The fiction of Franz Kafka, a German-language novelist, is unavoidably ambiguous. Nameless castles, haunting phantasms, guilt, and the ever watchful eye of ubiquitous authority collide in works that rarely provide the reader with anything conclusive; some never even conclude. “A reader’s capacity to dispose of and synthesize contradictions is a valuable skill in reading Kafka, as there is in fact no unequivocal understanding,” writes Swiss visual artist Pavel Schmidt in an email interview. On September 13, the Sert Gallery of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts will open its doors to reveal the exhibition “Pavel Schmidt: Franz Kafka—Verschrieben & Verzeichnet,” a series of 49 sketches by Pavel Schmidt that investigate the problematic relation between Kafka’s texts and reality. The exhibition embraces Kafka in all his frustrating duality, arguing that the human mind, not just the human Kafka, distorts reality in unexpected ways.
Each of the sketches is identically laid out: a gold frame bears the neatly printed name of a character from Kafka’s life or work at the top and a brief excerpt from Kafka’s journals, letters, or stories at the bottom. Resting inbetween is a large, abstract sketch—which incorporates a wide range of different materials, including oil paints, ink, and resin—somehow related to the text and the character. The resulting textural variation contributes to the complexity of the representations, but it’s apparent that Schmidt wants the effect to be primarily visceral. “There will be no placards reading ‘oil on canvas’ in this exhibition,” says Carpenter Center exhibitions manager Edward J. Lloyd.
In other hands, such a straightforward pairing between text and image could have disintegrated into a veritable Kafka for kids, with the visual component clearly demonstrating the character and the text. Instead, Pavel Schmidt eschews the demonstrative for a relation between text and image that can only be described as Kafkaesque. A shifting and often ambiguous relationship, it forces the viewer to accept contradiction and uncertainty as an inevitable component of understanding.
The German title “Verschrieben & Verzeichnet” reveals the conceptual framework of these sketches upon close consideration. “‘Verzeichnen’ [the verb behind ‘verzeichnet’] means to record a thing, to write it down, to list it, to register it, but the prefix ‘ver-’ in German always has a distorting or perverting quality to it,” says Harvard Professor of Comparative Literature John Hamilton. “Therefore, ‘verzeichnen’ can mean ‘to misrepresent’ as well.” Hamilton, who played a large part in getting Schmidt’s exhibition to Harvard, describes the exhibit as a collision between these two contradictory elements of human representative faculties. On the one hand, Schmidt’s sketches are in some way expected to explicate the text that accompanies them, but on the other, they come between the viewer and the text, in essence imposing a particular interpretation on something inherently ambiguous. “Schmidt is about collision, about putting word and image in close contact, so that the two fight with each other,” Hamilton says.
Like the direct pairing between word and image, the sketches themselves gesture toward convention and tantalize perceptual expectations but refuse to embrace anything solid and certain. Each sketch bears a superficial resemblance to traditional portraiture, with a shoulder-like foundation grounding each figure, and eventually narrowing up to what might be identified as a head-like appendage. However, the shaky and exuberant forms that lie inbetween often resemble pieces of coral more than the human face, so each ‘portrait’ of a character exists in an unsettling limbo between human, animal, vegetable, and mineral. Just as Kafka revealed the cracks and chasms in the ostensibly stable character of Gregor Samsa by transforming him into a giant insect in his short story “The Metamorphosis,” Schmidt communicates a deep and visceral understanding of his subjects by representing them as distinct species of fantastic organisms comprehensible only within an entirely new taxonomy. For instance, Kafka’s father, Hermann Kafka, is represented as an imposing tower of thick red concentric arcs, a moody shape that seems to disapprove of the viewer even without facial features.
Though a tour through the exhibition might feel like flipping through the Audubon guide to Mars, the Carpenter Center faculty has made sure that no viewer enters the exhibition without some entry point into the confounding material. On September 29, a panel consisting of Kafka scholars and Pavel Schmidt himself will discuss the exhibition and how it relates to the questions raised by Kafka’s oeuvre. “I thought it would be nice to stage a collision,” says Hamilton, “to have scholarship collide with art.” In addition, a program of biographical details about each individual or character will accompany the exhibition, so no one requires an exhaustive knowledge of Kafka’s life and work to enter. Regardless of one’s familiarity, Schmidt’s exhibit continues to confound—but, he might argue, such is life.