Kafka’s art is accessible again. Hundreds of his drawings are now available, free, from the National Library of Israel, where the Kafka Archive–a collection of his work saved by his friend and collaborator Max Brod–remains to this day. The only disappointment, it would seem, is that there is no unpublished text among these recovered papers. On the other hand, one stresses the number of drawings and illustrations, which must then have a greater meaning than expected…


Franz Kafka – Letter to his sister Ottla, December 11, 1918: “Panorama of my existence” © NLI


“Souls undulate, bodies tremble.” So wrote the Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld, describing a storm at sea. As Kafka takes up this line recited by Löwy one evening in January 1912, I think back to one of the seafaring aphorisms the Prague writer formulated: “This feeling: ‘here I do not drop anchor,’ and immediately feel around you the stormy tide which carries.”

Kafka’s drawings undulate and tremble; bodies appear as letters; and from this alphabet in the margins of his notebooks, we must deduce something of freedom, however excessive that may seem. In a rare book devoted to the interpretation of Kafka’s drawings, Jacqueline Sudaka-Bénazéraf collects the few precious traces of a writer whose dream was to draw–a dream constrained by an imposed academism, thus thwarting Kafka’s more expressionist proclivities. This frustrated passion continued to exist in a shrouded, sublimated form. Opposed to the narration, it takes the appearance of punctuation, of a language. Kafka says, as if to protect himself from this impossible vocation, “We Jews are not painters, in fact. We do not know how to represent things statically. We always see them flowing, moving, metamorphosing. We are narrators (…) What do you want? I am still a captive in Egypt. I have not yet crossed the Red Sea.”

Did the Jewish painter come out of Egypt? Did Chaïm Soutine, whose lines undulate and twist under the effects of the transition from the ancient world to the life of Montparnasse, arrive, through art – and a transgression of the prohibitions of representation – in the Promised Land? Or does the line itself contain a shifting narrative, so that the image, sufficiently elusive, cannot become an idol? Kafka’s acrobats, for example – the representation of bodies in general – are often identified with an ideogrammatic or hieroglyphic form, yet the idea of a wandering Hebrew underneath Kafka’s German language of narration comes more easily to mind. From afar, it was as if I saw the letters of the alphabet arranged, sometimes humorously, on the aged papers of the archives. Bodies like letters, each leaning toward the next, to compose the root of a word. From this choreography, Deleuze and Guattari deduced an arrangement of the stifled or transfigured desire in Kafka’s work. They write, “The chaps and linear silhouettes that he likes to draw are mostly bent heads, erect or upright heads, and heads-the-first.”[1] The tilted head signifies frustrated desire, the memory of childhood; and the raised head, desire that resolves, or deflects, itself. These heads, which extend straight or curved lines, indicate more precisely a segmentation, an architecture of power in Kafka’s writings, which becomes in the eyes of philosophers the literary receptacle of disciplinary societies. They then trace the number of corridors that frame the Kafkaesque narratives, the administrative corridors that force the repetition of a lost man’s comings and goings. This labyrinth of segments and rigid lines must be answered by flexible contours. The drawing thus operates a displacement of the lines pre-drawn by the chains of a strange terrestrial justice, toward fugitive lines of life – one would like to say exilic.  In reality, it is not a question of being free, “but,” write Deleuze and Guattari, “of finding an exit, or an entrance, or a corridor, an adjacency, etc.,” because the process, more than its result, would matter to the writer. In any case, it changes the disposition of bodies, and there are no bodies more plastic than those drawn by Kafka – while his own, under the onslaught of tuberculosis, shrinks and prevents him from speaking. Kafka’s drawings are very diverse. If among them I project a Hebrew alphabet in the process of formation, it is also by retrospection. Kafka, who began learning Hebrew with fervor, it is said, at about the same time that tuberculosis appeared and damaged his larynx to the point of silence, composed a minor melody through the voice of his drawings. A kind of whistling? His last short story is about the life of a singer, Josephine – Josephine the Singer or the Mouse People. Kafka writes to Robert Klopstock, “I believe I began in time to study the animal squeak. ”

Handwritten page of Kafka, drawing of acrobats © NLI

“I wanted to see and fix what I saw.” Kafka did this in his writing, but also through drawing, a medium in which he allowed himself permission to capture, in a few strokes and zigzags, the whole panorama of a life. These drawings indicate something of the body, and do so more radically than writing. The hand does what it can to represent what the eye sees–unless the body itself perceives and anticipates. Soutine, for example, aged his models with his line that blurred time. Kafka writes about this idiosyncratic twist: “The world will offer itself to you so that you unmask it, it can do nothing else, it will twist itself ecstatically before you.” A dream or a presentiment – Freud spoke of the artist’s preconscious in this way – Kafka’s drawings invite us to question what his body was experiencing and seeing.

Max Brod, in a radio broadcast, said Kafka had beautiful gray eyes. Walter Benjamin, writing about Proust and Kafka, claimed that “in these writers, the subject mimetically takes on the color of the planet, which in the coming, catastrophes will turn gray.” Yet, beneath this melancholy knowledge, there is a small, resounding note of joy perceptible in Kafka’s drawings, a way out again and above all a momentum. This tension/twist, which is found in the effects of perception, narrative, or manual drawing, expresses the paradox of a departure that is simultaneously an arrival. In his Diary, Kafka writes about Moses: “He has throughout his life the flair it takes to discover Canaan; that he should see the Promised Land only on the eve of his death is implausible. This last point of view can have only one meaning, that of showing life as an imperfect moment, and how imperfect, since a life of this nature could last indefinitely without ever resulting in anything but a moment. It was not because his life was too short that Moses did not enter Canaan, it was because it was a human life.” [7]

Drawing by Kafka

The consciousness of a fragmentary life gives a form to the vision of things (a head erect, and at the same time bent toward the paper,) from the pieces of unfinished drawings, a form in which a philosopher like Ernst Bloch sees ruin and promise simultaneously.

Avishag Zafrani


1 In: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Kafka : towards a minor literature, University of Minnesota Press (October 1986).

Contact the author

    Support us!

    You can help us

    With the support of:

    Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.