Franz Kafka: The Drawings

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George Prochnik at Literary Review: Wispy, thick, swirled and streaking, the dark lines burst outward, racing or splintering. The strongest impression one is left with while paging through this exquisitely produced volume of Kafka’s complete drawings is of minimally delineated figures in states of maximally dramatized unrest.

In two of the early single-page sketches, the human subjects – one on foot, the other riding a horse – are reduced so entirely to curling and back-slanting flourishes that they resemble lines drawn to indicate wind or the displacement of air surrounding figures in motion rather than figures themselves. Even when Kafka’s subjects are depicted on chairs or penned within enclosures in positions ordinarily associated with stationary conditions, their poses are so dynamically strained as to inject the immobilized state with high kinetic tension. Here, movement and the repressed urge thereto appear as traces of a primal survival instinct. ‘Mount your attacker’s horse and ride it yourself,’ Kafka wrote in one frantic diary entry. ‘The only possibility. But what strength and skill that requires! And how late it is already!’

The American critic Austin Warren noted in 1941 that some of Kafka’s most inspired scenes are really ‘animated cartoons’. By way of example, Warren described an episode in the porter’s office in Amerika as a ‘spectacle of perpetual motion’. He invoked Disney productions as a comparison point before discussing Kafka’s description in The Castle of Sordini’s office,where bundles of paper are constantly being taken away and brought back again: ‘all in great haste, those columns are always falling on the floor’ in ‘perpetual crashes’. Such images of futile, Sisyphean labor – of subjugation to dehumanizing systems of mass production or ineluctable, impersonal bureaucratic structures – interrupted only by slapstick accidents anticipate Chaplin in the factory. It’s worth registering how many of Kafka’s drawn characters are essentially faceless, their visages reduced to dots and slits that seem only inwardly reflective – when not, that is, blacked out completely. The more active his figures are, the less definition their countenances have, suggesting an inverse relationship between speed and psychological presence.

Select Franz Kafka drawings: Curated by Irshad Salim

Along with the sociological commentary, there’s a Freudian dimension to these studies in motion. In one early vignette, Kafka writes of what happens after the decision has been made to stay home for the evening – when the door is locked, the stairs are dark, you’ve had your dinner and settled down with your family. It’s just then that, ‘in a sudden fit of restlessness’, you quickly dress and explain how you must go out after all, and charge from the room into the streets, ‘with limbs swinging extra freely in answer to the unexpected liberty you have procured for them, when as a result of this decisive action you feel concentrated within yourself all the potentialities of decisive action’. It’s at this point, striding along, that you realize ‘you have completely got away from your family, which fades into insubstantiality, while you yourself, a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature’. Many of Kafka’s sketched rushing figures could be aspiring to this condition of total escape from blood origins that will permit their actual, ‘boldly drawn’ statures to emerge.

Certain of Kafka’s visual subjects also betray quasi-theological features, in the sense Walter Benjamin conjures when analyzing a set of recurrent characters in Kafka’s work: the maladroit ‘assistants’, tricksters, students and fools, ‘extremely strange figures … the only ones who have escaped from the family circle and for whom there may be hope’. These beings exist in an ‘unfinished state’, Benjamin writes. Still partly attached to the ‘womb of nature’, they are distinguished by a penchant for continually experimenting with themselves, changing posture, balling up in dark corners. Kafka’s drawn creatures likewise appear as incomplete beings and ‘bunglers’. But in their mutable, provisional attitudes, they retain vestiges of primordial potential.

Kafka’s pictures have been reproduced in this landmark edition in full color and meticulous detail. A fair number of the 240 drawings are objectively strong and aesthetically riveting. They show the influence of diverse artistic traditions while incorporating surprising, often violent distortions in an idiom consonant with Kafka’s fiction. The less noteworthy images more readily evoke the universal squiggle-doodle-scribble school of art. Some drawings also display the damage caused by Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod (a handful were hacked out of Kafka’s sketchbook so that Brod could publish them individually), yet the book has been so sumptuously produced that the trifles and mangled scraps floating on pristine white pages have aesthetic qualities the originals wouldn’t have possessed.

The book includes two essays by Andreas Kilcher, who edited this volume with Pavel Schmidt. The first of these traces the vicissitudes of the drawings’ history after Kafka’s death. Many of the images collected here only came to light recently, after Kafka’s literary estate was prised free from the family of Ilse Esther Hoffe, Max Brod’s former secretary, to whom Brod had bequeathed it. The second essay supplies biographical context for the drawings’ creation and makes an argument for their artistic significance. Kilcher’s detailed exegesis of Kafka’s involvement with the visual arts, beginning during his gymnasium days in Prague and building through his student years up until 1908, after which his investment in drawing diminished, is lucidly informative. Kafka contributed to journals and participated in intellectual circles in which discussions of art and aesthetic philosophy figured prominently. Kilcher’s discussion of the influence on Kafka of Asian art, at first as filtered through presentations of Japanese work by the Prague artist Emil Orlik, is especially interesting. Clearly, visual art exerted a persistent influence on Kafka’s imagination throughout his younger years. A diary entry from 1912 describes the later fate of this enthusiasm: ‘When it became clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction for my being to take, everything rushed in that direction.’ All other activities atrophied commensurately.

Even so, writing to Felice Bauer in 1913, Kafka declared, ‘these drawings gave me greater satisfaction in those days – it’s years ago – than anything else.’ Kilcher proposes that this comment, exposing Kafka’s ‘more than modest aspirations in this regard’, should guide our approach to the pictures. An artist’s personal contentment is of course no guarantee of a work’s quality – especially in the case of an artist like Kafka, for whom profound dissatisfaction is arguably at the crux of his creativity. (In his notorious, unheeded instructions to Brod to burn all his papers, Kafka specified that this order included the destruction of his drawings.) But there’s something to the idea that drawing afforded Kafka at least fleeting relief.

Kilcher strains to make the case for the pictures having a kind of parity with Kafka’s written work as a manifestation of the author’s creative self-realization. In the book’s final essay, Judith Butler performs even more heroic contortions to pin down the meta-dialectical relationship between his visual art and literary texts. Such arguments are unnecessary. The drawings don’t rival Kafka’s best writings in profundity, but there’s still plenty worth contemplating in these expressive ciphers of wonder, alarm and the pursuit of liberation.

Heinrich Heine proclaimed that where words fail, music begins. Kafka, who confessed to a dearth of musical ability, might have amended the aphorism to say that where words fail, drawings riddle the blank page. In these drawings we see Kafka, unshackled from the cognitive cage of verbal meaning, remembering how to play.

Franz Kafka was a German-speaking Bohemian novelist and short-story writer. His work fuses elements of realism and the fantastic. It typically features isolated protagonists facing bizarre or surrealistic predicaments. Kafka is famous for his novels The Trial, in which a man is charged with a crime that is never named, and The Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist wakes to find himself transformed into an insect. The term Kafkaesque has entered English to describe situations like those found in his writing. Published posthumously as a novel Amerika (originally began as a short story) incorporates many details of the experiences of his relatives who had emigrated to the United States. In his first year at university, Kafka discovered a talent for drawing. But he discovered, to his surprise, a not insignificant talent for drawing, and he began filling the margins of his notebooks with doodles -among the files of Kafka’s estate is a black notebook that Kafka filled with sketches. Why did Kafka abandon drawing and choose literature instead? It is possible that the answer to this is hinted at in something he said to his friend Gustav Janouch, quoted in the book Conversations with Kafka (Derek Verschoyle Limited, 1953): “I should so like to be able to draw. As a matter of fact, I am always trying to. But nothing comes of it. My drawings are purely personal picture writing, whose meaning even I cannot discover after a time.”