Brain Pickings

Every Page of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Illustrated by Self-Taught Artist Matt Kish

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Into the black hole of the human soul in acrylic and ink.

Two years after his infinitely wonderful illustrations for every page of Moby-Dick, which ranked among the best art and design books of 2011, self-taught Ohio-based artist Matt Kish returns with an equally exquisite edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (public library). With one haunting acrylic-paint-and-ink illustration for every page, Kish — whose artwork was included in the excellent compendium The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3 — reinvigorates the Conrad classic and its timeless themes of race, gender, power, privilege, and the dualities of the human soul.

In the introduction, Kish contrasts his two projects:

Every illustrator, no matter what the project, is confronted with choices. In considering how to approach Heart of Darkness, I had to make a lot of choices, and they were never simple. What struck me while illustrating Moby-Dick was just how vast Melville’s novel seemed. It’s an enormous book that, to paraphrase Whitman, contains multitudes. It contradicts itself in style and tone in gloriously messy ways and it’s strong enough to carry the visions of dozens of artists. . . . With Melville, there is room.

Conrad is something entirely different, particularly when it comes to Heart of Darkness. There is a terrifying feeling of claustrophobia and a crushing singularity of purpose to the story. It’s almost as if the deeper one reads, the further down a tunnel one is dragged, all other options and paths dwindling and disappearing, until nothing is left but that awful and brutal encounter with Kurtz and the numbing horror of his ideas. Where Moby-Dick roams far and wide across both land and sea, Heart of Darkness moves in one direction only, and that is downward.

While it never could have been an easy task to take a well-known piece of literature and breathe some different kind of life into it with pictures, the inexorable downward pull of this black hole of a story — this bullet to the head — made demands that I couldn’t have imagined.

And yet Kish met those demands head-on, with equal parts creative bravery and respect for Conrad’s sensibility, all the while drawing us into that black hole with irresistible magnetism.

Complement Kish’s Heart of Darkness with his Moby-Dick, then explore other graphic artists’ interpretations of literary classics.

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