Franz Kafka was an intensely visual person. A former schoolmate recounted how he liked to astonish his friends by reciting from memory all the books he’d just seen on display in a Prague bookshop. Kafka’s diaries, letters and prose works testify to this visual disposition. People and animals leap from the page in their economically observed physicality, though in some instances of his descriptions – particularly of machines and other objects – are so painstakingly detailed that they prevent us from forming a clear image in our mind.
In such passages, Kafka’s obvious pleasure in close observation shades into abstraction, mirroring the work of avant-garde movements such as futurism and cubism. Yet his own artistic taste was rather traditional. In his student days and after, Kafka subscribed to the conservative art magazine Der Kunstwart (The Guardian of Art), an exponent of nationalist, neoclassical and romantic work. His own sparse bedroom was adorned by a small plaster cast of a Greek relief of a dancing maenad, together with a print of “Der Pflüger” (1897; The Plowman), an etching by the German landscape artist and Kunstwart favorite Hans Thoma. These choices in turn chime with Kafka’s literary preferences, which were firmly rooted in nineteenth-century realism and included Heinrich von Kleist, Franz Grillparzer, Gustave Flaubert and Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom he called his “blood-relatives”.
These preferences may seem at odds with Kafka’s highly experimental texts, in which the rules of realism are evoked only to be emphatically broken. But realism still remains the basis, the starting point, even of texts such as “Wunsch, Indianer zu werden” (“The Wish to Be a Red Indian”), in which an initial tangible scene – a rider on horseback racing across the American plains – gradually turns abstract until it comes to resemble the movement of the pen across paper.
This micro-story is contained in Kafka’s first book, the collection Betrachtung (1912), which is full of such evocative little sketches teetering between narrative and reflection. Scholars, however, have often dismissed these texts as juvenilia, for they precede his breakthrough into his “m” texts about power, institutions and alienation with the story “Das Urteil” (September 1912; “The Judgment”, 1928). This dismissal betrays a sense of puzzlement in the face of these eclectic and whimsical pieces. To lend them more weight, the title Betrachtung is usually translated as “meditation”; But the word also means “observation”, and it’s no coincidence that several of the texts stem from a period in Kafka’s life when he had not yet settled on writing as his main creative medium. His friend and later editor Max Brod recalled that he learned of Kafka’s artistic talents while they were at university together. Kafka, one year Brod’s senior, would hand over his law lecture scripts, with his drawings in the margin, and the younger man started to collect them. It was only several years later that Brod found out, to his surprise, that Kafka was also a writer. These early sketches are among the materials contained in this handsome new volume of Kafka’s drawings, edited by the Zurich-based literary scholar Andreas Kilcher, together with the artist and art historian Pavel Schmidt and accompanied by essays by Kilcher and Judith Butler. The English version, translated by Kurt Beals, has just been published by Yale University Press.
Some of the 163 assembled images are housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, others at the German Literary Archive in Marbach, which jointly owns Kafka’s letters to his sister Ottla, together with the Bodleian. The majority, however, stem from the Brod bequest, which has been housed since 2016 in the National Library of Israel, where it is expertly cataloged and digitized by a team led by the curator of the humanities collection, Dr Stefan Litt. The collection there includes Kafka’s famous stick men – black ink drawings that are reproduced here (like the vast majority of the assembled drawings) in their original size. These little sketches have adorned many a book cover; in their economic expressivity, they have become a visual shorthand for Kafka’s prose. Like his protagonists, these figures are by turns combative and despairing. One is slumped over a table, emulating the bowed heads of so many of the author’s characters, another is fencing, while another whips a horse to jump over a fence – reflecting Kafka’s fascination with riding, a theme that features several times in Betrachtung alone.
These stick men include a little sequence of four, which has never previously been published. Brod jealously guarded all of Kafka’s drawings, only releasing them piecemeal, as illustrations for his own books and essays, and refusing several requests to publish them in a dedicated volume. The most famous stick men were originally contained in a sketchbook (the so-called Zeichnungsheft), from which Brod unceremoniously cut them. This mutilated notebook is reproduced in full in the new volume, a powerful testimony to Brod’s at times cavalier treatment of Kafka’s bequest. But these drawings make up only a small proportion of the new volume. It also includes some very different work, such as a half-portrait of Kafka’s mother, Julie, floating above his own, much smaller, disembodied head. (Freud would have had a field day.) In this and other pencil portraits, his style is detailed and delicate, very different from the bold, almost cartoonish ink drawings.
There are two main takeaways from this volume, concerning timing and (stylistic) diversity. The vast majority of the drawings date from the years 1901– 07, when Kafka was a student and then a trainee lawyer. This period precedes his main literary production, overlapping with the writing of his earliest (surviving) pieces. But, as this volume also shows, Kafka continued to draw right up his death; the manuscript of his last story contains a portrait of a woman, perhaps of his partner Dora Diamant. In 1913 he wrote in a letter to his future fiancée, Felice Bauer, that he had “once” been “a great draughtsman lessons” (“ein großer Zeichner”), but that his talent had been spoilt by “bad drawing”. As if to illustrate this shift, the letter contains a little sketch – not as a standalone piece, but to illustrate a dream of Kafka’s.
What is immediately striking here is the huge variety of the assembled materials. The human body, in stillness and particularly in motion, is a prominent subject; There are sketches of people walking, striding, riding or driving in carriages. While some of these drawings take up an entire page, others share a space with other texts or images. Alongside the lecture scripts, Kafka also draws on other people’s letters, on magazines and brochures, such as when he copies the photo of the Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio that is printed in a publisher’sue. The gesture behind these drawings is casual, playful, perhaps absent-minded; for Kafka drawing was an activity that took place not in the immersion of the artist’s studio, but in the midst of everyday life, alongside other activities and in dialogue with other (mass) media.
Indeed, the volume contains various items that don’t qualify as drawings at all – manuscripts with deletions and ornamental borders, for instance, and samples of Kafka’s handwriting, with its strong, calligraphic down- and cross-strokes. Some reviewers have queried this wide selection, which potentially lends every squiggly line an artistic quality simply because it stems from the pen of the great master. I don’t share these concerns. The new volume is fascinating because it strains – and potentially dissolves – the boundary between the images and their context, illustrating the fluid relationship between drawing and writing, between Kafka’s literary and visual imaginations.
In the accompanying essays, these dynamics are acknowledged, but often underplayed. Pavel Schmidt’s commentary poses the crucial question: are Kafka’s drawings subsidiary to his writings or are they autonomous artworks in their own right? Unsurprisingly, Schmidt comes down on the side of aesthetic autonomy, as does the editor, Andreas Kilcher. In his long and richly illustrated essay he reconstructs the personal, literary and cultural contexts of these images, putting particular emphasis on Kafka’s art-historical interest – his Kunstwart subscription and his trips to Italy and Paris, where he visited the Louvre. What is completely missing from this and the other essays is Kafka’s engagement with the technical media of film and photography, by which he was endlessly fascinated and which directly inspired not only his texts, but also, as the volume shows, his drawings.
Kilcher instead puts the emphasis on Kafka’s links to contemporary artists, which were often mediated by Brod. Brod was an active supporter of several artists, including the expressionist Alfred Kubin and the members of the Prague Czech-German art group “The Eight”. Kilcher draws an analogy between Kafka’s stick people and the caricatures of the group member Max Horb. What is more striking, though, is how little Kafka’s drawings have in common with the works of these contemporary artists. The one notable exception is the Prague-based graphic artist Emil Orlik (1870–1932). Orlik was a collector of traditional Japanese art, style and processes, which he emulated in his own drawings, etchings and woodcuts. An exhibition of his work took place in Prague in 1902, accompanied by public lectures and newspaper articles in which Orlik spelled out the importance in Japanese art of traditional craftsmanship and a pared-down, almost calligraphic simplicity. The records of the Prague student debating society show that his work greatly resonated with Kafka’s generation. Indeed, these records also show that Kafka himself proposed a talk to the debating society (although he never actually delivered it). Its title: “Japan and us”.
The Orlik exhibition, then, falls during Kafka’s most productive phase as a draughtsman, and many of his early sketches, with their almost abstract dynamism and emphasis on the stroke, or flow, of the pen, have obvious resonances with Orlik’s work. In others, a faintly orientalist theme prefigures his later fascination with non-western, “exotic” spaces. But ultimately even Orlik doesn’t offer a magical key to Kafka’s drawings, which are too eclectic, too dispersed and too provisional to fit the traditional notion of an artistic oeuvre.
Would this book have been published if the drawings weren’t by Kafka? I doubt it. That is not to say that these are not fascinating, at times beautiful, images, which are eminently worthy of being made available to a global audience. What the volume shows impressively is the wealth of Kafka’s artistic output, which manifests across different media and occasions, and where drawing shades into writing and vice versa. There is, however, a certain irony about the way these dispersed sketches, scraps of paper and cut-up notebooks are now contained in this weighty, lavishly produced volume, lending them the gravitas of canonization. Such presentation goes against the grain not only of this material, but also (to put it grandly) of Kafka’s aesthetic. Both his texts and his drawings pose the same underlying question: how to engage with a kind of art that is not classically self-contained but provisional and ephemeral, closely tied to the everyday? This question besets Kafka’s texts from the beginnings to the end. The self-eliminating gesture of the early “The Wish to Be a Red Indian” is echoed in his last story, “Josefine, die Sängerin oder Das Volk der Mäuse” (1924; “Josefine, the Singer or The Mouse People”, 1948 ), in which a mouse singer is feted for her song, even though it is probably indistinguishable from ordinary squeaking. As the narrator notes, Josefine’s art is so unassuming that it will soon be forgotten; yet, as he concludes with a paradoxical flourish, “in this way, it can never be lost”.
Carolin Duttlinger is Professor of German Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of Wadham College and Co-Director of the Oxford Kafka Research Centre. Her books include Kafka and Photography2007, and The Cambridge Introduction to Franz Kafka2013. Her latest book, Attention and Distraction in Modern German Literature, Thought, and Culturewill be published this month
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