The Conradian: Reviews
Kandinsky Composition VI Detail

By Rolf Charlston, Philadelphia

Pamela King, “Like painting, like music...”: Joseph Conrad and the Modernist Sensibility. Nathan, Queensland: Coop Bookshop, 1996.. xii+116 pp.

The intention of this slim work is to recognize Conrad’s Modernist sensibility in the context of the arts. Conrad asserts in the “Preface” to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” that fiction is “like painting, like music,” and King’s thesis is that Conrad was aware of emerging artistic currents; that correspondences exist between these artistic issues and his biography; and that these correspondences define him as a writer. Her intention is worthy, but the substance is largely derivative.

With 87 references in the endnotes for the sixteen pages of the first chapter, King establishes in typical graduate-student fashion the derivative nature of her work with a survey of the critical literature about Conrad and the Modernist sensibility.

This reads like a Master’s thesis – which it is – or, as the author acknowledges, her thesis at Griffith University in Australia became the “catalyst” for this volume. The review covers biography, culture, art, music, film, the aesthetic movement of art for art’s sake, and some of Conrad’s writing like A Personal Record and the “Preface” to The Nigger.

While references from Rodin to Zdzislaw Najder abound in Chapter 2, “Conrad’s Early Cultural Formation,” some fresh ideas do emerge in King’s reading of The Arrow of Gold (1919). Oddly, she extensively (for her) discusses this late work in this chapter. But she does so perceptively, showing how Conrad fuses classical, romantic, and realistic impulses with references to the visual arts in his continuing attempt to discover a “New Form” of the novel. Allégre’s evocation of the Byzantine Empress Theodosia, Cabanel’s organic painting of Venus, and the representation of Rita as “a padded sculptural realistic dummy” contribute to the complex characterization of Rita.

The heart of “Like painting, like music...” is the analysis of three major works: “Heart of Darkness,” Nostromo, and The Secret Agent, with a chapter devoted to each. After two chapters of biographical, historical, and critical background, one expects finally to plunge into a close reading of the art in a Conrad text, especially in the chapter entitled “Heart of Darkness.”

But like the “delayed decoding” Ian Watt writes of and to which King refers, the discussion of this novella is again delayed. She begins, instead, by returning to her background topic in Chapter 1, namely, Conrad’s affinity with the Modernist movements of Impression and symbolism.

It is almost as if this chapter on “Heart of Darkness” had previously been a discrete paper. King repeats fundamental observations on “Heart of Darkness” – observations regularly made in undergraduate classes – but does so under the rubrics of art: light and dark imagery; a sculptural Buddha; painterly and sculptural references to ivory, bones, and skulls; images of African works of art; the two contrasting paintings like icons of women, the one apparently by Kurtz, the other of Queen Victoria. King’s achievement is to organize these observations into artistic categories.

In dealing with Nostromo, King introduces aspects of the Modernist sensibility appropriate to the writing of the novel, particularly the concept of time and the emergence of cinema. Acknowledging other critics, she states that Conrad frequently appears to reflect awareness of many Bergsonian ideas, like “homogeneous time” (54), durée, and a Fourth Dimension.

Drawing on the distinction between “blurred” and “hard” reality in Conrad’s narrative experiments, as related by Frederick R. Karl, King explicates Conrad’s “literary impressionism” (58). An application in Nostromo is that solidly defined visual art objects, like architectural and sculptural elements and lithographs and watercolours, contrast with the movement in time, both backwards and forwards, of the characters’ words. The blurred movement is like an Impressionist painting.

When she goes beyond Karl and other critics, she is at her forte, focusing upon “impressionist traits” in order to trace “correspondences between modernist art and Conrad’s literary modernism” (58). She looks at the art objects in Nostromo – the statue of Charles IV, statues of the Madonna, Emilia’s watercolours, Parochetti’s sculpture, and the cathedral altarpiece – and recognizes the “active patterning” in the sequence of these images, “a dynamic impression of movement” (53) and the “cinematic orchestration of its central images” (56). These images in the context of reality’s Fourth Dimension, King concludes, seem “quintessentially modernist” (67).

Prompted by other critics, King considers music in The Secret Agent, especially the two pianos, and Bergson’s Fourth Dimension of time. When she views the art and writing of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), however, she establishes some striking resemblances with Conrad and does so independently. She suggests no direct influence between the artist and the novelist, as Kandinsky’s texts are Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911-12) and Point and Line to Plane (1926).

King does assert that Bergson, Conrad, and Kandinsky “overlap” in their emphasis on simultaneity and Fourth-Dimensional space (74). “In Summer” (1904) and “Composition IV” (1911) illustrate the aesthetic resonances between Kandinsky’s art and The Secret Agent. Portrayed realistically in In Summer, a woman and little girl with a hoop divide the picture plane diagonally and vertically and suggest to King a walking movement frozen in time. In the abstract “Composition IV,” linear motifs combine with geometric areas of colour and form and suggest life and energy captured in perpetuity.

King’s drawings throughout the book, that reproduce the art of others, are, at best, charming. Here, however, she superimposes lines upon her interpretations of these two Kandinsky works. The geometrical lines on In Summer indicate the implied abstract forces of energy and movement; the lines on “Composition IV” emphasize Kandinsky's abstractions. In these cases the drawings contribute to King’s position.

While Kandinsky’s art becomes wholly abstract, in The Secret Agent Conrad combines the literal and the abstract. While Conrad contrasts circular and triangular motifs, the first associated with Stevie and the second with Verloc, King points out that Kandinsky identifies these forms as “the primary pair of planes,” and she suggests that the two artists shared the same basic, visual logic. She maintains that the geometrical and musical images or motifs in The Secret Agent and in Kandinsky’s mature, abstract paintings “typify the highly analytical interdisciplinary … impulse informing the modernist sensibility” (81).

King concludes with a two-page chronological table of events in Conrad’s life and times including, for example, the publication in 1867 of Das Kapital and the outbreak of the First World War. This table returns the volume to a basic level.

The provocative discussion of Conrad and Kandinsky, on the one hand, and the simple chronological table, on the other, demonstrates this work's inconsistency. Much of the volume is derivative or obvious. Attempting to cover too much in a limited space, King becomes a skimmer of a sea of material. Her strength, however, is her analysis of Nostromo and, especially, The Secret Agent where she reveals her experience as an art critic for ten years and writes with independent self-confidence.

© 2005 Rolf Charlston






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