Edging Toward Japan: What Lafcadio Hearn and Paul Gauguin sought on Martinique

In this column for The Mainichi, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

I was looking recently at some of the paintings that the French artist Gauguin created while he was on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1887 and thinking about what they tell us. It’s fascinating that Lafcadio Hearn — who came to Japan in 1890 and later changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo — visited the island at exactly the same time as Gauguin, though they do not appear to have met.

Both attempted to “sketch from life” (shasei) what they saw on Martinique, one with words, the other with pictures. And yet for both of them, Martinique represented a relatively brief period of transition, a conduit to a far greater journey west — to Tahiti in the case of Gauguin, to Japan in the case of Hearn — where they would create the works where their artistic powers found fullest expression.

“The Mango Pickers” by Paul Gauguin (1887)

The paintings by Gauguin of Martinique are interesting, but not perhaps in the same league as what he would later create on Tahiti. Why do his Tahitian paintings have so much more power? For me, it is because he had gained a deeper insight into the nature of art itself.

Both Hearn and Gauguin were in flight from Western civilization and the certainties of the Imperial Age. They both sought out seemingly simpler societies, where they could discover something elemental about human civilization. They thought if they came to places like Martinique and faithfully sketched the lifestyles they saw there, they could create alluring art.

But there was something missing …You can’t really feel the distinctive presence of Gauguin in these Martinique paintings or get to the heart of the islanders themselves.

Understanding that art was not a means of just faithfully depicting the world but a vehicle for expressing your own unique self was an understanding that seems to have come gradually to Gauguin, as it did to Hearn and many others. The year after leaving Martinique, Gauguin wrote in a letter, “Don’t copy nature too literally. Art is an abstraction.”

“Seashore, Martinique Island” by Paul Gauguin (1887)

When you see Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, there is an intensity and spiritual symbolism about them, an expression of inner longing, lacking in the Martinique pieces.

The same was true for Hearn — an almost exact contemporary of Gauguin, who died at the same age (54) a year after him. When Hearn wrote about Creole culture, he was writing about things of interest to any traveller to the Caribbean. But when he later delved into Japanese ghost stories and blended them with the hauntings of his childish imagination in Ireland, he broke through the parochial and touched fingers with the transcendent and universal.

Profile:

Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master’s and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of “Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature” (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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