Kafka as Visual Artist, a dialectical gesture that was just getting started

TEKENINGEN Franz Kafka man met baard cover

What do we want from poor Franz Kafka? Everything, it seems, even though or perhaps because  Kafka wanted nothing or even less than nothing from us. One of the most satisfying myths of our time is that Kafka was cripplingly ambivalent about publishing his works. In fact, he published three collections of stories and a variety of other works during his lifetime. 

So though we ought not classify him with Emily Dickinson, who had no interest in a wide readership, Kafka nonetheless seems to have shared her sense that “publication is the auction of the mind of man.” In the months before his death from tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40, Kafka famously made very clear to his best friend, Max Brod, that all of his unpublished and unfinished work was to be destroyed and forgotten. Brod notoriously saved it all, though he was very selective about what he published. Since Brod’s own death in 1968, things have gotten complicated.

Collective property of the Jewish people

Little by little, everything that came from Kafka’s pen is making its way into the bookstores, following a recent twelve-year legal struggle in Israel that ended with the ruling that the Kafka materials daringly spirited away in 1939 by Brod on the last train from Prague before the occupation of Czechoslovakia belong not to Brod’s secretary and confidant, Esther Hoffe, or her daughter, Eva, the notorious cat lady of Tel Aviv. Rather, these materials are now legally the collective property of the Jewish people and therefore belong in the collections of the National Library of Israel, which has been most liberal in authorizing the publications of previously unknown works, as well as translations and retranslations.

Of course, it wasn’t only words that came from Kafka’s pen. It will surely come as a surprise to many of his readers that Kafka loved to draw, sketch, and doodle, a visual world revealed in Franz Kafka: The Drawings, published last year by Yale University Press, which includes a valuable essay by Kilcher and a less valuable meditation by the feminist superstar theoretician Judith Butler on the bodies in Kafka’s body of drawing. 

twee tekening Kafka
Two drawings by Franz Kafka, courtesy Franz Kafka: The Drawings, Yale University Press

Journals on art and esthetics

Kafka was serious about art, both his own and that of others. He studied art history next to law (he took a class at university in Dutch painting and owned a copy of van Gogh’s letters), religiously read journals on art and esthetics, and worshipped a group of German artists and art critics called The Eight, whose Bible was a magazine called Der kunstwerk. He even collected paintings and sculptures. Scholars have appropriately taken Kafka’s drawings seriously for decades–or at least they tried to. The question was one of access. 

Brod made only a handful of images available to readers after Kafka’s death, starting with the three drawings tantalizingly included in his 1937 biography of Kafka, and Brod at one point planned a proper exhibition, with a catalog raisonne, but he then inexplicably backed away and blocked any further efforts to show them.

Surviving drawings

Only now we are able to see all of the surviving drawings together: 150 images, in a variety of formats, from a 52-page sketchbook made during his university years to later drawings made more spontaneously and with little thought of their permanence, within letters, in diary entries, in the margins of newspaper articles, or on stray pieces of paper. 

What does this revelation of what Kilcher calls “the great unknown in Kafka’s papers” add to our understanding of Kafka? Or better yet, to our understanding of ourselves as citizens of a world that Kafka imagined more than a century ago. Before answering that question, we must attend to Kafka’s own reluctance to let people see his art. He told a friend in 1920: “These are not drawings to be shown to anyone.” 

Dual talents

Is this Kafka responding to his sense of Judaism’s supposedly vexed relationship with the visual, in which writing is Jewish and drawing is gentile? Answering that question demands that we first address a different problem: What is the right way to look at and interpret these works? As a genre of work independent from his literary efforts, or as a mode of expression that operates in concert with the writing? Brod called Kafka’s writing and drawing “dual talents,” operating in parallel. Kafka seems to have felt they were part of a single greater project. 

He told one friend in 1920: “They are purely personal and therefore illegible hieroglyphs. My drawings are not pictures, but ideograms.” So ought we treat Kafka’s drawings like Ezra Pound’s operas? Like Michelangelo’s poems or Charles Mingus’s autobiography? Like Patti Smith’s photographs or the paintings of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell? If it seems like neither question has a satisfying answer, perhaps the images themselves can tell us.

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Drawing Franz Kafka, courtesy Franz Kafka: The Drawings, Yale University Press

Drawing as a serious activity

Many of the drawings seem like the work of a talented but awkwardly gifted adolescent–which in the case of the very earliest examples, is exactly what they are. Others seem more accomplished, especially numbers 113-119, which date from somewhat later, around 1908, when Kafka seemed to have given up on pursuing drawing as a serious activity, after which he mostly drew in diaries or letters, or on newspapers or magazines. At their best, Kafka’s drawings seem to be the work of a mature visual artist, someone who seems fully integrated in the artistic movements of the time. In one case he even seems to be anticipating where the art world is going: Out of nowhere comes a proto-Futurist set of images that say almost everything that Duchamp and Marinetti had to say.

Bodies at war

Kafka’s drawings are minimalist and yet (or therefore?) dynamically expressive. We see an obsession with bodies at war with the world or with themselves, wasted away, impossibly contorted. These figures are also somehow the toys of fate, the objects of the universe’s simultaneous neglect and abuse. In that sense, the images can serve as an analogue for Kafka’s writing, which is dominated by characters radically alienated from land, language, God, and self. But to stop there, with the drawings serving as a mere illustration of or reference to what Kafka elsewhere expresses in language – heteronomous as opposed to autonomous objects – would be mistaken.

Parashat Yitro

One wonders whether Kafka, never much of a shul-goer, ever sat through a reading of Parashat Yitro (Shemot 18:1-20:23) and heard the passage in which the Israelites gathered at Sinai see the voice of the shofar, a puzzling categorical reversal. Nonetheless, the passage does perhaps provide us with a model for how to see Kafka’s drawings, which in some sense let us see his voice, and vice versa. In that sense it is indeed as if Kafka’s drawings respond to the “visual silence” demanded by the traditional (though not total) halachic proscription on imagery. 

Sense of exile

That does not quite settle the question of whether or not the writings and the drawing evince a single vision, artistic or moral. Are the drawings another way for Kafka to communicate his sense of exile, a kind of inverted ekphrasis? There is surely an esthetic continuity between the two media if they are to be considered two separate projects. One suspects, given how frequently Kafka married text and image, that we are dealing here with a third genre altogether, a phenomenon that, like his Zionism, and like his Judaism more generally, was a dialectical gesture that was just getting started. 

Perhaps unfinishable

Like the Kabbalah’s understanding of Creation, Kafka’s drawings are a reminder that his work, our work, all work, is unfinished, perhaps unfinishable, perhaps on purpose, thank God! Or maybe God, Kafka’s ultimate unrequited lover, should thank Kafka. Maybe He already has.

Franz Kafka: The Drawings

by Andreas Kilcher and Pavel Schmidt

Contributions by Judith Butler

Translated by Kurt Beals

Yale University Press, 2022C, 368 Pages, 8.00 x 11.00 in, 240 color illus.

Cover: Kafka drawings, from the reviewed book

Over Jonathan Gill 9 Artikelen
Jonathan Gill received his PhD from Columbia University in American literature and has taught literature, history, and writing at Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Fordham University, the City College of New York, and Amsterdam University College. He specialises in post-World War II art, film and literature, African-American history and culture, experimental and vernacular musics, the counterculture of the 1960s, the literature of immigration and the cultures of intolerance. He has also taught Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam, and has written and lectured widely on Judaism and Jewish culture. His book "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America" (Grove/Atlantic 2011), has been a New York Times best-seller. In 2020 he published "Hollywood Double Agent" (Abrams, hardcover 9781419740091) on espionage in Hollywood during the Cold War.

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