Paul Gauguin and Charles Laval met in Brittany in 1886. They were searching for new motifs, unspoiled people and landscapes. Once back in Paris, their shared dream of working in some exotic place, finding new inspirations and living cheaply, turned from fiction to fact.
They were likely influenced by stereotypes and wrong notions about colonial life in exotic places. With drawing and painting materials, they boarded a ship for South America. Panama was a great disappointment.
During the voyage, their ship had visited Martinique. It was known as a “Tropical Eden” or the “jewel of the French colonies”. So Gauguin and Laval returned to Martinique and its capital, known as the “Paris of the Antilles”. They settled in a hut on a plantation, a few kilometers from Saint-Pierre.
Here they created the sketches, pastels, water-colours, paintings exhibited in the Van Gogh Museum’s exhibition Gauguin and Laval in Martinique. This is the first time an exhibition is dedicated to the importance of Martinique for both artists.
Moreover, this exhibition will not travel: much of the works displayed are too fragile. Much of these works are owned by the museum. However, the exhibition also contains loans from private collections. All this makes it a unique chance to enjoy the displayed art.
On entering this exhibition, visitors are treated to a display of black and white photos. Here is a Saint-Pierre which no longer exists. Of course the sailing vessels and steamers have been replaced by modern ships. But the eruption of 1902 obliterated the Saint-Pierre Laval and Gauguin knew.
The photos introduce the landscape and porteuses, whom Laval and Gauguin sketched and painted. The catalogue points out, both painters focused on the exotic landscape and “noble savages”; never poverty or hardship. The harsh life of workers on plantations: no sign of it.
The many young women the artists sketched and painted? These earned a pittance carrying loads to and from market all day long. They needed help putting loads off or on their heads, so could not take a break while walking. If they reached thirty, they would be physically worn out.
No hardship; but colourful and exotic landscapes. The first few showing hints of Seurat and other Impressionists. The later ones, showing both artists finding their own styles.
There are still lives of tropical fruits and flowers. There are sketches and studies, some of which of figures which are part of later paintings. Take a sketch of a “Resting Woman”, who can be seen in Gauguin’s painting “Martinican Meadow”; or “Drinking Kitten” which is part of “Tropical Conversation”.
The idyllic situation did not last. Letters in this exhibition reveal, Gauguin fell ill and the friends soon ran out of money. Their relatives paid the return journey. Yet the art influenced by Gauguin and Laval’s stay on Martinique started to sell. Among the first buyers and admirers? None other, than Theo and Vincent van Gogh. Kate Den 6th November 2018
GAUGUIN AND LAVAL IN MARTINIQUE continues at the Van Gogh Museum until 13th January
Photos courtesy Van Gogh Museum