How Can Three Unfinished Franz Kafka Novels Influence Art?

February 19, 2020

Franz Kafka is unmistakably one of the most important writers of the 20th century, and yet he was unrecognized throughout his lifetime. The full scope of his literary style was encountered posthumously thanks to his friend and literary executor Max Brod who sorted the unfinished writings including the best-known ones such as The Process, The Castle and The Man Who Disappeared.

The style of this notable figure is a combination of realism and the absurd since his protagonists are tormented by surrealistic situations. Through his works, Kafka explored the themes of guilt, anxiety, and alienation, and his style became such a landmark that the word Kafkaesque was formed and introduced in the English language to describe hopeless states like those found in his writings.

Kafka certainly inspired generations to come, not only of writers but practitioners coming from other art disciplines as well, and this phenomenon will be further explored within the upcoming exhibition called K at Fondazione Prada in Milan. The show will feature Martin Kippenberger’s legendary installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika, Orson Welles’ iconic film The Trial and late electronic album The Castle by the pioneering electronic music band Tangerine Dream.

Anthony Perkins The Trial
Anthony Perkins. The Trial (1962), directed by Orson Welles. Editorial use only. Film: Paris Europa/Ficit/Hisa © 2020. Album/Scala, Firenze

All About K

The curator Udo Kittelmann decided to present the three artworks as a coexisting trilogy by starting from Kafka’s three uncompleted novels Amerika (America), Der Prozess (The Process), and Das Schloss (The Castle), published from 1925 to 1927, as it was mentioned, after the writer’s death.

Visual artist Martin Kippenberger, film director Orson Welles, and electronic music band Tangerine Dream, felt inspired by the unfinished nature of those three books and so they decided to intervene and reinterpret the subjects and atmospheres found in the novel. The exhibition will, therefore, take on a multidisciplinary approach that is affiliated with Fondazione Prada’s agenda to present contemporary art from a broader cultural perspective.

In an attempt to briefly summarize his intention Kittelmann stated the following :

America, The Trial, and The Castle form a ‘trilogy of loneliness,’ according to Kafka’s executor Max Brod. Seen in this light, we may also view ‘K’ as a triptych, an exhibition that resembles a tripartite, triple-layered picture. The structure is therefore similar to that of a traditional altarpiece, with America occupying the large central panel and The Trial and The Castle the side panels. The three parts can be read together as a remarkable allegory of the vicissitudes of life, or, in Kafka’s words: ‘All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.

Exhibition view of Martin Kippenberger The Problem Perspective
Exhibition view of Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective, MoMA, NY, 2009. Photo: Thomas Griesel. Copyright: The Museum of Modern Art, NY. Cat. no.: IN2068.50. © 2020. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Firenze

The Installation, A Film, and An Album

A large scale installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” by the renowned German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997) was exhibited for the first time at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1994, and now it is revived again in Italy. It is inspired by, as the very title suggests, by Kafka’s novel published in 1927, especially it’s a section when Karl Rossmann, the lead protagonist applies for a job at the “biggest theatre in the world” after he traveled across America.

By exploring the very concept of utopia found in the novel, Kippenberger accentuates Rossmann’s desperate attempt to find professional success while dealing with exploitation, competition, and dehumanization. Although the artist claimed that he never finished reading it, hearing the story from a friend, he managed to both translate Kafka’s Imaginaurim to an installation format and to critically reflect the competition typical for artists and the art world dynamics. The installation gathers consists of a variety of objects and furniture including elements from previous Kippenberger’s exhibitions.

Orson Welles’ film The Trial from 1962 that is based on Kafka’s book The Process is the second element of the trilogy. The renowned actor/filmmaker wrote an impeccable script and created a black comedy-drama that is highly appreciated in the history of film for its scenic design and cinematography.

The character of the lead protagonist in the book Josef K, a bureaucrat accused of a never-specified crime, was performed by Anthony Perkins, the female characters were played by Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, and Elsa Martinelli, while the Advocate, Josef's lawyer was performed by Welles himself.

The third exhibition segment will be Franz Kafka The Castle (2013), and album by a legendary electronic act Tangerine Dream founded by Edgar Froese (1944-2015) in 1967. It will be presented in an evocative environment where visitors will be able to contemplate and to the music. The Castle is the story of K, who claims to be a Land Surveyor arriving in a village dominated by a mysterious fortress. The attempt to establish a dialog with his supposed employer at the castle and practice his profession quickly shatter into pieces.

The ten tracks album (eight of them composed by Edgar Froese, one by Thorsten Quaeschning, and one by both) goes along the four-page booklet with each title followed by a short description taken from Kafka's diary.

Tangerine Dream
Edgar Froese, Thorsten Quaeschning. Tangerine Dream, Phaedra Farewell Tour. O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 2014 © Eastgate Music&Arts, Berlin

K at Fondazione Prada

The upcoming exhibition will be accompanied by a book of the same title edited by the curator. It will include the texts and interviews by the three artists, excerpts from Kafka’s novels and diaries, and critical essays and by authors Paola Capriolo, Susanne Kippenberger, Massimo Cacciari, Michael Hofmann, Udo Kittelmann, Primo Levi, Thomas Martinec, and Ayad B. Rahmani.

K will be on display at Fondazione Prada in Milan from 21 February until 27 July 2020.

Featured images: Installation view of Martin Kippenberger’s The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1994 © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo Jannes Linders; Franz Kafka’s Business Card, 1912 © Archiv Klaus Wagenbach; Martin Kippenberger portrayed inside The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1994 © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo Jannes Linders. All images courtesy Fondazione Prada.

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