Exhibition: Gauguin and Laval in Martinique
A review of the exhibition Gauguin and Laval in Martinique that was on display at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum.
I recently had one day to spend in Amsterdam. One day, as most art lovers in a new city know, is not enough to take in everything the city has to offer. After being overwhelmed by the options Amsterdam gave me—a Banksy exhibition or Stedelik's collection among these— I decided the opportunity to see the Sunflowers in real life was too good to miss. I took the tram to Museumplein and entered the Van Gogh Museum to find out one of the current exhibitions was on Gauguin and Laval.
This beautifully curated small exhibition felt like an experience of contradictions and differences.
The exhibition, titled Gauguin and Laval in Martinique, revolved around the trip the painters took to the Caribbean island Martinique to escape the Parisian way of living. This beautifully curated small exhibition felt like an experience of contradictions and differences; between the islanders and the painters, between Gauguin and Laval themselves, and between Van Gogh and the artists of Paris.
Illusion vs Reality
Given the prominence of Eurocentricism in art history, it comes as no surprise that the way Gauguin and Laval experienced Martinique was through a privileged lens. To them, this island was an exotic paradise, and the black women working under the blazing sun for low wages were simply picturesque subjects romanticized for their paintings.
The information was presented matter-of-factly at necessary points, without becoming the most crucial point the curators are trying to get across. The European male gaze depicting a picture of island life as one big holiday, and the harsh reality of living conditions in post-colonial Martinique are brought together through intentional curating, without distracting the visitor from the visual experience. The visitor is still able to appreciate the vivid, warm colours of a paradise island while being aware that it is a false representation of reality. A balance like this in an exhibition is hard to achieve and is a result of well-revised curatorial texts.
To them, this island was an exotic paradise, and the black women working under the blazing sun for low wages were simply picturesque subjects romanticized for their paintings.
A comparison of two painters
The exhibition allows another exciting comparison: that between two great painters, practicing the same subjects, at the same place, at the same time. The only variant is their approach. Although both artists painted the local inhabitants of this island with warm colours, Gauguin’s subject are more passive. Gauguin’s women figures are almost part of the scenery, placed there after much thought and careful study in his sketches. In comparison, Laval’s subjects have more movement, action, and character, and the painter’s approach is much more spontaneous. In his above painting Women by the Sea, one of the women even makes eye contact with the viewer. An exhibition focusing on a shared time and place shows the differences as well as the similarities between these painters.
What about Van Gogh?
Having Van Gogh’s contemporaries have a separate exhibition in a museum dedicated to him creates a valuable juxtaposition between Van Gogh’s life and the lives of his friends as well. The exhibition Gauguin and Laval in Martinique does not have Van Gogh in its focus. However, visiting the rest of the museum on the same day shows Van Gogh’s longing for traveling to warm climates and distant lands and his admiration for what Gauguin has.
Laval’s subjects have more movement, action, and character, and the painter’s approach is much more spontaneous.
This information is available in the permanent collection, in another temporary exhibition called Van Gogh Dreams, as well as Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. Looking at these exhibitions in light of each oter, one cannot help but come back to the concept of privilege, although this time it is not created by Eurocentricism. It is between contemporaries, Gauguin who has the means and the prestige in the art world to do as he pleases, and Van Gogh, who dreamt of distant lands and travels with artist friends but permanently lived a lonely life constraint by his mental illness.
Opinions on Curatorial Issues
The exhibition design is simple yet effectice. There are two main walls in the exhibition, one showcasing the paintings created during Gauguin and Laval’s time in the island, and the other showcasing the paintings done later under the influence of their time spent in Martinique. It is laid out in a simple manner that helps make sense of the information provided instinctively. In the middle of the room are the sketches by Gauguin. However, the Martinique furniture presented next to the sketches feels like an afterthought.
Gauguin had the means and the prestige in the art world to do as he pleases, and Van Gogh dreamt of distant lands and travels with artist friends but permanently lived a lonely life constraint by his mental illness.
The balance between texts and paintings is perhaps the strongest part of the curating. The Van Gogh Museum’s curators do not fall into the common mistake of explaining every single detail of the exhibition in the text, a mistake done by many big museums, including Montreal’s Musée des beaux-arts. The exhibition remains a mostly visual experience. There was also no timeline found on the walls. Those timelines usually turn people off by trying to make them put the story in a historical schema (I’m still talking to you, MBAM). An exhibition should be able to get across the story with a balance between the visuals and the texts. The exhibition Gauguin and Laval in Martinique achieves just that.
The exhibition is was an example of what successful curating can achieve. Instead of pushing the points it tries to make onto one, the curators succeeded at posing the right questions and directing the visitor to reach the insights on her own, leaving space for subjective reactions and reflections. It allows contemplations on the part of the visitor, therefore making the experience more engaging. All in all, I am glad I decided to spend my only day in pursuit of the Sunflowers.
PS- The exhibition was curated in collaboration with all of the museum’s curators and is a successful example of what collaborative curating can achieve. It ended on January 15, 2019. For more info, click here.