7) „Burn it all!“ The death and legacy of Franz Kafka in contemporary art

Portraits of Max Brod and Franz Kafka at the Jewish Museum in Prague
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The last years of Kafka's life were associated with severe illness and numerous stays in sanatoriums. On this account, Kafka has often been described as sickly. However, as long as his health allowed, he exercised regularly, washed with cold water and generally tried to keep fit. In 1922, two years before his death, tuberculosis forced him to resign from the Workmen's Accident Insurance Company. Following his doctor’s advice, he went to the mountains to get some fresh air, says David Stecher, director of the Prague Literary House:

David Stecher | Photo: Martina Kutková,  Radio Prague International

"There was a big flu pandemic back then, and many people succumbed to the disease. Not everybody knows that Kafka also had the flu, but overcame it. However, he subsequently got infected with tuberculosis. He stayed in the Tatra Mountains for seven months, undergoing treatment. From there he went to Špindlerův Mlýn, where he stayed at the Krone Hotel, now the Savoy. That's where he really started writing The Castle. Afterwards, he also stayed in a sanatorium near Vienna."

Franz Kafka's arrival to Špindlerův Mlýn in 1922 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

It was at the sanatorium in Kierling, about 20 km north of Vienna, where Franz Kafka died on 3 June 1924. Apart from his letters, he wrote nothing else there. His friend Dora Diamant stood by his side until the end. Both parents, Hermann and Julie Kafka, survived their son and are buried with him at the New Jewish Cemetery in Olšany, Prague. Kafka was also survived by his three younger sisters Gabriela, Valerie and Otilie. They all died in Nazi extermination camps during World War II.

Franz Kafka and guests at the sanatorium,  Tatranské Matliare  (between 1920 and 1921) | Photo:  Franz Kafka: Pictures of a Life by Klaus Wagenbach  (1984),  public domain

Kafka was also visited in the sanatorium by his closest friend, Max Brod, to whom he handed over his manuscripts. Brod preserved them and published them after Kafka's death, allegedly against his wishes.

Max Brod and Franz Kafka | Photo: public domain

"Franz Kafka is believed to have said: 'Burn it all, Max.' But Max Brod never promised to do so. Some people liken their relationship to that of Mozart and Salieri. But it wasn’t like that. Max Brod was a promoter of Czech culture. He was the one to take Franza Kafka’s first texts and get them published. Without Max Brod, for instance, no one would know who Leoš Janáček was. But Max Brod himself was also a writer."

Max Brod, together with Franz Kafka, Felix Weltsch and Oskar Baum, formed the so-called Prague Circle. They all wrote in German, they met regularly and continued to do so even after Kafka's death. Their activities ceased with the arrival of the Nazis in Prague.

Franz Kafka's last letter | Photo: Památník národního písemnictví

Both Brod and Weltsch managed to escape on 14 March, 1939 on the last train that was allowed to leave Czechoslovakia. A day later the Nazis occupied the territory of Bohemia and Moravia. According to David Stecher, it was at this moment that it became clear just how good a friend Max Brod had been to Kafka, taking his estate with him as he fled.

"He couldn't have known what it would be worth, but he was concerned, because he was a true friend. He thought it was important to save his friend’s estate. To keep his memory alive.

“It wasn't an easy thing to do. After the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was created, which happened overnight, it wasn’t easy to leave the country. And it wasn't a small bag that he would throw over his shoulder. He was carrying a whole suitcase!"

Max and Elsa Brod arriving in Palestine,  1939 | Photo: סימול ARC. 4* 2000 08 023,  Max Brod Archive/The National Library of Israel

Brod and Weltsch reached Palestine via Galicia and Romania, where they boarded the Bessarabia. Max Brod settled in Tel Aviv and worked as a music critic and theatre dramaturge. He continued to promote Czech culture, and, despite Kafka's wishes, decided to publish his writings. After the Second World War, the interest in Kafka's work gradually started to grow.

"It is phenomenal in that everyone can find something in it. Everyone can take what they see fit from Kafka. But I would never agree that his writing is about loneliness. It's about the fact that even when one is alone, one is not lonely. Kafka and his friends were a proof of that. It was thanks to his closes friend that we know who Kafka was and that his works are still published today."

Disputes over Kafka's work

Max Brod died in 1968 in Tel Aviv. His estate, including Kafka's manuscripts, was inherited by his secretary Ester Hoffe, who gave them to her two daughters. They started to sell it out, for instance to a collector who subsequently sold his manuscript to the literary archives in Marbach, Germany.

"None of the witnesses or the parties involved in the events are alive today. It is believed that someone in the secretary’s family gradually sold the estate. Then, of course, there was a dispute over who owned the rights to Kafka’s work. There was a very long court case between the National Library in Jerusalem and the literary archives in Marbach. In the end the library in Jerusalem won."

However, one of the original Kafka manuscript remains in Marbach and another one is in Oxford. The remaining ones are in the National Library of Israel. According to David Stecher, the movement of the manuscripts has not been fully explored, but it is unlikely that there is any previously unknown Kafka manuscript out there.

The manuscript of Kafka's novel The Trial | Photo: Pavel Polák,  Czech Radio

Although he died 100 years ago, Kafka has never ceased to inspire artists around the world with his life and work. A reflection of Kafka's work in contemporary art is the subject of an exhibition currently on display at the DOX Contemporary Art Centre in Prague.

Called KAFKAesque, it presents more than 30 artists, including the American screenwriter David Lynch, the Czech director Jan Švankmajer and the sculptor and painter Jaroslav Róna, who says he has always felt a deep connection with the famous writer.

Jaroslav Róna | Photo: Martina Kutková,  Radio Prague International

"I read him all the time and I am a big fan of his, if only because I have a studio close to the cemetery where he is buried. It's about 300 meters from my studio and I often visit it, because my father's grave is in the same part of the cemetery as Franz Kafka's."

Jaroslav Róna is exhibiting a series of drawings at DOX inspired by Kafka's short stories, as well as two paintings depicting the writer directly. One is called Franz Kafka visiting Gregor Samsa, reflecting the short story "The Metamorphosis". The second one, inspired by Kafka’s diary entries, is Kafka in Trieste, depicting the writer being chased by a tin angel carrying a sword.

Kafka's grave in the Prague Jewish cemetery | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

Jaroslav Róna also collaborated on the visual treatment of the film America, based on Kafka's novel. He also says he feels a strong connection to authors who openly relate to Kafka, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Haruki Murakami.

"He's looking for what's behind the words. He sees writing only as an imperfect crutch to express what he wants to convey. This is evidenced by the fact that there are multiple versions of one sentence in his diaries. I think in this particular method of finding a composition of words to convey a certain meaning can appeal to anyone. It’s something that every artist does. It's not just what's written, there's an incredibly strange world behind the words that can be interpreted in many ways.”

Franz Kafka Monument

Photo: Martina Kutková,  Radio Prague International

Jaroslav Róna's best-known work that is connected to Franz Kafka is undoubtedly the monument to the writer at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague. It is a bronze sculpture of two bodies, almost four metres high. The lower, larger figure is just an empty suit carrying Franz Kafka on its shoulders. Jaroslav Róna drew inspiration from Kafka's novella Description of a Struggle, where one of the characters (Kafka's alter ego) leans on his friend's shoulders.

But the statue also refers to Kafka's diary entries, in which he complains about not having enough time for literary work, wishing to split into two people. However, it may also refer to Kafka's complicated relationship with his father. Róna says he wanted the sculpture have a range of interpretations, and describes what was the biggest challenge in creating it:

Kafka's last photo | Photo: Kateřina Ayzpurvit,  Radio Prague International

"I suffered terribly from not knowing what his profile looked like. All the surviving photos were from the front or slightly rotated, but you couldn't really tell what his nose was like. It was only from some drawings that I deduced he had a hooked nose, but there was no way of proving it. I struggled with the idea of digging his skull out of his grave so I could reconstruct his face to be accurate. But of course I would never dare to do that."

A miniature of Kafka's monument by Jaroslav Róna is given to the winners of the international Franz Kafka Prize, awarded by the Franz Kafka Society since 2001. Among the recipients were Haruki Murakami, Václav Havel, Margaret Atwood and Milan Kundera.

The 100th anniversary of Franz Kafka's death offers the opportunity to look at Kafka's work and life from current and new perspectives. All events, exhibitions, lectures, literary links can be found on the Project Kafka2024 website.

Author: Martina Kutková; Ruth Fraňková


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