Martinique: In Gauguin's Footsteps

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In the Gauguin literature Martinique does not figure as evidently as does Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands or Brittany and yet, in a certain sense, Martinique was perhaps the most influential of all his experiences. It has been my privilege and opportunity to follow in Gauguin's footsteps in that Caribbean island and to have become familiar, to that degree still possible today, with some of the sights and sounds and, indeed, echoes of his experience just over one hundred years ago. While there are no footprints in the sands, there is much which still recalls his stay.

Paul Gauguin, and his painter companion Charles Laval, arrived on Martinique in mid-June 1887 just following their somewhat disastrous period in Panama. They stayed for about five months, arriving back in France in November the same year. According to different authorities he is said to have completed either ten, or twelve or twenty canvasses during his stay. Dating and accreditation are difficult because not a few canvasses by the hand of his friend Laval have had Gauguin's signature added to them in subsequent years. During his stay in Martinique Gauguin wrote to his wife Mette three times and twice to his friend Emile Schuffennecker. Initially, all went well. Gauguin was delighted with the 'negro hut' he had acquired and was totally captivated by the life of the 'negroes and negresses. . . milling around all day singing their Creole songs and (their) perpetual chatter'. Nature, the climate, the 'sea fringed with cocoa trees. . . (and) all sorts of fruit trees', their site only five minutes from the town (St. Pierre) were all truly idyllic. The fact that he had contracted dysentery and marsh fever soon became evident however. Laval succumbed too and, in a fit of depression, attempted suicide. Indeed, the romantic hut leaked in the torrential rain storms and, when the sun blazed down, the island steamed and the humidity rose. The total absence of drains resulted in mounds of refuse decaying in the sun. Malaria and yellow fever were endemic. In spite of illness and privation, however, the charm of Martinique, and particularly of its inhabitants, had seized Gauguin and their influence was never to leave him. It was to give birth to much of his most admired work, including some of the later masterpieces of Tahiti and the Marquesas.

There are perhaps two key paintings from Martinique which can set the scene for a review of his work there and which link directly with the visible experience today: Vegetation Tropicale (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) and Bord de Mer I (La Plage de l'Anse Turin, Carbet; Carlsberg Museum, Copenhagen). To reach these scenes, however, let us retrace his footsteps. He arrived in St. Pierre, the capital, some 4 miles to the north of La Carbet where he settled. At this time St. Pierre was a thriving town and was known as the 'Paris of the West Indies'. A visit to the Frank Perret Museum of vulcanography today tells all you need to know of the disastrous 1909 eruption of Mr. Pelee which destroyed the town in the space of three minutes as a result of the 300 mile an hour wind carrying ashes raised to hundreds of degrees centigrade. All but one of the town's 30,000 inhabitants were killed, the sole survivor being a prisoner in the town dungeon. All the La Carbet homes were also destroyed. But, in 1878 it was indeed a cultivated place and Gauguin's address there was c/o M. Victor Dominique, 30 rue Victor Hugo. Today the street remains a narrow, distressed thoroughfare with deep storm drains either side of the road, crammed with unsuitable heavy traffic. The road south leads you to La Carbet and here you can retrace Gauguin's footsteps. One significant change in the route, and the landscape, is the tunnel just north of the beach which has been driven through the cliffs bordering the coast at this point. This apart, you pass through the semi-tropical landscape of Martinique, rich in exotic flowers and immense trees, bamboos and ferns, skirting the Caribbean dotted with red and blue fishing boats, the road itself perched just above the grey, volcanic strands beneath the shadow of Mr. …