From the early days of steamship travel, artists stifled by the culture of their homelands fled to islands, jungles, and deserts in search of new creative and emotional frontiers. Their flight inspired a unique body of work that doesn't fit squarely within the Western canon, yet may be some of the most original statements we have about the range and depth of the artistic imagination.
Focusing on six principal subjects, Jamie James locates "a lost national school" of artists who left their homes for the unknown. There is Walter Spies, the devastatingly handsome German painter who remade his life in Bali; Raden Saleh, the Javanese painter who found fame in Europe; Isabelle Eberhardt, a Russian-Swiss writer who roamed the Sahara dressed as an Arab man; the American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, who went to Haiti and became a committed follower of voodoo. From France, Paul Gauguin left for Tahiti; and Victor Segalen, a naval doctor, poet, and novelist, immersed himself in classical Chinese civilization in imperial Peking.
In The Glamour of Strangeness, James evokes these extraordinary lives in portraits that bring the transcultural artist into sharp relief. Drawing on his own career as a travel writer and years of archival research uncovering previously unpublished letters and journals, James creates a penetrating study of the powerful connection between art and the exotic.
In this exciting book, novelist and critic James (The Snake Charmer) examines six artists (and many interesting secondary figures) whose travels allowed them to find inspiration and belonging far from their homelands in locations across the globe. James primarily focuses on the painter Paul Gauguin (1848 1903), who left Paris to settle in Tahiti; Raden Saleh (1814 1880), a Javanese painter who traveled across Europe; and French poet and doctor Victor Segalen (1878 1919), for whom China became a second home. Also dominant are Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 1904), a Swiss writer who emigrated to French Algeria dressed as a man; Walter Spies (1895 1942), a painter nearly forgotten in modern Germany, who moved to Bali; and the American filmmaker Maya Deren (1917 1961), who immersed herself in voodoo culture in Haiti. In addition to analyzing his subjects' art, James details their rich lives, mining their published works, personal archives, journals, and letters, and often revealing serendipitous connections between the artists. Many of his subjects refused to conform to the social norms of their birthplaces, namely monogamy and heterosexuality, and the description of these struggles is illuminating. James also includes his own perspective, reflecting on his travels through Asia, South America, and Europe, and his permanent relocation to Bali, where he has witnessed firsthand the effects of globalization. This well-written text is a sharp, thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing conversation about transculturation. Illus.