. It sets out with a twenty-year-old Ligabue, who in 1919, in the company of two gendarmes, arrives in the city of Gualtieri, situated in the heart of the Po Valley. It is raw and humid winter and Ligabue is brought to a wretched municipal home for "homeless beggars". In the movie, Ligabue speaks excellent Italian, though in reality he could not say a word in that language.
He had been born by Italian parents in Switzerland and had since he was a year old been living with German-speaking foster parents, intercepted with sojourns at mental institutions. It was his foster mother who requested that he should be extradited to Italy since his stepfather was born in Gualtieri, and his mother and three siblings had died. Ligabue´s foster mother wrote several letters to the authorities in Gualtieri explaining that apart from recurrent bouts of uncontrollable rage Ligabue was a kind and harmless man. Since he now was an adult she could no longer take care of him or deal with his outbursts of uncontrollable anger. Ligabue´s stepfather was not be found in Gualtieri and even if he had been found there Ligabue would certainly have done everything in his power to avoid him. He hated his stepfather, whom he throughout his life accused of having poisoned his mother and three younger brothers. Officially they had all died from food poisoning after having lived in utter "filth and poverty."
The film Ligabue exudes an Italian neo-realistic, melancholic mood, easily recognized in movies like Vittorio da Sica's unforgettable masterpieces Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. This is no coincidence, Cesare Zavattini wrote the script for Ligabue, in addition to almost all of da Sica´s films, as well as great number of other Italian films. Zavattini came from the same region of Emilia Romagna where Ligabue spent most of his life and he had on several occasions met the artist. In 1966, a year after the death of Ligabue, Zavattini wrote a cycle of poems about his tragic life.
Zavattini´s story of Ligabue is an example of the genre of stories about misunderstood geniuses, though Ligabue´s case may be even more tragic than most of the others. He was considered to be an ugly and disarticulate man, speaking a strange mixture of German and Italian. Violent outbursts and self-mutilation forced him to be detained in institutions for the mentally disturbed. For many years he detached himself from other humans, living as a hermit together with his rabbits and dogs in a makeshift shack he had built in a grove by the banks of the river Po. Since he was considered to be appallingly attired and repulsive people avoided him, especially since he used to spy on the washerwomen by the river and to their great dismay occasionally came rushing out of the bushes and begged them for "a little kiss".
Ligabue had for some years been working alongside impoverished men collecting clay from the river banks, but was so severely mocked and heckled that he finally chose to live apart from everyone. He loved animals more than people and later in life revealed that he would have liked to be born as an animal, instead of living as a despised human being.
A poignant documentary made by Raffaele Andreassi in 1962 depicted how Ligabue with a mirror around his neck walked along the river Po, bursting out in bestial howls. He sounds like birds and animal predators. Occasionally, he lifts up the mirror to watch himself screaming, as if to remember what he looks like when he emits his painful sounds.
Andreassi also shot a sequence documenting Ligabue´s strange proceedings before he began to work on a painting. First, he dressed up as a woman, while explaining: "I like it. It makes me feel free." After sitting silent on his bed, he approaches the easel where he crouches and huddles for a minute or so. Ligabue seems to be tormented and when he rises up and stretches his back he bursts out in his bestial howls. This ritual is repeated several times before Ligabue seize the brush and begins to paint. Without any model, or props. He gradually produces a self-portrait and as in all his portraits he starts with the eyes.
When you watch Ligabue in person you understand that Zavattini´s film is an euphemistic representation of an odd and evidently mentally disturbed person. Zavattini gives the impression that Ligabue gradually broke down mentally due to onerous experiences of poverty and exclusion. These must have had a destructive effect on his psyche, though documents and eyewitness records indicate that Ligabue from a very early age suffered from severe mental problems.
However, it is also a true film. Ligabue was tormented by his surroundings. Most people avoided him and he tried to communicate with animals instead. Even before he started painting, Ligabue collected mud from Po´s banks, mixing it with water and saliva he shaped stunningly realistic sculptures of various animals, many of them were later cast in bronze.
While he lived as a recluse he occasionally annoyed hunters and fishermen while trying to prevent them from shooting ducks, pheasants and quail. Sometimes he rushed forward and unexpectedly threw back the still living fish that someone had caught. He always surrounded himself with dogs and rabbits. It soon spread that he at tree trunks around his shack, with carbon and other materials, had painted pictures of women and animals and had surrounded his strange abode with impressive clay sculptures, something that interested Gualtieri´s most famous artist, the sculptor Marino Renato Mazzacurati, who later became known for his monuments dedicated to partisans and soldiers. In 1928 Mazzacurati succeeded in winning Ligabue´s trust and make him move into Gualtieri, where he was known as Al Matt, The Lunatic or Al Tedesch,The German.
Mazzacurati managed to persuade Ligabue to move into an outbuilding at his homestead and for several years Ligabue used it as his studio and home. Mazzacurati gave Ligabue canvases and oil paints and soon his art blossomed in an unexpected manner. Right from the start Ligabue had been a skilled, though somewhat insecure, artist. His first works are distinguished by the thin colours he used, abundantly mixed with turpentine. To begin with he painted exotic animals, generally inspired by newspaper clippings, books like Alfred Brehm´s popular volumes about wild animals, which he borrowed at Gualtieri´s lending library, or trading cards from the meat extract company Liebig.
Usually, his animals are playing the leading role, but sometimes we may glimpse humans, and even himself as in the early painting below in which we see Ligabue wearing a pith helmet and being accompanied by an African lady.
Under the tutelage of Mazzacurati, Ligabue came to use thick layers of shining oil paint, in a manner reminiscent of Van Gogh. He liberates himself further from his prototypes and boldly paints directly on canvases and panels. He is finding inspiration from memories of his Swiss youth, with stagecoaches drawn by powerful horses, much more powerful than those he found in his Liebig pictures, plunging through alpine landscapes, or he painted farmhouses with sturdy cows and horses, aggressive cooks and the half tamed dogs and cats he encountered within the bucolic landscape of Emilia-Romagna.
Relatively well-known is his early portrait of a dead neighbourhood girl whom he painted with her mourning mother as a model.
However, it was usually force and drama that attracted Ligabue. Horses frightened by lightning or defenceless animals ruthlessly attacked by predators. While he painted, Ligabue identified with the fate and anguish of the animals - growling, grumbling, whining and whimpering.
Sometimes Ligabue associated himself with victims, sometimes with aggressors. As in the painting below of a pair of belligerent gorillas, which have abducted a woman and assert their superiority through hostile gestures and facial expressions.
Often Ligabue would link his feelings to hunted or felonious animals, creatures shunned by society, like a fox who had stolen a chicken.
Ligabue is at his most pathetic and exceptional when he enters imaginary jungles and transforms into a leopard, tiger or lion, often attacked and painfully defeated by an enormous boa constrictor, or even a giant spider as big as the mighty feline.
Ligabue´s production may be of uneven quality, but his paintings are usually carefully executed and stunningly well made, especially in view of his inadequate schooling, combined with severe mental and physical disabilities. At their most impressive, his animal portraits and jungles may remind the viewer of the greatest of all naive artists, the retired customs officer Henri Rousseau. We discern a similar exoticism, boldness and realism. However, through his extreme and passionate attachment to the animal world Ligabue adds a desperate verve to his representations of a frequently cruel world.
Ligabue was a constantly struggling man, tormented and misunderstood, painfully aware of his shortcomings and disfigurement. Enduringly on the lookout for affection and the company of a woman, but rejected due to his wretchedness, ugliness and insanity.
In his documentary, Andreassi did painfully and intrusively depict Ligabue´s dejected flirtation with his "beloved" Celestina, daughter of the owner of an eatery, bar and simple guest house in Gualtieri, where Ligabue used to hang out and also lived for a while. We witness how Ligabue in a clumsy and unattractive manner tries to seduce Celestina, desperately asking her for a kiss. She pulls away from him, even if she does not directly reject her pathetic admirer. Celestina was well aware of Ligabue´s fame. He offered her drawings and paintings, and even made a portrait of her. Like other citizens of Gulatieri Celestina knew that Ligabue´s artwork already fetched quite a good prize and probably would increase in value.
Ligabue is an inexplicable artistic phenomena - a natural. To his despair, but also pride, people began to search him out, requesting drawings and paintings. Despair because painting was for Ligabue both a torment and a pleasure. A ritual act which required time, concentration, convolution and scrupulously performed magic preparations. However, his coveted works also meant that he experienced a vindication he had hoped for during his entire life. He now knew that the scorn and contempt that previously had been directed against him became neutralized by the flattering attention he enjoyed from the press, the art establishment and the relatively wealthy tycoons who now paid ever increasing sums for his paintings. As a result Ligabue´s self-portraits became more monumental, although their merciless lucidity was kept intact.
Ligabue could afford to buy a car and pay a driver, though he mostly enjoyed the freedom of roaming through the landscape of Emilia Romagna on his powerful, red motorcycle. This vehicle was the beginning of his tragic downfall and death. In 1961, Ligabue had an accident. First it appeared as if he had survived rather unscratched, though a few months after the crash he suffered a partial paralysis. He became incapable of moving the part of his body. Not able to paint anymore Ligabue became bedridden in a nursing home until his death in 1965.
Especially in Italy Ligabue´s fame has increased steadily with every year. Gualtieri bestowed a magnificent funeral to the man who once had been considered as a crazed, good-for-nothing, but who eventually came to be regarded as one of the small town´s great sons and it now houses an excellent museum dedicated to his memory.
While I look at Ligabue´s artwork and reflect upon how people avoided to associate with him, becoming disgusted by his pleas for attention and desperate entreaties for a “little kiss”, two memories from my military service turn up. One is when I and a bunch of my comrades in our uniforms were dancing at a place called Sjöstugan and a sloshed wretch, with a glowing red face, sat on a chair, pathetically stretching out his arms after each girl who happened to appear within his reach, crying in thick göingska, the dialect of my home district: "Please, look at me, I´m a hankerin’ for some smooching!" Of course no girl wanted to come near him.
On another occasion I was coming back late to the regiment, at that time we did not have any night leave and had to report back before midnight. On my way to the barracks, it was in the middle of winter and everything was covered in snow, I met a skinny guy who was pacing back and forth in the cold. He came up to me and said: "You seem to be a decent chap. Can you help me?" "With what?" "Follow me to my barracks so the other guys may see that I have a friend" "What do you mean?" "I'm so damn lonely. All the other troopers bully me." Of course I followed him to his lodgings and bade farewell to the poor fellow with a hearty handshake. There were eight men sleeping in each dormitory, the other seven pretended to be asleep.
For several months I was tortured by that guy. He wanted so desperately to become my friend, but he got on my nerves. I could not stand him. He became especially annoying when he followed me around and in a painfully contrived manner asked me how to charm "babes", my stomach turned. He clearly saw a connection between his alienation, the mercilessness of his torturers and his utter inability to attract women. His pitiful appearance made me feel extremely sorry for him, but I made anything in my power to avoid him.
Some of the outsiders´ general despair must come from a realization of their own uniqueness, at the same time as people around them harbour fears of the shortcomings they find within themselves. Tormenting odd individuals, or keeping them at a safe distance, are probably based on the fact that we recognize our own peculiarities in them. Qualities within ourselves that we do not want to acknowledge. This may also be the reason for a common fascination that has produced a wealth of movies and books about unappreciated, mad geniuses, arousing our sympathy, while they are safely distanced from us by time and place. If they had been closer to us, we would probably have considered them just as bothersome as I found my "friend" at the regiment to be.
The really mad geniuses, those who were locked up in mental institutions, have like the so called "primitive" artists had a major influence on modern art. By fin de siècle much was written about what was called the creative impetus. Authors and philosophers searched for answers to the mystery of creativity and even before Freud it was surmised that creativity emerged from a subconscious spring. Artists and writers believed that, for example, the Swedish painters Carl Fredrik Hill and Ernst Josephson, who continued to produce inspiring and highly original work after breakdown and mental illness, had been liberated from creative limitations and thus could give free reins to their imagination.
In a scene of August Strindberg's roman à clef The Gothic Rooms a lady sitting with a group of writers and artists throws a rose to an Italian singer on the stage of one of Stockholm's finer restaurants. However, the rose lands on a table where a lone man sits:
It is Syrach! exclaimed Sellén, and everyone on the balcony looked at the solitary figure, who wore a red fez on his head and was dressed rather strangely. But Syrach didn´t seem to recognize a single one of his old friends, but put the rose in his button-hole and continued rolling a cigarette.
The lady who had thrown the rose said something unfavourable about the man (who in reality was Ernst Josephson):
- Shut your mouth! the Doctor [Henrik Borg, a cynical, medical doctor who in the novel acts as Strindberg´s spokesperson] cut her off. ´The one who now extinct sits down there, would have been the first man up here tonight, unless you and your equals had not mixed the poison cup for him. You are not even worthy of being spit in the eye by him. No, you took the honour, the bread and self-respect from him, at a moment you are well aware of.´ Then, turning to Sellén:
Let Syrach sit in his dream world; he has it better there than we imagine, and more over he does not recognize us.
At this point a former friend and colleague of Syrach, in then novel called Lage Lang, but in reality the quite famous Norwegian artist Fritz Thaulow, was so stung by the sorry sight of the mentally disturbed Syrach that he rose up and:
wanted to call forth a ´long live!´ and ´hurrah´ for our greatest painter, but fortunately he was deflected, for the police would have been called, and moreover no one in the salon knew the painter, other than possibly as a silly, decrepit human being who was remarked on the streets for his red fez and his strange behaviour. Syrach remained sitting; he sat now with his eyes directed over the group, as if he did not see them, but rather gazed in the distance overhead, surrounded by his dream images that he could not show to others.
There are many examples of cracked geniuses who are admired for their art. Ingenious poets like Friedrich Hölderlin, Gérard de Nerval, Antonin Artaud and Sigbjørn Obstfelder, or artists like Richard Dadd, Charles Meyron and Lars Hertervig. All these men were, like Josephson and Hill, skilled artists even before their madness set in, while many other so-called outsider artists began to express themselves through the arts only after they had become mentally ill.
A common misconception about most of these mentally ill artists is that they, as Strindberg wrote, had it better in their “dream world". Actually they tend to suffer from difficulties in coping with both outer and inner torments. One summer while I worked as a warden in a mental hospital it struck me how many of the patients considered themselves to be incurably ill. How many of them that suffered from agonizing delusions and felt excluded from the world of "normal people", fearing a return to it. Madness is hardly a relief, mostly it means an almost unbearable suffering, something that is evident in Ligabue´s tragic life story.
Someone who have had great significance for the appreciation of “outsider art” was the German psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn (1886 -1933), who like so many of his compatriots was suffering from his war experiences. In 1919, Prinzhorn was by the University of Heidelberg entrusted with the systematization and expansion of an art collection consisting of works made by mentally ill patients, all of whom had been diagnosed by Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926). Kraepelin had been a pioneer in efforts to diagnose and systematize mental illnesses. It was Kreapelin who gave rise to the diagnosis of manic-depressive psychosis, which later became known as bipolar disorder, as well as dementia praecox a condition that Paul Bleuler renamed schizophrenia. What Prinzhorn brought to the interpretation of the mental patients' art was his background as an art historian and philosopher, influenced by the philosophy of Ludwig Klages and theories of the social anthropologist Leo Frobeneius. Klages (1872 – 1956) had systematically compiled a huge collection of “graphological” examples. By the term graphology Klages meant the “scientific study” of how individuals' personal characteristics are revealed through their handwriting. Klages was influenced by Nietzsche's ideas about a contrast between the human soul, Seele, i.e. humans´ original life force and a disciplining conscience that Klages labelled as "spirit", Geist. For Klages Seele equalled the original vitality of human beings, their instincts and unique character It was a person´s Seele that was revealed in her/his handwriting.
The social anthropologist Leo Frobenius (1873 – 1938), who had conducted field research in Romania, Sudan and various locations in North Africa, introduced the concept paideuma, meaning something like "controlling" or "ownership". What Frobenius assumed was that every "cultural circle" is dominated by specific thought patterns that he termed Geist, a mental mould shaping the minds the members of this specific cultural circle.
According to Prinzhorn the mentally ill generally attempted to create order within a highly personal chaos. Attempts that were not circumscribed by any disciplining consciousness, a Geist, instead the insane, in particular those suffering from schizophrenia, tended to rely on their Seele, i.e. their own twisted instincts uninhibited by any socio-cultural norms.
In his influential and richly illustrated book from 1922, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, Prinzhorn stated that the presented works could be described as art in the sense that they were characterized by an extreme, original creativity and expressiveness:
The deeper the phenomenon of expression is anchored within the individual, the higher it ranks as a configuration, the less capable does the quantifying and conceptualizing researcher find himself in coming to grips with it.
Expression depends on the vigour of the creative impulse of an artist, not on the means he use. For a mental patient expression is foremost on her/his mind. It is through their art the insane try to gain a foothold in life, to organize their existence by creating a paideuma they can relate to, though their social exclusion limits this paideuma to their own existence.
Rembrandt´s use of colours is not explained by an analysis of their chemical components, a violinist´s virtuosity cannot be understood by investigating the wavelengths of different tones. To understand the creative power of the mentally ill we have to recall our own beginnings. A child's game reflects its thinking. Primitive humans´ art was a means to understand and control the nature that surrounded them.
Prinzhorn recommended his readers to identify themselves with the insane by reflecting on their own behaviour, for example our habit of doodling when concentration wavers during a meeting, or a lecture. How we create patterns out of star - and cloud formations, or the dirt stains on a wall. The mentally ill are searching for signs that may enable them to create their own means of controlling their existence and making their universe understandable. However, they do so without making use of “our” common reality, our culture circuit, our paideuma.
Prinzhorn gradually lost his own grip on existence. Scientists remained sceptical about his theories and he was never offered a much sought after university position. After three failed marriages Prinzhorn began to present signs of mental instability. He retired from the world, moved in with an aunt in Munich and began to write extensive books related to Nazi ideology, until he died of typhus in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power.
Even if scientists showed a general a lack of interest in Prinzhorn's ideas and collection of artworks, artists immediately became interested and inspired by them. The Dadaist and Surrealist Max Ernst brought with him a copy of Prinzhorn's book to Paris and the interest spread like wildfire within the surrealist circles. The book was devoured by Breton, Bellmer, Dali and many others, who were caught under its spell. The reading of Prinzhorn was vital to Jean Dubuffet, who launched the concept of L'Art brut, Raw Art. He visited Prinzhorn and several mental institutions, acquiring a large collection of outsider art, which became the backbone of a museum he founded in Lausanne. Dubuffet´s own art became inspired by works of the mentally ill and children's drawings.
In his book Prinzhorn presented in-depth studies of ten "schizophrenic masters" from the collection he had compiled and systematized. He used pseudonyms, but all the artists and their medical records have eventually been identified by using Prinzhorn´s archive material. An example of a schizophrenic artist featured in Prinzhorn's book is the former electrician August Natterer, who in 1907 suffered a mental breakdown followed by an experience that by him was interpreted as a spiritual awakening:
I saw a white spot in the clouds absolutely close – all the clouds paused – then the white spot departed and stood all the time like a board in the sky. On the same board or the screen or stage now images as quick as a flash followed each other, about 10,000 in half an hour… God himself occurred, the witch, who created the world – in between worldly visions: images of war, continents, memorials, castles, beautiful castles, just the glory of the world – but all of this to see in supernal images. They were at least twenty meters big, clear to observe, almost without color like photographs… The images were epiphanies of the Last Judgment. Christ couldn't fulfill the salvation because he was crucified early... God revealed them to me to accomplish the salvation.
This demanding mission resulted in Natterer´s feeling of being constantly followed by God's eyes (he painted different versions of them). Natterer made several suicide attempts and was during six years moved from one mental institution to another, while he wrote down and painted his strange visions. Among other things, we find among them landscape depictions where Natterer indicated the constant presence of the evil witch he assumed was corrupting God´s creation by conceiving an evil and sinful world. Natterer died of typhus in the same year as Prinzhorn.
Some of madness´s blight is certainly loneliness. The difficulty in making themselves understood and their efforts to master it is perhaps part of the strength of several of the mentally ill artists. Because they are considered to be hopelessly insane no one listens to them, but in their art they can reveal their world view and undisturbed proclaim their ideas to the world. It seems that schizophrenic artists do not shy away from showing their art. Most of them seem to be thrilled if they are noticed and even admired.
On the fly leaf of his book Prinzhorn presents a reproduction of a "throttle angel" painted by Franz Bühler. The artwork, as in the case of mentally ill artists like Josephson or Hertervig, is quite sophisticated since Bühler like them was educated in the arts and thus demonstrates basic, technical skills. He had been a teacher of decorative arts at the Strasbourg University for Art, Design and Crafts, but after only three years of employment Bühler was at the university management's request transferred to a mental hospital in Breitenau in Switzerland. Unfortunately, he was later taken to a mental institution in Achem in Germany, where he spent thirty years until he in 1940 was gassed to death with carbon monoxide, as part of the Nazi euthanasia program, which according to official records between September 1939 and August 1941 liquidated 70, 273 mental patients.
Franz Bühler believed he was be persecuted not only by people but by God and his angels as well. His worldview is reminiscent of the final words of Alfred Kubin´s novel Die Andere Seite, “The Other Side", from 1909:
When I ventured back into the world of the living, I discovered that my god only held half-sway. In everything, both great and small, he had to share with an adversary who wanted life. The forces of repulsion and attraction, the twin poles of the earth with their currents, the alternation of the seasons, day and night, black and white - these are battles. True hell lies in the fact that this discordant clash continues within us. Even love has its focus 'between faeces and urine'. The sublime can fall prey to the ridiculous, to derision, irony. The Demiurg is a hybrid.
Alfred Kubin was like Franz Kafka a German-speaking Czech and in his time an admired artist. In the 1920s he read read Prinzhorn's book and then became particularly fascinated by Franz Bühler´s paintings and drawings. They were like Kubin´s own drawings populated by monsters and threatening, strange animals, which intruded into the human sphere. In The Other Side the disintegrating town Perle is invaded by of a variety of vermin, exotic animals and blood sucking insects. Like Natterer when he suffered his life-shattering psychosis, Kubin could specify the exact date when he was overwhelmed by a new sense of purpose and creativity, which made him write a "great novel" and change his artistic style.
Kubin had had a difficult childhood. The father, who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army and land surveyor, was seldom at home. Kubin´s beloved mother was a pianist but very fragile and died when he was ten years old. His father took his young wife´s death very hard and soon remarried her sister, but she also died after a few years and he married for a third time. Kubin was on no good terms with his stepmother and in a constant conflict with his moody father. He failed a military career and as a photographer's apprentice. At the age of nineteen years he felt like a complete loser and tried to shoot himself on his mother's grave, but the rusty gun clicked. Kubin´s father finally agreed to send his artistically talented son to art education in Munich and he soon became a well-known artist, appreciated for its morbid, decadent motifs.
A deep depression took hold of Kubin when his fiancée died, but was eased after a year of misery when he in 1904 got married and inherited an estate in the village of Zwickledt in northern Austria, where he withdrew with his sickly and increasingly morphine dependent wife. When his father died in 1907 Kubin was hit by another severe crisis. In an effort to recover from an overwhelming melancholy he arrived at Lake Garda in Italy where he unexpectedly was overtaken by a great calm. A cascade of mental images engulfed him. Kubin became euphoric, but found himself incapable of drawing everything he perceived, instead he began to write. During days and nights he did in two months write his first and only novel, Die Andere Seite.
In the emptiness that followed after the novel writing Kubin´s artistic creation power came back and in the following weeks he illustrated his novel, which was published in 1909. He was now a changed man, freed from his previous anxiety, though he kept his pessimistic stance using it to illustrate books by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Gérard de Nerval, E.T. A. Hoffmann and - Kafka, "who later on would become so famous."
When I several years ago read The Other Side it was a bewildering experience which has remained with me since then, perhaps because it was an artist's novel, filled with strange images and visions. As when the narrator's wife is plagued by a menacing presence she assumes abides under their apartment. The narrator finds a trap door leading down to damp catacombs extending under the entire town. Down there he is surprised by a wildly rushing, blind white horse, which he follows through the labyrinths until he ends up in his favourite haunt, a seedy tavern. A scene that reminds me of a diary entry by Kafka, when he on the 27th May 1914 described a dream involving a lone white horse, trotting through a deserted alley. It is dusk and sparks fly around the hooves as they are hitting the damp, cobble stones. Demonic horses also play an important role in Kafka's nightmare story A Country Doctor, which Kubin illustrated in 1920, four years before Kafka's death.
There are several correspondences between Kubin and Kafka. I am writing this in Prague and when I travelled here I brought with me an edition of Kafka's diaries from 1909 to November 1911 and there I found Alfred Kubin in several places. In his autobiography, which I read before I came here, Kubin writes that he in 1912 spent a few months in Prague, a city he had not visited since his childhood - Kubin was born in a small town four miles north of Prague. However, while reading Kafka's diaries I found that Kubin was mistaken, it was in 1911 he was in Prague and then he often met with Kafka and his friends, with whom he visited taverns and brothels.
It is difficult to form a clear idea about Kafka´s opinion of Kubin. Kafka was a discerning and critical observer and I have the impression that Kafka used his diaries as sources and inspiration for his literary endeavours, something that is suggested by his detailed descriptions of facial expressions and body movements and often irrelevant scenes and details. When he writes about Kubin it is with a mixture of fascination and irritation.
It appears as if Kafka admired the six years older and well-established artist. Die Andere Seite had been published the year before Kubin turned up in Prague and it had been reviewed in several journals. It must have been known and read by many of Kafka's German-speaking friends. It would not be farfetched to assume that even Kafka had read the novel, especially as there are several similarities not only between Kubin´s misty, crumbling dream city Perla and Prague, but several of the novel's atmospheric descriptions and strange moods seem to be reflected in some of Kafka's writings.
As is the case with the settings in several of Kafka's stories Perla is characterized by a greyish dream aura, with vague contours and absurd incidences. The city's founder and creator, Claus Patera, has from all corners of Europe brought buildings and people to central of Asia, where he had built a cosmopolitan city, like Prague located by a river far from the sea.
Like a mad Creator God, Patera shaped an environment reflecting his own thoughts and inner life. Then Claus Patera is shaken by epileptic seizures the entire city quavers, when he falls ill plague and anxiety spread all over the place. Claus Patera appears to be a harbinger of mad dictators like Hitler and Stalin, whose distorted emotions characterized the societies they created around themselves. Claus Patera is not any revolutionary, but a staunch conservative. His city, with its chaotic government offices, smoky railway stations, grimy churches, damp catacombs, badly assembled tenements and seedy entertainment districts, a conglomerate of a crumbling Europe far from development and modernization.
All people who have been attracted to this godforsaken place appear to be endowed with quirky personalities. The better among them are delicate, hyper-sensitive persons. However, all citizens of Perla are obsessed by manias; collecting compulsion, excessive reading, gambling urge, religious fanaticism and thousands of other forms of overwhelming desires and abuse created by weak nerves, resulting in a surreal state of mind. Hysteria and general tensions are rampant. Citizens seem to have been chosen on the basis of their peculiarities, something which include physical defects. It was conspicuous that so many are misshapen by contorted limbs, crooked backs and malformed noses.
Something Perla shares with many of Kafka's stories is an absurd and almost impenetrable bureaucracy, Kubin´s narrator suffers from it when he tries to obtain an appointment with his former schoolmate, the dictatorial multimillionaire Claus Patera, undisputed ruler of Dreamland. It is Patera who has sent for the narrator and his wife, paying for their trip and lodgings. But when the narrator wants to encounter him, he is like Kafka's protagonists in his novel drafts Amerika, The Process and The Castle, encountered with a wide variety of bureaucratic problems and obstacles:
On the door was a notice: Do not knock. Inside, a man was asleep. I had to clear my throat three times before any sign of life came into his completely rigid, deeply reflective pose. Then I was favoured with a glance of majestic disdain. “What do you want?” he growled. “Have you a summons? What papers have you brought with you?” Here there was not the same curtness as outside; on the contrary, information came bubbling out. “ To receive your ticket for an audience you need in addition to your birth certificate, baptismal certificate, and marriage certificate, your father’s graduation diploma and your mother’s inoculation certificate. Turn left in the corridor. Administration Room 16, and make your declaration of means, education, and honorary orders. A character witness for your father-in-law is desirable but not absolutely essential.” Whereupon he nodded condescendingly, bent once more over the desk, and began to write with, as I could see, a dry pen.
Against all odds the narrator receives permission to meet the mighty Claus Patera and ask him for permission to leave Dream Land together with his wife. To get in touch with his old schoolmate and involve him in a discussion the narrator wonders if he is happy in Dream Land. Instead of answering Patera shouts: "Give me a star! Give me a star!" He seems to be in a trance state and his face constantly seems to change shape. First, it seems to belong to one person, then another. Soon, it looks like a cloud of faces is sweeping across Patera´s skull, yes - perhaps even visions of the world. His eyes become like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity and the narrator finally doubts if his former friend is really alive. "If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like." The narrator panics and rushes out of Patera´s residence.
Kafka´s impression Kubin seems to reflect a similar indeterminacy, Kubin appears to be an elusive, a shifting person. According to Kafla he listened attentively to what people around him said and then had a tendency to reiterate it all with approval, only to at other occasions expose completely opposing views, something Kafka found extremely irritating.
Kubin liked telling sensational stories. Kafka was intrigued, but remained sceptical. When Kubin told about a meeting with Hamsun and how strange the Norwegian author behaved Kafka wondered about Kubin´s truthfulness and claimed in his diary that anyone could produce similar stories based on Hamsun's own tales. Kafka was occasionally astonished by Kubin´s superficiality: “"When you listen to his many stories it is easy to forget to his importance. Suddenly you are reminded of this and become frightened.”
At one moment Kubin could be lively and happy, though suddenly he withdrew within himself and sat “with sagging cheeks” until he was “ brought to life" again. After being alerted he began to take part in the conversation, but soon had difficulty finding the right words and slipped away again. Kafka watched him with scrutiny and Kubin seemed like Claus Patera to be shifting appearance:
very strong, but somewhat monotonous facial expression, he describes the most varied things with the same movement of muscles. Looks different in age, size and strength according to whether he is sitting, standing, wearing just a suit, or an overcoat.
Kubin was kind to Kafka, took him under the arm as they walked together, worrying over his paleness and bad physique, gave tips about stomach pains and constipation, a problem they shared and was shockingly sincere about of his fancy for women and interest in sex. Kafka was fascinated by that part of Kubin´s storytelling. The shared an interest in sex and death. In his diary, Kafka writes frankly and rather coarsely about Kubin´s fascination with corpulent women with large breasts, a fancy Kubin explained as being developed due to a sexual relationship he had maintained with a classmate's mother, who had seduced him when he was fifteen years of age.
Kafka and Kubin apparently shared a mixture of terror of and fascination with their own sexuality and the feminine mystery. I guess this could be due to the brothel culture that characterized the time and their circle of friends. Carnal “love" existed in the shape of the soiled and callous atmosphere of the brothels, side by side with sincere friendship with, affection towards and appreciation of women. In Kafka's case, more so than in Kubin´s. Kubin was sincerely attached to the two women of his, making great sacrifices for them, though he was also a chauvinistic womanizer, maintaining several permanent relationships with voluptuous mistresses, of whom he displayed obscene snapshots to the engrossed Kafka.
Kubin and Kafka did apparently not become close friends. On 22nd of July 1914 Kafka wrote a quite formal postcard to Kubin. World War I had just broken out and Kafka had recently experienced a shattering separation from Felice Bauer, that just ten days before the card to Kubin had culminated in an excruciating scene in a hotel room in Berlin, where Kafka was held accountable for his behaviour by Felice, her sister and a mutual friend.
Dear Herr Kubin,
Many thanks for the card, which found me in a stupid state from which I am not yet wholly recovered; that is why I have not answered. Now I am travelling up and down the Baltic. You are no doubt working hard in the peace of your beautiful estate. Perhaps I will someday find word for saying again what your work has meant to me.
Yours F. Kafka
Since I came to Prague a couple of days ago, I have during late evenings been writing on this blog post and it is thus only natural that I have been thinking about Kafka and that he entered into my writings about Ligabue. The day before yesterday, I followed my daughter and granddaughter on a visit to the doctor. It turned out that the clinic was not far from the new Jewish cemetery where Kafka is buried. It made an eerie impression, desolate in a twilight haze, with trees and tombstones covered by ivy. No flowers or ornaments, only pitch black or grey tombstones. Kafka's grave was easy to find since several signs pointed the way.
The same evening I went to IKEA to buy Christmas food and some household items. As usual I examined the titles of the books that decorate the bookshelves. Wherever you find yourself in the world IKEA exposes Swedish books on its shelves. To my great surprise I have seen excellent Swedish classics at IKEA in New York, Santo Domingo and Singapore. Now I was struck by amazement when I amid twenty copies of Katarina Mazetti´s Tarzan´s Tears and five copies of Lars Ahlin´s If discovered a copy of Torsten Ekbom´s The Invisible Court of Law: A book about Franz Kafka. Here at IKEA, in Kafka´s hometown, stood an excellent book that I had been hunting after for years, humiliated as a decorative filling of IKEA´s Billy bookcase.
After reading his books on Beckett and Stravinsky, I had long wanted to read Ekbom´s Kafka biography and now it turned up when I needed it the most. For a long time I went around wondering if I would write and thank Ekbom for being such an excellent guide to European avant-garde in art, music and literature. I never wrote to him and now Torsten Ekbom is dead.
I flipped through the book and found a chapter entitled "Kafka's animals." Here was a connection between Ligabue, Kubin and Kafka - their identification with various animals. I approached a store clerk and asked if I could purchase the book. He shook his head: "No English", but took the book and disappeared. Maybe he was going to ask for someone who could speak English. I waited, and after a minute the clerk came back and gave me the book with the words: "Take book". I looked at him questioningly. He smiled broadly and said, "Present." "Sure?" I wondered uncertainly. "Sure," he replied: "Christmas present from IKEA." Grateful and surprised I devoured the book after I had come home to the apartment and it met all my great expectations.
Here were they all - Kafka´s horses, monkeys, dogs, mice, beetles, vultures, pigs and moles. Fable animals like unicorns, dragons and green kangaroo-like creatures with human faces and several metres long tails. Hybrids between sheep and cats. Pharmacy assistants with squirrel tales, singing mice and lecturing monkeys as well as Odradek, immortal but neither thing, animal or human. Kafka identified himself with them all, not like Ligabue who imagined himself to be different predators; tigers, falcons and foxes. Not like Kubin who in his drawings transformed himself into solitary, sex driven monsters. Unlike them Kafka identified himself with humble, threatened or hunted creatures. Or those that were imprisoned - "I carry the bars within me." "I, a free ape, submitted myself to this yoke." There are also the degraded or forgotten creatures: "and if you are treated like a dog the whole time, you end up thinking that´s what you are.”
Ligabue roaring at his easel, Kubin sublimating his horror and sexuality by drawing fearsome animals and Kafka who time and again assumed an animal´s persona, make me recall a Dutch childrens´ TV series, De Fabeltjeskrant, called The Daily Fable in the UK, which began with Mr. Owl reading a newspaper while singing singing:
Here are animals´ thoughts and dealings.
Animals have people´s feelings.
Animals are like girls and boys,
playing games and making noise,
they are females and males,
at least in fables and fairy tales.
Danchin, Laurent (2006) L´art brut: L´instinct créateur. Paris: Gallimard. Kafka, Franz (1988) Diaries, 1910-1923. New York: Schocken Books. Kafka, Franz (2007) Metamorphosis and Other Stories. London: Penguin Classics. Kubin, Alfred (1973) The Other Side. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics. Kubin, Alfred (2004) Demoni e visioni notturne. Milano: Abscondita. Parmiggiani, Sandro och Sergio Neri (2016) Ligabue. Milano: Skira Editore. Prinzhorn, Hans (1972) Artistry of the mentally ill: a contribution to the psychology and psychopathology of configuration. New York: Springer. Serafini, Giuliano (2005) Ligabue, Art Dossier, No. 211.