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OBJECT OF THE MONTH


Portrait of the Writer and Critic Max Brod

Willy Nowak, 1911
Acquired in 2003
Visual Arts Collection





This year marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of the most famous Prague native ever, the Jewish German writer Franz Kafka (1883–1924). As is well known, Kafka’s work survived only thanks to the care given it by one of his closest friends and fellow writer Max Brod (1884–1968), who was also a critic and journalist. Immediately upon Kafka’s death, Brod became literary executor of his estate and by the end of the 1920s had managed to publish all of Kafka’s principal manuscripts.

Given their close friendship, Brod is often mentioned in Kafka’s diaries. The entry for December 23, 1911, describes a visit to Brod’s as Willy Nowak was in the process of displaying the lithographic portraits he had recently made of Brod. Nowak first did a painted sketch (oil on cardboard, JMP …) before producing the lithographic portraits. Kafka had a rather low opinion of the work Nowak was showing: “Finally I became accustomed to the individual lithographs … found a chin round, a face compressed, a chest armorlike, or rather he looked as though he were wearing a giant dress shirt under his street clothes.” Kafka also remarked on Nowak’s expounding his method of making a portrait, and he mentions what Brod himself thought of his likeness: “[Nowak] asserted that it is the felt and even conscious task of the artist to assimilate his subject to his own art form. To achieve this he had first prepared a portrait sketch in color, which also lay before us and which in dark colors showed a really too sharp, dry likeness … and was declared by Max to be the best portrait, as, aside from its likeness about the eyes and mouth, it showed nobly composed features brought out in the right degree by the dark colors. … [T]he artist indicated only hastily, but with pride, that everything on these sheets had significance and that even the accidental was necessary because its effect influenced everything that followed. Thus, alongside one head a narrow, pale coffee stain extended almost the entire length of the picture, it was part of the whole, so intended, and not to be removed without damage to all the proportions” (The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910–1913, ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), pp. 186-187).

JMP 177.989
Lithograph on paper, 37.5 x 29.5 cm
Signed LR: Willy Nowak, explicitly undated (the name Max Brod appears under the signature)




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