Modernism Post: Kurtz’s Painting From Heart of Darkness

I could talk about the themes of Heart Of Darkness, how once we strip away everything that makes people different, all human beings have the same preverbal “heart of darkness” within them that can cause great suffering. I could analyze the title, with “darkness” referencing the idea that Africa was seen as the “dark continent” with Marlow venturing into the heart of it to find Kurtz. But one, that all sounds rather depressing and two I don’t want to. So instead I am going to talk about a rather inconsequential few lines from part 1 that reminded me of a few things I have seen before. Per the title, it is Kurtz’s painting.

Marlow discovers Kurtz’s painting when he is speaking to the station’s brick maker. The moment is on page 90 of our Norton Anthology at the end of the paragraph beginning with “I had no idea. . .”:

“Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.”

Throughout artwork, the personification of “justice” is usually seen as a blindfolded woman carrying scales, as seen here:

However, in Kurtz’s painting, the woman isn’t carrying scales, but instead a torch, surrounded by a black background. I think that the character of Kurtz (and therefore our writer Joseph Conrad) is using the classical image of Lady Justice to represent the West, bringing the light of civilization, represented by the torch, to the dark continent of Africa, where she will enlighten the savages of the continent. As we see later, this is all a mirage, with the West being as savage as the natives are supposed to be. This is foreshadowed in the last line of the passage. Their shared trait, the blindfold is also different. The blindfold on Lady Justice is supposed to represent the adage of “justice is blind” in that justice is impartial, but here it takes on a different role. It represents the Europeans own blindness to the fallacy of bring the “light” to Africa.

Kurtz’s painting reminded me of a few other painting I have seen. The first two I have empirical evidence of existing, the last one apparently only exists in my head cause I cannot find it and don’t remember what it was called.

The first piece I immediately thought of when I read about Kurtz’s painting was a painting called American Progress by John Ghast, representing America’s goal of manifest destiny:

Here we see similar themes with the woman (though this time it is Lady Liberty), the light of civilization on the right hand side with ships in the river, railroads, carriages, and telegraph wires, and the darkness of the uncivilized with the Native Americans and Buffaloes. This light and dark is represented physically in the painting between the two different sides of the painting.

The second piece that reminded me of Kurtz’s painting is a ceiling piece commissioned by the East India Company for a room in the East India House in London called The East Offering its Riches to Britannia by Spiridione Roma:

Here again we see similar themes. The woman figure, here representing Britannia, is placed above the ones offering her riches, the women with the bowl being India and the man courting being China. The West has an almost divine like appearance in this painting, again representing their “light of civilization” and the “darkness” of the east represented by placing them below Britannia and offering her riches.

The last painting, like I said before, I have no picture of, but I will try and describe it in the hopes somebody will know what I am talking about. It pictured European ships coming into a river port of what I remember being Africa. There was a stark contrast with the civilized people and ships of Europe and the uncivilized representation of the African town. I may be misremembering it and maybe it doesn’t even exist and is instead something from a fever dream. But if it does exist it is just another example of artwork representing this idea of the West bringing civilization to the “savages” of the world.

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