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MoMA

THE QUAY BROTHERS’ THE METAMORPHOSIS BY FRANZ KAFKA

January 4, 2013  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions, Film
The Quay Brothers’ The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Installation view of Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets. August 12, 2012–January 7, 2013. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph by Thomas Griesel

Installation view of Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets. August 12, 2012–January 7, 2013. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph by Thomas Griesel

When Stephen and Timothy Quay were students at the Philadelphia College of Art in the late 1960s, they visited an exhibition of Polish poster art and were introduced to the aesthetics and cultural history of Eastern Europe. Since then, the literature, music, and cinema of Mitteleuropa has informed their work, notably through an interest in figures such as Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, Leoš Janáček, and Franz Kafka.

The Quays originally conceived of adapting Kafka’s best known story to film in the mid-1970s, through a series of drawings currently on view in the Dunn galleries as part of the Quay Brothers retrospective. Last year, they were approached by the Cité de la musique in Paris and the Russian-born French pianist Mikhail Rudy to work on an adaption of The Metamorphosis—the result, which premiered in March 2012, was a synesthetic piece, in which the Quays’ combination of animation and live action and Rudy’s performance of music by Leoš Janáček, together, pay homage to Kafka’s story, while also creating an entirely new experience of the oft-told tale.

During the last weekend of the exhibition Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, the Department of Film is thrilled to welcome Mikhail Rudy and to host three screenings of the Quay Brothers’ latest film, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka at MoMA. Screening information can be found here.

On the occasion of the Cité de la musique première, Rudy penned insightful program notes describing the project—what follows are excerpts from those notes. Translations are my own:

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. France. 2012. Directed by the Quay Brothers. Image courtesy the artists

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. France. 2012. Directed by the Quay Brothers. Image courtesy the artists


In Prague, at the beginning of the 20th century, two luminaries, Franz Kafka and Leoš Janáček, each created a body of work that resembled no other. Quite curiously, the two never met, although they frequented the same establishments and ran in the same circles; the writer Max Brod was a mutual friend. Brod was a friend of Kafka’s and the executor of his will, whom he very thankfully disobeyed by saving his manuscripts from destruction. Brod was also close to Janáček, his first biographer and the translator of his program notes to German. Kafka and Janáček each lived in their own solitary world. Yet, despite their respective singularity, the inimitable essence of Mitteleuropa emanates from their work, imbibed with strange poetry, populated by erotic dreams and existential angst.
Installation view of Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets at The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. Photo by Sophie Cavoulacos

Installation view of Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets at The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. Photo by Sophie Cavoulacos


Born in 1947 in Philadelphia, the identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay had a priori no immediate link to this universe. But, early on, while still in art school, they became intensely taken with the culture of Central Europe, as if, in a past life, they had lived in the Bohemia of Rudolph II, with its alchemists and cabinets of curiosity. They have become legendary filmmakers, each of their film a cult film—such as Street of Crocodiles, after Bruno Schulz, regularly cited as one of the best animated films of all time. Music plays an essential role in the Quays’ process. They like to write scenarios starting from a musical composition, such as In Absentia, which takes Stockhausen’s Zwei Paare as its starting point, or I looked back when I reached halfway, which has its origin in Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, among others (they have used the music of Pärt, Janáček, Penderecki, Neuwirth, Kurtag…)

Thus, I thought of the Quays right away when the Cité de la musique expressed interest in my proposal of creating, for their Metamorphosis cycle, an “animated concert” around Kafka’s writing and through Janáček’s music—a composer dear to me. The Quay Brothers accepted the Cité’s commission with enthusiasm, especially seeing that Kafka is a truly central figure in their artistic universe, but one who paradoxically appears scantly in their work. We have known each other for a long time and share the idea that the interlacing of different art forms can shed new light on a work, imparting an innovative and enriching experience on the viewer. As they wrote in our correspondence on the project: “the images need to float independently from the music to allow one to better ‘see’ the music and ‘hear’ the moving image.”

Detail of the set created by the Quays for The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. This decor is currently on view in the Dunn galleries. Photo by Sophie Cavoulacos

Detail of the set created by the Quays for The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. This decor is currently on view in the Dunn galleries. Photo by Sophie Cavoulacos

In this project, we wanted to stay as faithful as possible to Kafka’s text, while creating a dialogue between the images and the music according to our poetic subjectivity: the metaphysical anxiety of Kafka meets Janáček’s Unutterable Anguish, or even his Barn Owl, which doesn’t fly away probably due to apples being pelted at him by Gregor Samsa’s father. The erotic desire (for Camilla?), omnipresent in Janáček’s music, joins that of Kafka (for Milena? For Felice?), and Gregor’s fervently despaired cry “Am I not a human being?” echoes like the final pages of Leonid Andreyev’s In the Fog.

The Quays’ poetic images—rays of sunlight, magnifying mirrors, the insect flapping its wings (just so!)—opens the door to a dreamlike world. Neither visual illustration, nor musical accompaniment, sound morphs itself into paintings and the poignant images make the notes resonate just a bit longer.

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