The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the lost age of the exotics
Farrar, Straus and Giroux $37.99 hb, 375 pp, 9780374163358
Described in one of the blurbs on its back cover as ‘a cabinet of wonders for lovers of faraway countries,’ Jamie James’s The Glamour of Strangeness is unusual in terms of the wide variety of the material it covers. James focuses here on artists who left their homelands ‘to create a new self in a new place’, arguing that the ‘exotic’ aesthetics wrought by these adventurous exiles resulted in them becoming personae non gratae in their native lands.
As James tells us in his preface, this book began as ‘a dual study of Raden Saleh, the Javanese painter who enjoyed a season of fame in Europe, and Walter Spies, the dreamy German artist in Bali’. However, he also explains that ‘as the book progressed, other, similar cases presented themselves that seemed too good to leave out,’ with the result that we are also introduced here to a much more extensive cast, including Isabelle Eberhardt, a Russian-Swiss writer who roamed the Sahara; American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren in Haiti; and Victor Segalen, a Breton naval doctor who emigrated to Peking to immerse himself in classical Chinese civilisation. At the time of his death in 1919, Segalen was working on an ‘Essay on Exoticism’, which he subtitled ‘An Aesthetics of Diversity’, and it is a similar kind of ambition to place the ‘exote’ within a broad intellectual framework that provides the rationale for James’s book.