The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
In 1891, Paul Gauguin, propelled by the sexual and artistic frustration that plagued his life in France, set off for Tahiti, writing to a friend that he wanted to cultivate in himself “a state of primitiveness and savagery.” Gauguin’s relocation was inspired by Pierre Loti’s erotic novel The Marriage of Loti and Louis de Bougainville’s travel log, A Voyage Round the World, both of which portrayed Tahiti as an uncorrupted paradise of free love and topless women. Gauguin’s paintings of nude Tahitian women lounging or bathing languidly—for instance, Nevermore, or Tahitian Women Bathing—are now among his most famous.
Gauguin is one of six artists featured in Jamie James’s new group biography-essay-memoir-history book, The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic. The other five artists, like Gauguin, fled their dull or stultifying home countries in search of new, more “exotic” homes, whose very strangeness would allow them to reach new creative frontiers. In addition to Gauguin, there’s Raden Saleh, a Javanese painter who reinvented himself as a Javanese prince among the fashionable circles of Europe; Walter Spies, a Russian-born German painter-musician-writer-filmmaker-amateur naturalist who found a new home in Bali, forever influencing its tourism industry; Victor Segalen, a French naval doctor and writer who lived in Peking; Isabelle Eberhardt, a cross-dressing Russian-Swiss writer who wandered throughout North Africa, smoking kief and drinking heavily; and Maya Deren, an American filmmaker who chased voodoo culture to Haiti.
James’s use of the word “exotic” is what drew me to this book. In the field of postcolonialism, the word has been tainted by connotations of colonial paternalism, misogyny, and Orientalism. Gauguin himself has become a controversial figure for the way in which he represents “fantasies of imaginary knowledge, power, and rape,” as Abigail Solomon-Godeau wrote in her 1989 essay “Going Native.” I wanted to see whether or not James addressed these critiques, what he meant by “exotic,” and why he believed that these artists—all of whom lived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—belonged to its “last age.”
James, a former New Yorker critic, does answer those questions—or at least, he provides nuanced thoughts or responses, admitting that he was wary of “articulating a grand unified theory of exoticism and those who pursue it; the larger the sample, the more difficult it is to subordinate the individuals to the theory without making it vaporously vague.” Instead of extensive theorizing, James chose to write a group biography, drawing out the similarities between his six principal subjects and the artistic causes and effects of their decisions to self-exile. He threads his own personal experience on exoticism and self-exile—he has lived in Bali for seventeen years—through the artists’ biographies, embellishing the narrative with a liberal number of allusions, quotations, and comparisons to other artists. Part of the delight of reading an excellently written and researched biography is voyeuristic: we want to feel, afterwards, as though we know the subjects as people. But James falls short in his biographies of the six figures themselves, becoming a victim to the vastness of his subject. In his attempt to spin a huge web of exoticism and art and self-exile and creativity, James sacrifices the details and the close analysis of each artist’s life, making for a sprawling and occasionally frustrating read.
There are parts of the book where it’s difficult to stay focused. James devotes thirty-four pages to the chapter on Isabelle Eberhardt, a glamorous and strange writer if there ever was one: at the turn of the 20th century she was roaming around Algeria on her own, visiting brothels, abusing drugs and alcohol, and dressing and living mostly as a man. But James leaves her story after eight pages, jumping to quote Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” a four-part poem that ends with the narrator’s resolve to abandon humanity. James uses the poem as a segue to the story of Lord Byron’s friend, Lady Hester Stanhope, in whose cross-dressing lifestyle James sees a predecessor of Eberhardt’s. The story returns to Eberhardt before departing again to visit the life of French writer André Gide, and then the poet Arthur Rimbaud, who is not one of James’s principal subjects but who flickers so frequently throughout the book he may as well be. Back to Eberhardt—and then over to T.E. Lawrence, author of Lawrence of Arabia, upon whose death the chapter concludes. While reading this chapter, I was so busy trying to keep the names and dates and connections straight that I found myself feeling indifferent about Eberhardt’s adventures. When she died in a flash flood at the age of twenty-seven, I noted it almost apathetically and turned to the next chapter.
James’s analysis of the relationship between creating art and seeking the exotic is more engaging when he filters his ideas through a single life. Take, for example, the chapter on Gauguin. James writes that Gauguin today has two public faces, that of “Wicked Gauguin” and “Good Gauguin.” Wicked Gauguin is the “propagandist for the empire whose concept of personal freedom was a misogynistic fantasy addressed exclusively to white men;” it was this Gauguin whose sexual practices verged well into predatory territory, who spoke barely any Tahitian, who married a thirteen-year-old, and who launched a propaganda crusade against any Tahitian mingling with the Chinese. Good Gauguin, on the other hand, is the “Symbolist hero, the brave individual who liberated himself from the shackles of civilization in pursuit of personal and artistic freedom, the champion of the oppressed native and nemesis of the colonial overlord.” This Gauguin harassed colonial authorities and “went to Tahiti with the avowed purpose of altering his cultural identity, to correct the error of his French nationality.” James thus addresses critiques of exoticism without dismissing Gauguin completely, focusing instead on his motivations for moving to Tahiti and its effects on his artistic career.
Throughout the book, James uses the word “exote,” coined by Victor Segalen, to describe “an elite group of travelers who seek to immerse themselves in otherness”—travelers marked by their distinction from tourists, who seek to view otherness and then return home in a self-congratulatory haze. “Most exotes”—like Gauguin—“travel the world in search of a new home that will be congenial to their tastes and receptive to their talents,” writes James, but “yet others seek nothingness, the absolute freedom of places hors frontière, beyond the limits of civilization.” The smug superiority of this word, and its implication that exotes rank above tourists on some imaginary hierarchy, is grating—but it underscores his artists’ lack of allegiance to their own home countries. They packed their bags with the intention of shedding their old identities and growing new, self-fulfilled ones in their place.
This type of exoticism-seeking, James concludes rather pessimistically, can’t exist today in the same way that it did then, due mostly to the Internet and the global homogenization of culture: “How can you find something that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before when the visual vocabulary of all cultures everywhere is readily available online?” He provides the example of Ubud, a town on the island of Bali, in which a royal pavilion was demolished to make way for a Starbucks. James and his fellow expats watched mournfully as native Balinese lined up excitedly to taste what James calls, speaking tongue-in-cheek, “a taste of the exotic in the form of a caramel latte.”
Exoticism is a fascinating subject and James proves himself up to the task of addressing its nuances, but the book tries to do too much. James knew that exclusivity, rather than inclusivity, was going to be his greatest difficulty right from the start: he writes in his introductory letter to the reader that “the challenge was to prevent the book from becoming an encyclopedia of rolling stones.” His critical perspectives and personal interest in the subject succeed in preventing it from becoming an encyclopedia—but nor should the reader expect lively, sustained plots following the exploits of Gauguin, Saleh, Spies, Segalen, Eberhardt, or Deren. The book’s greatest success is in its ability to raise questions about exoticism and whether or not, in an age of Instagram, it still exists.
GRETCHEN SCHMID writes reviews and criticism about art, music, dance, and literature in translation. She works as a literary sub-agent and lives in Brooklyn.