Franz Kafka’s drawings reveal the “sunny” side of a dark bohemian novelist | Francois Kafka

Filled with self-doubt, paranoia and existential despair, Franz Kafka’s writings have led generations of readers into what the author called “the descent into the cold abyss of the self”.

A treasure trove of 150 drawings, recovered from a Swiss bank vault in 2019 after years of legal wrangling and shown to the public for the first time on Thursday, offers a more cheerful interpretation of the term “Kafkaesque”, however.

Populated with long-limbed clowns taking silly rides, Chaplin-like men in bowler hats, and slapstick horse-riding accidents, the never-before-seen sketches and doodles showcase a man with a sunny imagination.

“It is hard to imagine the holy being who created these designs in weightlessness as an unhappy man,” wrote German novelist Daniel Kehlmann in an essay for Die Zeit newspaper.

Drawing of a jockey wielding a whip on a horse jumping over an obstacle. Kafka was deeply interested in art while studying law at the University of Prague. Photography: Ardon Bar-Hama

Far from mere doodles, the drawings also show that Kafka was a man of considerable talent for drawing and artistic ambition. “We discovered that Kafka was intensely interested in visual art,” said Andreas Kilcher, the publisher of a book of Kafka drawings, published by CH Beck in Germany on November 2 and by Yale University Press in the States. United States and the United Kingdom next spring.

“His peers at school and university had an immense interest in art, which Kafka not only shared but practiced with real vigour,” Kilcher said. “It was definitely more than a fringe thing for him.”

Kafka, who grew up in the German-speaking minority in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, studied law at the University of Prague from 1901 to 1906. His interest in art was so serious, Kilcher said, that an admiring comrade who would later guarantee Kafka’s posthumous fame initially knew him only as an illustrator.

His friend and eventual executor, Max Brod, used to pick out what Kafka used to discard as his “scribbles” in wastebaskets or cut them out from the margins of legal textbooks. When a Kafka with tuberculosis asked Brod to burn his unread manuscripts after his death, he explicitly mentioned these drawings.

Sketch of walking man.
Drawing of a male figure, titled “The Dancer” by Kafka’s executor, Max Brod. The drawings reveal the author’s humor and lightness. Photography: Ardon Bar-Hama

After Kafka’s death in 1924, Brod ignored his old friend’s plea and published the novels, short stories, and diaries with increasing critical acclaim. A selection of 40 drawings has also been made public, highlighting the darker side of writing: since the 1950s, novels like Metamorphosis and The Trial have often been illustrated with stickmen in an apparent state of existential despair. The rest would remain hidden from the public for decades.

Fleeing Czechoslovakia after the Nazi invasion in 1939, Brod took Kafka’s writings and drawings with him into Palestinian exile. Before his death in 1968, he gave the papers to his secretary, Esther Hoffe, with instructions to turn them over to “the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Municipal Library, or another organization in Israel or the United States.” ‘foreigner “.

This directive was also ignored, and the Hoffe family kept Kafka’s papers locked away in bank vaults in Israel and Switzerland until Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the manuscripts were the property of the family. National Library of Israel. The contents of the latest cache of papers have been made publicly available through the National Library of Israel. website since June.

The 52 individual pieces of paper discovered in 2019, including an extensive sketchbook and several free clippings, not only challenge Kafka’s reputation as a dark and permanently angsty existentialist, but also share a characteristic with the paintings described by Kafka. in several of his novels and short films. Tales: Populated with men riding flying buckets, singing mice, and creatures made from household detritus, dreamlike tales often seem to defy the visual imagination of its readers.

Horse riding sketch.
Drawing of a horse and rider. Kafka had commissioned his friend Max Brod to burn the drawings and his manuscripts after his death. Photography: Ardon Bar-Hama

In an afterword to the German edition of the drawings, philosopher Judith Butler notes that Kafka’s creations often become more difficult to visualize the more he describes them in detail. In the story “The Worries of a Family Man”, the narrator describes a creature that lives in his house, which resembles “a flat star-shaped spool of thread”. The creature, called Odradek, “is described in detail but this description gives no still image,” Butler notes in his text. “Readers have sought in vain to draw Odradek, his multicolored bits of thread, his spool, his crossbeam, his star and his rod.”

“Kafka’s drawings fall far short of realistic depictions,” Kilcher said. “There is usually an element of abstraction, and they [are] rarely spatial but always dynamic.

Kafka could sometimes come across as actively hostile to visual art, opposing his publisher’s plans to illustrate his short story The Stoker with a woodcut of New York harbour, and begging his publisher never to view his creation the most famous. “The insect does not draw itself”, he specifies in a letter of 1915 about the cover of Metamorphosis. “It’s not even to be seen from afar.”

For Kilcher, Kafka’s aversion to the visual arts was not a sign that he had ended his artistic ambition. “I don’t think Kafka fell in love with art as such,” he said. “He respected drawing and writing as two independent art forms.”