The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic

The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic

by Jamie James


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According to Paul Bowles, a tourist travels quickly home, while a traveler moves slowly from one destination to the next. In The Glamour of Strangeness, Jamie James describes “a third species, those who roam the world in search of the home they never had in the place that made them.” 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 set sail for Tahiti; 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 Drawing on his own career as a travel writer and years of archival research uncovering previously unpublished letters and journals, James creates a penetrating investigation of the powerful connection between art and the exotic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374163358
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/09/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 916,806
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jamie James is the author of The Snake Charmer, Rimbaud in Java, and other books. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He regularly reviewed art exhibitions and contributed features to The New Yorker and served as the American arts correspondent for The Times (London). He has lived in Indonesia since 1999, and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Grant.

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The Glamour of Strangeness

Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic

By Jamie James

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Jamie James
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71132-0


An Invitation

Tu connais cette maladie fiévreuse qui s'empare de nous dans les froides misères, cette nostalgie du pays qu'on ignore, cette angoisse de la curiosité?

— Charles Baudelaire, "L'invitation au voyage"

You know that feverish sickness that seizes you with shivering sorrow, that nostalgia for a place you've never been, that anguish of curiosity?

— "Invitation to the Voyage"

The first nonfiction book that captured my imagination was Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels. Halliburton was a Marco Polo for the Jazz Age, one of the last traveling writers to set himself the goal of seeing the whole wide world. He was already a quaint figure by the time I discovered his book in my grandmother's library in Oxford, Mississippi, and he is nearly forgotten now, but in Halliburton's heyday his thrilling narratives of voyages to exotic places made him a celebrity and bestselling author to rival Hemingway. There were pictures on nearly every page, many of them photographs of the dashing author in flawless khaki, posing with sultans and mystics. Halliburton swam the Panama Canal, crossed the Alps on an elephant, flew loop-the-loops around the peak of Mount Everest.

The Barnumesque feats of derring-do weren't what attracted me, it was the glamorous places he visited. Halliburton voyaged to the lost cities of the world, from Machu Picchu to Petra to Angkor. Some of his most renowned exploits took place during an eighteen-month aerial circumnavigation of the globe, which began on Christmas Day 1930 aboard a two-seater biplane called the Flying Carpet, piloted by his sidekick, Moye Stephens. After a dazzling performance of stunts at an air show in Fez, the pair flew across the Sahara to Timbuktu, byword of exoticism and fabulous wealth, which had been closed for centuries to infidels: the city at the end of the world. There he met Père Yakouba, born Auguste Dupuis, a Frenchman who had come to Timbuktu as a Catholic missionary, a vocation he renounced. Yakouba told his biographer, William Seabrook, "I quit the Church because I didn't want to leave Timbuktu and didn't want to give up women," specifically his wife, Salama. Seabrook (whom Time called "the Richard Halliburton of the occult," because of his investigative books about voodoo and cannibalism) described Salama as a "magnificently strong, clean, healthy, full-grown negress with character and brains," who bore Yakouba a dozen children.

It would get my narrative off to a neat start if I said that Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels inspired me at the age of eleven to resolve that I would follow in the author's footsteps and see the world. Growing up in suburban Houston, I didn't dream of seeing the world, exactly; somehow I just knew that I would. Halliburton introduced me to the concept of the world as a finite place in which one could move about at will. The only difference between driving to the beach for the weekend and a journey to Timbuktu was the force of will required to make it happen, that and the money. If you want to go somewhere, anywhere, you can find a way to get there.

After I graduated from college, I moved to New York, an adventure of a different sort. I arrived in the great metropolis with a trunkful of dreams. (There was actually a trunk, a footlocker from the army-navy store in Houston, which my mother had filled with woollies when I left for my freshman year of college in Massachusetts.) In New York, I devoted what pluck I possessed to making a career as a freelance writer. I was curious about almost everything, which expanded my markets to the editorial horizon but made for an odd collection of clips. On my first overseas reporting trip, to Buenos Aires, I had two assignments: a profile of a polo player for Sports Illustrated and an interview with Jorge Luis Borges for Connoisseur. I wrote a sports column for Andy Warhol's Interview, profiled rock stars for Rolling Stone and Life, interviewed orchestra conductors and opera singers for The New York Times and Vanity Fair — anything to avoid getting a job, especially if it came with an invitation to a voyage.

In 1986, I visited my first lost city. I had an assignment to write about the opera in Santiago de Chile, a revolutionary Rigoletto that has long since been forgotten. I routed my return through Lima, and from there booked a flight to Cuzco and the train to Machu Picchu. The night before I left on the trip, the Shining Path guerrillas bombed the train to the ruins, killing seven tourists. My mother called me up and begged me not to go, but it was too late. I had managed to get a reservation at the only hotel at the ruins, which had just twelve rooms, and I wasn't about to give it up. At that time most tourists to Machu Picchu took the train up for a day trip; no more than twenty-four visitors could tour the ruins by moonlight and see the sun rise behind the mountains. I would be among them.

My previous foreign travels had followed the path of most postcollegiate wanderers, to London and Paris, Tuscany and Rome; this would be my first visit to a truly exotic place. At Machu Picchu, I learned my first lesson in how fragile the romance can be. The hotel was clean and comfortable, but it had the thereless feeling of a motel on the interstate. Dinner was included; there was nowhere else to eat. I was seated with a couple from New York, jolly socialists of the City College variety, a species now nearly extinct. Comparing notes over mystery meat and mashed potatoes, we soon discovered that we were near neighbors in Greenwich Village. Very near: my rear apartment on Morton Street looked out on the same courtyard as their place on Commerce Street, just opposite. We feigned delight at the coincidence, but I think they were as disappointed as I was. The fantasy of a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu doesn't include meeting your back-fence neighbors. We resolved to resume our friendship in New York with a hallo from one fire escape to the other, but when I got home, I kept the curtains drawn.

A year later, I wrote a magazine profile of David Soren, an archaeologist who was directing an excavation of a Roman city in Cyprus that had been buried by an earthquake. He asked me to coauthor a book about his dig. It was my first book, Kourion: The Search for a Lost Roman City. My toehold of an archaeological niche became more secure after Kourion was published, when my agent arranged an introduction to a paleoanthropologist named Russell Ciochon. Ciochon and his colleague the archaeologist John Olsen had been invited by the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi to collaborate on a dig in Vietnam, on the border with Laos. It was the first joint program of field research carried out by scientists from the two countries since the end of the war, twelve years before. I got a contract to write a book about it.

Hanoi itself was something of a lost city in those days. We stayed at the Hoa Binh hotel in the Old Quarter, the only part of the city that was continuously electrified, at least in theory. At night, the city's residents sat on the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes and playing dominoes by lamplight. It was a quiet place, scarcely like a city at all. You rarely heard music, and television almost never. The only traffic noise was the whirr of bicycles. In 1988, there were no more than a few dozen passenger automobiles on the streets of Hanoi, and all of them belonged to party officials or foreign ambassadors. There were no tourists. We were admitted to the country on humanitarian visas, which entailed bringing in cases of vaccines from Thailand. The three of us were the only guests at the Hoa Binh apart from some lugubrious Bulgarian electricians and an Iraqi "diplomat," who was a fixture at the hotel bar. He plied us with questions about what we were doing, where we were going, who was paying for the expedition, but he was better company than the electricians.

On our first day in the city, after lunch at the hotel (bamboo rat, which tasted nothing like chicken, stuffed with white rice), we saw the city's sights: Ho Chi Minh's house, Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, the Hanoi Hilton, and the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution. We found the only private restaurant in the city that catered to foreigners, a small cadre of marooned journalists and burned-out philanthropists, which served a reasonable facsimile of French bistro food. The specialty of the house was duck à l'orange, which savored of Tang.

The expedition in Thanh Hoa was a success, and my book was published the following year. It got a good review in The New York Times, which seemed like the most important thing in the world at the time. Yet in retrospect the most significant event of the trip came at the end, on the eve of our departure from Hanoi. Russ Ciochon and I were wandering through the Old Quarter and came upon a trim bamboo house flying the flag of the People's Republic of Kampuchea, the puppet government installed by the Vietnamese after they invaded Cambodia in 1979, ending the disastrous, bloody regime of the Khmer Rouge. We were greeted by a remarkably cheerful man named Bun Sambo, who appeared to be the only person there. He made tea for us, the necessary preliminary to any conversation, and then asked what he could do for us. It was an easy question. I replied, "We want to go to Angkor."

When we first met, Ciochon and I bonded over our shared lifelong passion for the ruins of Angkor in central Cambodia, the classic model of a lost city in the jungle. We had collected nearly identical Angkor libraries, starting with the April 1960 issue of National Geographic, which featured the article "Angkor, Jewel of the Jungle," by W. Robert Moore. The story was accompanied by a series of lurid paintings, alternately sexy and gory, that depicted life in Angkor at the zenith of the Khmer Empire. Ciochon and I had both read the old French archaeological studies and a madly overwritten memoir of an Angkor pilgrimage by the French travel writer Pierre Loti. Loti's rapturous descriptions of the ruins promised an experience that fell somewhere between a religious vision and an orgasm.

Mr. Bun smiled and said, "You want to go to Angkor? I can arrange that for you."

And so he did. Six months later, Ciochon and I flew to Siem Reap, the town near the ruins, and checked into the Grand Hotel d'Angkor. In its decaying art deco magnificence, the hotel looked like an exile from the Riviera, condemned to molder in the jungle. The lobby ceiling soared twenty feet overhead, making the sagging rattan furniture look dwarfish. The room reeked of the signature fragrance of the tropics, a heady mélange of mildew, fermented fish paste, and bug spray. Spiders had colonized a Parisian-style cage elevator, a former marvel of modernity that hadn't ascended in decades. After we checked in, Ciochon, sick with the usual complaint, ran to the room. I sent up four bottles of cold lemonade and returned to the waiting car.

I had promised Ciochon that I would save Angkor Wat, the largest and most famous temple, for him and told the driver to take me to Angkor Thom. The capital of the ancient empire, Angkor Thom occupies six square miles of cleared tropical forest, crowded with ornately carved stone temples and palaces. When the French naturalist Henri Mouhot came here in 1860, he found the place completely overgrown by jungle vegetation. In a burst of enthusiasm, he declared that the ruins of Angkor were "grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome." When he asked the people living among the monuments who had built them, they answered: "It is the work of the King of the Angels"; "It is the work of giants"; even, "They built themselves."

I knew the layout of Angkor Thom by heart from a guidebook by the archaeologist Henri Marchal, published in 1928. The city is walled and moated, accessible by five monumental stone gateways surmounted by towers with four identical faces at the cardinal directions, smiling serenely into the jungle. The identity of the Angkor face, which is found everywhere in the ruins, remains a mystery. It has been variously identified with the Hindu god Brahma, the popular bodhisattva Lokesvara, and Jayavarman VII, the twelfth-century king who built many of the principal temples. The image could have served all three cults at once.

At the center of Angkor Thom rises the Bayon, an eccentric labyrinth of corridors and courtyards described by Loti as "this basilisk phantom, a bridge to ancient times, constructed with cyclopean blocks." Literally a labyrinth: wandering around the Bayon, one easily gets lost or comes to a dead end. The walls are covered with fine bas-reliefs depicting scenes of war and domestic life, interspersed with hundreds of images of elegant apsara, usually translated as "celestial nymphs." The upper level is crowded with four-faced towers like those on the city gates. Even authoritative sources disagree as to how many towers there are: most say fifty-four, while one scholar goes as low as thirty-seven surviving of the original forty-nine. I tried to count them, but no matter how methodically I went about it, I kept losing track, just as the driver had warned me I would. I returned to the hotel for lunch, where I was attended by a dozen adolescent boys wearing dirty white shirts missing buttons and skinny black ties.

As the afternoon sun declined, Ciochon had recovered sufficiently to accompany me to Angkor Wat. Called the largest stone monument and the largest religious building in the world, it occupies a square mile, constructed from pale gray fine-grained sandstone carved with a delicacy that exceeds the other ruins of Angkor. The central tower takes the shape of a colossal lotus bud, rising to a height of two hundred feet, lording over the forest for miles around. We roamed the grounds of the temple guided by a demented old man with a stiff brush of white hair named My Huy, who said he had been trained by French archaeologists. He told me that he had survived the Khmer Rouge era by lying awake in bed for hours every night, continually gripping and turning a rough stick in his hands, which raised calluses that enabled him to pass for a peasant and avoid summary execution as an "intellectual." A pair of cowherds, boys no older than ten, drove their charges at a discreet distance behind us, the thok-thok of wooden cowbells setting a gentle, strolling pace.

Ciochon and I were the only guests at the Grand Hotel d'Angkor. At dawn, when I opened the door to our room, I found the waiters seated cross-legged on the floor in the corridor, peering up at me hopefully, like a class waiting for the teacher. In fact, that was exactly what they had in mind. Their ostensible purpose was to practice English conversation, but what they really wanted was to bask in my splendid blond otherness.

The waiters' attempts at speaking English were mostly a waste of time, for few of them possessed sufficient vocabulary to construct simple sentences. However, the headwaiter's English was amazingly good. His name was Munny, which means "clever" in Khmer; it might have been a nickname, because he was. After the boys escorted Ciochon and me to the dining room for American breakfast (latex fried eggs and a single Vienna sausage, served with asbestos toast), Munny started up a conversation. He said he had learned English by listening to the BBC and the news in Special English on VOA. Munny knew nothing but was curious about everything. Is it true that American people went to the moon, or was it a trick? If America is the richest country, then why is your money not worth as much as British money? What is a Jew? He kept creeping closer, with the other waiters just behind him, until their elbows were on the table. Ciochon, less interested in these simple country lads than I was, suddenly brandished a fork at them and yelled, "Scram!" They scattered, shrieking with laughter.

Ciochon and I set out to see every stone of Angkor. In 1989, the Khmer Rouge still controlled much of the district, so if we wanted to venture beyond the walled confines of Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom, or go anywhere after dark, we had to be escorted by soldiers, more silly adolescents, loaded into a jeep with Kalashnikovs. The reason the country's workforce seemed to be almost entirely in its teens was that so many young men had died during the brutal four-year regime of the Khmer Rouge. The soldiers detailed to guard us, like the waiters at our hotel, were young enough to have escaped the roaming execution squads that decimated the country. My Huy told us that many of them were government soldiers during the day and KR by night.


Excerpted from The Glamour of Strangeness by Jamie James. Copyright © 2016 Jamie James. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

To the Render xi

An Invitation 1

The Studio of the Tropics 19

Prince of Java 61

Insanely Gorgeous 107

Goona-Goona in Bali 145

The Empire of the Self 183

Seekers of Oblivion 227

Possessed by Rhythm 265

The Last Age of Exoticism 309

Notes and Bibliography 325

Acknowledgments 343

Index 347

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