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In Reconfiguring Modernism, Daniel R. Schwarz pursues the argument he has made in numerous studies of fiction for the mimetic valences and autobiographical impulses behind even the most hermetic of modernism’s visual texts. His theory that modern artists are “present in their works” may seem counterintuitive, especially when applied to [End Page 438] Cezanne and Klee, who both verged on pure abstraction. It is in the modernist painter’s attention to form, color, and rhythm, however, that he expresses “self consciousness and self awareness.” As in his treatment of Joyce, Conrad, Woolf, and Lawrence, Schwarz finds evidence that modernism’s “genetic code” is inscribed by artists such as Picasso and Cezanne to the degree that the viewer senses a “struggle with their subject.” Cezanne’s multiperspectival landscapes and Picasso’s quixotic portraits document their anxious confrontation with the problem of consciousness in motion. The act of telling a story or constructing a painting becomes central to the artist’s composition of his or her identity and is among the major determinants of the cultural configuration of modernism. By aiming for influences and affinities between writers and artists, Schwarz writes from the perspective of what W. J. T. Mitchell has called “ekphrastic hope.” Schwarz’s critical posture allows him to project narrative speculations onto paintings such as Matisse’s Dance series, and to claim that Eliot learned compositional theories of resolution of disparate images and how to include multiple viewpoints as much from Cezanne’s landscapes as from the philosophy of F. H. Bradley. Writing in the mode of “ekphrastic hope,” no fundamental difference exists on a semantic level between varieties of representation. Not denying the unique features of visual and verbal arts, Schwarz finds similarities and a common language in ways that all too often have been ignored. Perhaps the main point of his book is that language bridges generic differences.
In his zeal for noticing influences and affinities that make up modernism’s “genetic code,” I did wonder if Schwarz allows readers sufficient room to express an “ekphrastic fear,” which is to say that he may not adequately concede the generic differences between the verbal and visual realms. Can we so easily “translate” the act of painting into the act of dancing, or playing a musical instrument, or writing a poem or a novel? Schwarz believes we can: “For modern painters the discovery of the possibilities of color is akin to the stress on adjectives in Modern literature; Gauguin is the Hopkins or Conrad of Modernism in his rediscovery of color as the means for differentiating things and emotions and as the source of energy in a painting.” Gauguin’s foregrounding of color and Conrad’s and Hopkins’s use of “color words” (adjectives) may serve analogous expressive functions, but the distinctions between the function of color in a painting by Gauguin or [End Page 439] Cezanne, and the use of adjectives in a novel by Conrad and a poem by Hopkins certainly demands equal critical attention. Similarly, by suggesting in “Searching for Modernism’s Genetic Code” that Picasso, Joyce, and Stevens were all responding and in part creating a modernist poetics through a focus on urbanity, fragmentation, parallax (the scientific theory of simultaneity), and a paradoxical emphasis on authorial presence and an openness to reader responsiveness, does not Schwarz disregard formal dimensions that he at other times wishes to emphasize in a period of anthropologically oriented criticism? Schwarz admits that Picasso wrote poetry and plays, and he offers a persuasive influence study in chapter 3 by arguing that Gauguin’s Tahitian journal Noa Noa may have inspired Conrad’s Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness. But if generic differences are of such limited importance in assessing the constitutive features of modernism’s “genetic code,” as Schwarz implies, then why do we primarily value Gauguin and Picasso as visual artists and disregard the lasting value of their poetry, plays, and journals?
Schwarz is at his best as a critic, teacher, and advocate for the value of modern painting when...