Colonialism & Realism in Art (Gauguin & Laval in Martinique)

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[Image: Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903), The Mango Trees, Martinique (1887), oil on canvas, 86 cm x 116 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

A current exhibition explores art made by Gauguin in Martinique, pairing him with a lesser known Post-Impressionist painter who worked beside him there (Gauguin & Laval in Martinique, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 5 October 2018-13 January 2019). This review is taken from the exhibition catalogue. That catalogue announces the forthcoming publication of a volume dedicated to scientific and historical analysis on the same subject, which should – considering the quality of the contributors and standards of the Van Gogh Museum – be a landmark in Post-Impressionist studies.

The art of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is too well-known to need introduction; the art of Charles Laval (1861-1894) is hardly known at all. Laval was a young painter (Parisian by birth) who came into the orbit of the older Gauguin in July 1886, while they were in Brittany. Both had lived in Paris and exhibited at the annual Salon. Gauguin had the cachet of exhibiting in the final Impressionist exhibition (1886) following the tutelage of Pissarro and the patronage of Degas, though that had not translated into sales.

Gauguin and Laval decided to travel to Panama, planning to paint on the small island of Taboga. Gauguin’s brother-in-law could provide him with a job to finance living and material costs. At the time the French were building the Panama Canal (a project later taken over and completed by the Americans), so there was work available on the project. Gauguin summoned his wife from Denmark to collect their son before his departure. The couple had not seen each other in 22 months and spent only hours together before Gauguin left. (The more one learns about Gauguin the man, the more one dislikes him, regardless of how highly one rates his art.)

In search of noble savages and exotic locales, Gauguin and Laval embarked for Panama on 10 April 1887. On the way to Panama, the pair’s ship put in at Fort-de-France, Martinique. They arrived in Panama on 30 April. They were soon disappointed by Taboga (too touristic) and Panama City lived up to its notorious reputation for unpleasantness: hot, humid, impoverished, isolated and plagued by mosquito-borne diseases. Gauguin’s in-law had no work for him. A position in the canal-construction project that Gauguin secured independently lasted only days before political events led to mass lay-offs, causing Gauguin losing his job. Disillusioned, the pair decided to try Martinique, where they arrived on 11 June.

Martinique was in all respects more suitable for the artists. It was a healthier location with picturesque views, an efficient French colonial administration, relatively direct communication with Paris and some colonists with disposable income which could be spent on art. They found a shack in the hills near the port of Saint-Pierre. A very useful map shows the precise locations the artists painted. All are on tracks within a 3-km walk from their hut.

The exhibition gathers paintings by the two artists, as well as sketchbook pages, plus a selection of associated letters and later art. Relevant pieces not exhibited are illustrated in the catalogue. Doubtless the forthcoming scholarly volume will include the text of letters by the artists (seven extant by Gauguin, two by Laval), as well as more data about the places they visited and their interactions with the Martinican population. Gauguin produced 17 oil paintings in Martinique. Notable features of Gauguin’s Martinican landscapes are the warmth of his greens and light dabbing brushwork. These elements assist in creating an impression of tropical heat and profuse foliage. At this stage much of the artist’s approach can be considered Impressionist in character. Gauguin’s best works must be his still-lifes and landscapes with few small figures, those paintings where the artist’s ego has little scope to suffocate his considerable sensitivity and skill. His paintings of exotic fruits are richly coloured, with highlights deftly represented. Authors have taken time to identify the fruits, using information about the local produce and indigenous flora.

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[Image: Paul Gauguin, Head of a Woman from Martinique (1887), coloured chalk on paper, 36 × 27 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

Gauguin had a keen eye for the local women, whom he drew and wrote about. His pastel and watercolour sketches document faces and costumes. (There are almost no nudes.) To be fair to Gauguin, he did seem keen to record the ordinary lives and typical scenes of local people, albeit ones that conformed to his idea of picturesque. A number of Gauguin’s later carvings, ceramics and zincographs (lithographs on zinc plates) were inspired by memories of Martinique and these are included in the exhibition. There is a still-life with flowers in a vase and a statuette made by Gauguin himself. This works as a pseudo-landscape, with the flowers as a tree and the statuette as a seated porteuse (female native fruit carrier). It is wonderfully restrained in colouration and delicate in execution. The Martinique period is Gauguin’s painting at its best – carefully made, chromatically rich, well observed.

Laval’s landscapes are very similar in handling, coloration and tone to Gauguin’s. They have less intensity and confidence than the older artist’s. There are two landscapes in oil and one scene of people bathing in the sea. It seems much of Laval’s art made in Martinique has been lost or has gone unrecognised. The catalogue authors note, “Laval’s oeuvre is small and very poorly catalogued. New works crop up from time to time, shedding fresh light on his artistic production.” It is hard to assess Laval capabilities based on such a restricted sample. On the evidence of the art in this catalogue, Laval seems on par with Émile Bernard and Louis Anquetin – second-rank artists capable of producing attractive and memorable art but who made few powerful pictures. Bernard may get more credit of late as an innovator but he managed to turn relatively little of his original ideas into synthesised art works that satisfy.

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[Image: Charles Laval (1861 – 1894), Self-Portrait (1888), oil on canvas, 50.7 cm x 60.4 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

The stay proved difficult for the two painters. Laval became sick; Gauguin contracted dysentery and caught malaria (the latter probably caught in Panama). Gauguin wrote letters requesting money so he could return to France. As soon as it arrived he left, leaving Laval behind. There is a case to be made that Laval was abandoned. Gauguin’s heroic self-interest necessitated the ditching of friends, colleagues, lovers and family members on a regular basis. It seems Laval’s adulation of Gauguin was untarnished, as he was wrote an admiring letter to him soon after Gauguin returned to France. Landscape on Martinique (1887-8), painted by Laval after Gauguin left, shows a degree of abstraction and greater ambition than his other paintings. The swirling brushwork of the clouds recalls the style Van Gogh would start to use in 1888. That year Laval, Gauguin and Bernard worked together in Pont Aven and all three sent to Van Gogh their self-portraits with dedications. Gauguin and Laval fell out when the jealous (and married) Gauguin resented Laval’s engagement to Bernard’s sister. Laval died of tuberculosis in 1894, aged 33.

The exhibition and catalogue open a window on to a fascinating episode in Post-Impressionist painting.

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There is, regrettably, a misstep in the catalogue. It is a political one. Curator Dr Maite van Dijk writes: “The western image of the colonial world was remarkably unsubtle and superficial, creating a highly, subjective and misleading image.” One might equally write, “The post-colonial-studies image of the colonial world is remarkably unsubtle and superficial, creating a highly, subjective and misleading image.” Her extended passages on colonial attitudes are poorly judged – full of dismissive attitudes, application of retrospective moralising and omission of context.

There are numerous instances of Western travellers and administrators visiting colonies and engaging sympathetically and in an open-minded fashion with the local population, being critical of authorities and advocating for decolonisation. Many of these narratives have been subsequently published. The fact that the preponderant narratives that appeared in print at the time were largely favourable towards colonialism and overseas colonial-owned agricultural industry was in part due to the sponsors (and publishers) of those writers/artists being colonial authorities or agricultural companies. Often writers had vested personal interests in presenting the colonies in a good light. Missionaries had a theological imperative to present the Christianisation of the non-West as a virtuous mission, and so forth. There were many reasons of justifiable self-interest to present the colonial project as mainly favourable. Whether or not pro-colonialist viewpoints expressed publicly were sincerely and constantly held is another matter.

One finds similarly idyllic narratives regarding remote rural communities in colonial home countries. Consider all those bucolic paintings of buxom milkmaids, rosy-cheeked country children and sturdy fishermen, which were exhibited in salons and reproduced as lithographs in mass-circulation journals. Consider the Breton paintings of Gauguin and Laval and the Arlesian paintings of Van Gogh, both groups where the picturesque costumes, physiognomies and landscapes of remote rural regions were treated like those of the colonies. A dissenting attitude was inaugurated with Courbet’s Stone Breakers in 1849. The subsequent trends of Social Realism and Naturalism grew slowly and only became prominent strands in fine art in the 1870s. Even then, Social Realism, Naturalism and (later) Cosmopolitan Realism frequently had a maudlin, sentimental and essentially paternalistic attitude towards the rural poor of the painters’ homelands – exactly mirroring what one sees in art depicting the colonies.

Consider Van Gogh’s use of working-class types in his art. Although he frequently expressed his genuine heartfelt concern for the miners, labourers, weavers and prostitutes he lived beside, he almost never adapted his opinions or art after consulting his subjects. In his many letters he names hardly any of his numerous models and does not discuss their characters. He treats them as types, categorised by region or employment. He shared the working people’s suffering at times but was never accepted as one of them. Numerous statements attest to the fact Van Gogh was considered by locals to be the painter son of a middle-class Dutch pastor, who used workers as pictorial subjects. In other words, if we adopt a Marxist/post-colonial viewpoint we must consider Van Gogh hardly more than a class colonist or deprivation tourist. Yet this view is ultimately demeaning and devalues the insight and empathy elicited by Van Gogh’s art – and all successful art. If van Dijk’s assessment of colonialist patronisation and exploitation (dare one say “cultural appropriation”?) of the colonised natives holds true then practically every painter who has ever attempted to portray groups outside of his or her demographic origin is guilty of similar insensitivity – including Van Gogh.

In short, this line of reasoning is unhelpful, divisive and destructive. It is essentially a moralistic stance which simplifies the complexity of a historical situation (or – more accurately – multiple historical situations over many places and periods) in order to gratify the moraliser. Relations between colonisers and colonised were complex, interdependent, shifting and personal. Making gross generalisations about Nineteenth Century colonial visitors, administrators and journalists is as dismissively ignorant as the purported ignorance within those colonialist societies.

Dr Maite van Dijk is an esteemed scholar of Van Gogh and his era, whose work has earned her justified respect. In her text about the art of colonialism she has seriously erred. Curators and art historians should be wary of uncritically adopting tenets of feminist and post-colonialist studies. These fields are essentially political in content and purpose. It is right and valuable to selectively study and discuss art issues related to gender and colonialism – but not to take any of those ideas directly from fields which are specifically orientated to push express political agendas. Unless they are willing to assess evidential bases for claims regarding social issues considered indicative of injustice or power relationships (as opposed to taking on trust the interpretations of social activists holding academic positions), art historians might be best advised to largely avoid those approaches.

 

 

Maite van Dijk & Joost van der Hoeven, Gauguin & Laval in Martinique, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2018, paperback, 176pp, fully illus., €24.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 769 9 (hardback, Dutch and French versions available)

21 October 2018

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

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