Beyond Words: Unveiling the Hidden Depths of Franz Kafka through His Art

In addition to engaging in literary pursuits, Kafka also delved into the realm of visual artistry. While his acquaintances were cognizant of his fervor for painting, they remained oblivious to his literary endeavors.

He articulated, ‘My canvases transcend mere paintings; they are repositories of private symbols. I aspire to perceive and firmly grasp the essence of my observations. Such is my ardor.’

Beyond his eminent status as a wordsmith, Kafka embodied a reticent and ungraceful legal scholar, an ardent and fervent avant-garde visual virtuoso, an imaginative aficionado of expeditions, a trenchant and acerbic confidant, and a conceited and apprehensive common youth.

What impelled Kafka to wield the brush? What distinctive stylistic imprint does his artistry manifest? How are his paintings intertwined with his literary oeuvre?

A retrospective contemplation of Kafka’s dual pursuits may unveil an unfamiliar facet of his persona.

01 I was cognizant of Kafka’s artistic inclination but remained oblivious to his literary pursuits.

In a missive to his betrothed, Phyllis Bauer, dated February 11-12, 1913, Kafka recounted a dream. The genesis of this reverie lay in Phyllis’s reminiscence of their inaugural rendezvous in Prague in August 1912. Kafka depicted their stroll in Prague’s Old Town Square as being ‘closer than just arm in arm,’ yet encountered an impasse when translating this mental tableau into words: ‘Describing our walk without linked arms and visible proximity is an arduous task on paper.’

Faced with this challenge, he remarked, ‘How shall I delineate our dreamlike perambulation?’ Subsequently, eschewing verbal articulation, he opted for illustration: ‘Wait a moment; I shall sketch it. Arm-linked – that is true, that is how we strolled.’

This recourse to drawing, to circumvent the limitations of verbal expression, attested to the efficacy of visual representation, particularly in capturing the essence of a dream. Moreover, this pivot to painting afforded him a conduit for a more immediate expression in his earlier artistic endeavors:

‘Do you admire my artwork? You might be unaware that I once excelled as a painter. However, I gradually imbibed the art under the tutelage of an impoverished female artist, stifling my innate talent. Ponder upon it! Someday, I shall dispatch some of my earlier paintings to you, providing you with amusement. I crafted these pieces many years ago, and they bestowed upon me an unparalleled sense of gratification at the time.’

Kafka’s reference in 1913 to his nascent attempts at painting (‘many years ago’) pertains to his academic years, and the letter’s phrasing imbues this pursuit with considerable significance: painting yielded him ‘unparalleled satisfaction.'”

Regrettably, the identity of the ‘inept female painter’ who instructed Kafka remains elusive. Nevertheless, the missive further illuminates Kafka’s earnest dedication to painting during his academic tenure from 1901 to 1906 and his stint as a legal intern at the Regional High Court until autumn 1907. While many extant paintings lack precise dating, it is evident that those preserved and bequeathed by Brod were executed during this epoch. Approximately 150 works from this period endure.

It is noteworthy that when Brod encountered Kafka in the autumn of 1902, he was cognizant of Kafka’s penchant for painting but oblivious to his literary endeavors. Brod underscored this in ‘The Life of Kafka’: ‘I courted Kafka for several years without realizing he was a wordsmith.’ However, Brod received the revelation of Kafka’s affinity for painting with immense elation, going so far as to discern sketches embellishing the margins of class notes from an older classmate. These notes were printed on offset paper, adorned with ‘bizarre drawings. I meticulously excised these intriguing patterns, laying the foundation for my Kafka art collection.’

Brod expounded on these occurrences in greater detail in the appendix to his 1948 tome ‘The Faith and Doctrine of Franz Kafka.’ Parallel to Kafka’s missive to Phyllis in February 1913, these constitute pivotal historical evidence of Kafka’s nascent forays into painting. After a hiatus of four decades, Brod divulged his curation of Kafka’s paintings predating the collection of literary manuscripts, hinting at the loss of other canvases:

‘He (Kafka) regarded his paintings with even more apathy, or antipathy, than his literary creations. What I couldn’t salvage was irrevocably lost. I implored him to bequeath those “doodles,” or rather extracted them from the wastebasket—yes, and some I gleaned from the margins of his law class notes. I “inherited” these illicitly printed “notes” from him (owing to his seniority).’

In retrospection, Brod propounded a poignant poetic theory, designating Kafka a ‘double talent’ in the realms of art and positing congruence in the execution of Kafka’s paintings and writings. Brod crystallized this parallelism through the dichotomy of realism and fantasy, contending: ‘No one has deemed it requisite to explore the parallels between Kafka’s dual gifts—his painterly and narrative prowess.’ Brod encapsulated this similarity in the nexus between realism and fantasy, asserting: ‘Much like his literary creations, Kafka, in his paintings, was a self-aware realist… concurrently a fabricator of fantastical realms.’ Brod asserted that Kafka’s paintings and writings interconnected in a ‘contradictory’ and ‘reciprocal’ relationship.

02 Kafka’s thematic tableau in painting: two-dimensional, delicate, carnivalesque

Approximately 1907, Brod, convinced of the merit of Kafka’s paintings, endeavored to establish Kafka’s standing as a painter, persisting in advocating for Kafka as an illustrator to publishers.

In 1906, the Stuttgart publisher Axel Juncker released Brod’s literary debut, the collection of short stories ‘The Death of the Dead!’

In March 1907, Brod sought to persuade Juncker to adopt a Kafka painting as the cover for his second book, a compendium of short stories titled ‘The Experiments.’ The specific painting and the accompanying letter of endorsement sent by Brod on March 7 are lost, but Brod’s delineation of the painting survives. He invoked Orlick’s ‘Japanism’ to characterize Kafka’s style:

‘Simultaneously, I dispatched the cover image for my book “Experiment.” It is by a hitherto undiscovered painter I stumbled upon—Franz Kafka. In my estimation, you shall find no more artistically valuable and evocative painting. It exudes eccentricity, uniqueness, and a refined ‘Japaneseism.’… I can envision nothing better symbolizing the core theme of this novel collection than this painting, wherein an elegant youth, simultaneously laughing and weeping, strides resignedly towards the abyss—between two exquisite yet bare trees… I hope this image can be effortlessly reproduced. The painting was entirely black, with red text imprinted on it, naturally—sans any remuneration.’

Unmentioned by Brod is his incorporation of Kafka as a character in one of the stories within the book: in ‘The Island of Carina,’ Kafka assumes the persona of Carew, and Carew Si’s concept of ‘experimenting with our lives’ serves as the genesis for the collection’s title.

However, Juncker did not accede to Brod’s suggestion. Opting for the customary practice at the time, he enlisted the services of the Jewish advertising and book designer Lucian Bernhard (alias Emil Kahn) for the book cover. Kurt Szaflanski, the aforementioned instructor, also designed books for Juncker.

Undeterred, Brod persisted. He endeavored to persuade Juncker to feature Kafka’s painting on the cover of the concurrently written poetry collection ‘Elotes,’ later rechristened ‘The Road of Lovers.’

This, too, met with failure, prompting Brod to make a third attempt by firmly proposing to Juncker, ‘Could you, at least, use Kafka’s painting as a small illustration on the blank page concluding the chapter?’ He advocated, ‘This painting would complement the new title seamlessly!’ Alas, this endeavor proved futile as well, and the poetry collection, now titled ‘The Road of Lovers,’ was published in the autumn of 1907 sans Kafka’s paintings.

Kafka alluded to this episode in a missive to his then paramour Hedwig Weiler in October 1907. Expressing regret, he wrote, ‘Elotes will be based on “The Road to Lovers.” It has been published, but my painting did not grace the cover, and reproducing that painting proved insurmountable.’

Even in the face of these setbacks, Brod persisted. On September 23, 1907, he proffered a new proposal to Juncker: ‘I might relinquish Kafka’s painting. Perhaps you could utilize it in the novel I am attempting to compose.’

This pertained to the novel ‘The Castle of Nornepigg,’ published in 1908, yet the book was released without featuring Kafka’s paintings. The ‘cover picture’ and ‘chapter titles and initials design were all from Lucian Bourne The Hand of Hader,’ as the publishing notes indicated. Kafka acknowledged his friend’s steadfast support and conveyed gratitude—his response brimming with more lament than disillusionment at Brod’s futile endeavors: ‘Alas, dear friend, now I must express my gratitude for your efforts in persuading the publisher of the merit of my paintings and the toil I invested.’

Brod’s indefatigable endeavors to establish Kafka as a painter not only provided him with a profound insight into the challenges faced by an aspiring visual artist in the nascent stages of their career but also afforded Kafka a more lucid comprehension of the medium, enhancing his (self) awareness as a creator. Kafka reminisced about this period in a letter to Phyllis in 1913, ‘I crafted these paintings many years ago, and they bestowed upon me an unparalleled sense of gratification.’ This articulation underscored Kafka’s considerable aspirations in the realm of visual arts, considering himself an artist. Numerous paintings by Kafka, produced until around 1907, should be construed within this ambit.

Kafka’s paintings typically employ sparse strokes to delineate facial features and outlines. The expressions and postures are not static but infused with dynamism, with figures often leaning to one side, suggesting movement, adopting profiles, and frequently traversing from right to left.

Prominent subjects in this genre of painting include fencers, equestrians, and dancers. In addition to individual figures in motion, group portraits are also prevalent, centering on the theme of ‘social interaction,’ borrowing a term introduced by Oscar Bey, a concept Kafka had assimilated.

From a sketching perspective, these renderings adopt a minimalist style, often reduced to symbolic strokes and lines, presenting as fragmented, incomplete, and notably experimental. However, categorizing them merely as drafts would be a misapprehension.

Oscar Bey’s emphasis, expounded in the book ‘The Art of Modern Painting’ and profoundly influential on Kafka, can be aptly applied to elucidate his paintings: ‘In contemporary times, sketching no longer serves solely as a precursor to painting; instead, it asserts itself as an art form in its own right.’

This self-affirmation was further bolstered by the evolving significance of printed paintings, as per Bey: ‘The art of painting exists in sketching just as it does in color printing; the demarcation between black and color no longer holds intrinsic significance. The distinction lies in hand-painting being superior only on a material plane than reproduction.’

For Kafka, the transition from sketches to image reproductions (such as cover illustrations) did not materialize— at least not during his lifetime, as Brod attempted in vain in 1907. Only in the 1950s did Fischer Publishers succeed in publishing these works. Nonetheless, Kafka ardently believed in the authenticity of sketching as a legitimate art form, even if marginalized and forsaken.

This conviction is affirmed by the subject matter of his paintings: the majority of bodies and portraits lack meticulous detailing. They do not occupy three-dimensional space, failing to encapsulate fully developed bodily forms. Instead, they hover against a backdrop, asymmetrical, flat, delicate, caricatured, grotesque, and evoking a carnivalesque ambiance.

This is exemplified by Kafka’s contribution to the inner pages of the Viennese satirical magazine ‘Rifle,’ wherein such figures encircle a clown. Generally, these figures are characterized by prominent ‘extremities’ such as legs, arms, and noses. Kafka’s human figures in paintings deviate significantly from the classical standards of ‘formal beauty,’ often exaggerated, with distinct features accentuated in many instances.

03 Do Kafka’s artworks encapsulate and articulate the inadequacy of written expression?

Kafka’s artistic creations primarily burgeoned during his academic pursuits and later as a judicial apprentice at the High District Court, spanning the approximate years of 1901 to 1907. Concurrently, he embarked on his inaugural literary endeavors.

Though Kafka had yet to unveil any of his works to the public, some of his earliest succinct essays saw publication in 1908 and 1909 in Hyperion, a magazine curated by Franz Bly and Carl Sternheim. These essays were also incorporated into his debut book, Meditations, released by Rowwater in 1912.

Contrary to their publication date, these extant texts were crafted as early as 1904, encompassing the initial iteration of “Record of a Battle” (1904-1907), the mini-essay compilation “Meditations” (1904-1912), and the fragment from the novel “A Country Wedding Preparations” (1906). The earliest surviving literary piece by Kafka, “The Shy Tall Man,” emanated from a missive to Oscar Pollack on December 20, 1902.

While Kafka concurrently engaged in painting and writing during his formative years, the interplay between these two artistic realms remained minimal.

Until around 1907, Kafka’s paintings largely stood autonomously from his writing, evolving from his diverse engagements with the visual arts. They epitomized a painting-centric experiment and exploration in artistic expression.

During this epoch, his paintings seldom graced manuscripts; instead, they adorned various materials, underscoring their detachment. An exception comprised drawings in the margins of lecture and legal notes, displaying a carnivalesque defiance against legal subjects.

Moreover, scattered manuscript fragments in a sketchbook hinted at a tentative connection between painting and writing, as certain handwritten notations appeared to evolve into paintings. Yet, Kafka’s early paintings persistently maintained independence from his literary endeavors.

Post-1908, the role of painting underwent transformation, forging a more pronounced association with writing. Although Kafka sporadically painted during this period, the majority of his artworks exhibited a discernible link with his written compositions.

Most post-1908 paintings originated within the textual context, whether in diaries and notebooks from 1909 or travel diaries around 1910, and letters exchanged in subsequent years. Notably, these figurative paintings bypassed literary manuscripts, thriving solely in non-fictional diaries and letters, vividly capturing observed scenes and existential states.

Yet, this visual representation didn’t imply a harmonious synergy between text and image. On the contrary, images emerged where writing reached its limits, revealing a tension between painting and writing.

This tension is evident in the initial pages of Kafka’s first diary (late 1909/early 1910), challenging the presumption of a definitive transition from painting to writing. Kafka categorized writing as a passive, absent presence, employing an image of a man suspended mid-fall from a ladder to depict the struggle to muster the willpower for writing.

The acrobatic balance, witnessed in a Japanese troupe’s performance in 1909, symbolized a realm beyond Kafka’s grasp. The failure of writing found expression in images, subordinating them not just to literary images but also to visual depictions.

Kafka’s own description in the diary reinforces the priority of painting’s aesthetic function in expressing the inexpressible. Despite difficulties in writing, painting retained its poetic and epistemological significance.

The intricate relationship between Kafka’s paintings and writings defies a singular, overarching theory. Each text-image fusion demands individual consideration.

An exemplification of this complexity surfaces in Kafka’s letter dated October 29, 1920, to Milena Jessenska. Accompanying the detailed text is a painting, elevated to additional aesthetic prominence by Kafka.

Post-1909, drawings accompanying Kafka’s writings, far from being mere illustrations, explicitly uphold the semantic primacy of the image. Kafka’s reduction of abstraction into sketches aligns with the “minimalist style” of Japanese painting, emphasizing strokes and lines.

In this specific sense, Kafka’s paintings can be viewed as “painterly,” closer to graphic art than traditional painting. The shared tool of the “brush” further solidifies the kinship between writing and painting in Kafka’s oeuvre.

Ultimately, Kafka’s paintings defy conventional categorization, embodying images without explicit representations. They traverse the realms of allusion, empathy, and abstraction, offering a glimpse into the expansive, unfinished nature of artistic expression, a paradox encapsulated in the phrase: Kafka’s paintings are images without images.

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