New books — From the August 2016 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 3 )

Rebirth, like self-invention, is a privilege, and can be withheld by political forces. When Raden Saleh, the Javanese painter, returned to the Dutch East Indies in 1851 — after more than twenty years of hobnobbing with European royals whom he allowed to believe that he, too, was royalty — he shrank from the necessity of appearing at the Dutch colonial court in “native costume.” He wrote to King Willem III of the Netherlands for a dispensation, suggesting that instead of going shirtless in a sarong, he might wear a Western uniform, as the Javanese officers of the Dutch army did. Specifically, Raden Saleh asked to be allowed to wear a “fantasy uniform,” the garb of the Batavian civil-defense cavalry, “which is worn neither by the Dutch nor by the Dutch Indian military.” Besides, he added, if he were to appear in the local garb, how could he wear the decoration that Willem had awarded him, the medal of a knight of the Oak Crown?

Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti © Tate, London/Art Resource, New York City

Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti © Tate, London/Art Resource, New York City

As Jamie James notes in THE GLAMOUR OF STRANGENESS: ARTISTS AND THE LAST AGE OF THE EXOTIC (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) a “fantasy uniform” is a potent metaphor not only for Raden Saleh’s fantasy identity but for the insupportable position of the “educated native” under a colonial regime. I am grateful to James, without whom I would never have learned the story of Raden Saleh’s life — a life that also has the contours of a fantasy. One of six “exotes,” James’s grand word for exotic-seeking expats across the late nineteenth and the twentieth century, Raden Saleh studied orientalist painting in the Netherlands and brought it to Saxony, where it failed to catch fire. More influential was his importation of modern European art, or at least a European sense of aesthetic detachment, to Java. His 1863 canvas Drinking Tiger subordinates the animal to “the primordial majesty of the land”; it was the first painting by a Javanese artist to make the forest its main subject. “In the context of Javanese art,” James writes, “Drinking Tiger is as revolutionary as Olympia.

James’s other main characters are white artists, musicians, and writers who fled an arid, suffocating Europe for the dream of an honest, immediate, sensuous life in Tahiti, Indonesia, China, North Africa, or Haiti. They all lived colorful lives — and all came to colorful ends:

Paul Gauguin died at fifty-four of tertiary syphilis, crippled by bleeding chancres and almost blind; Raden Saleh died of a broken heart after he was insulted and abused by the government in his native land; Walter Spies drowned within sight of land, locked in a cage aboard a sinking ship; Victor Segalen, forty-one, died in a freakish walking accident at a time when he felt life slowly abandoning him; Isabelle Eberhardt died in a flash flood in the Sahara.

His last figure, Maya Deren, the experimental filmmaker and voodoo adherent, died of a brain hemorrhage at forty-four. James suggests a poor diet and amphetamine use as the causes, but those of Deren’s friends who saw her possessed, including Stan Brakhage, believed that she had been put under a curse. (Her lover Teiji Ito, who was eighteen years her junior — Deren met him in a Greenwich Village movie theater when he was a teenage runaway — thought that she died “of anger.”)

The Glamour of Strangeness contains wonderful episodes and a memorable cast, and James’s reminder that colonial encounters sometimes involved amicable and eager exchange, and not merely force and exploitation, is well taken. But the book is marred by needless, showy digressions and unwelcome authorial intrusions. The writing is bloated with infelicitous imagery — “The record of Raden Saleh’s early life is spotted with lacunae, like the pages of an old book in the tropics tenanted by bookworms” — and James’s repeated description of homosexuality as “Greek games” is first cute, then grating.

Drinking Tiger, by Raden Saleh © State Palace of the Republic of Indonesia. Courtesy Susanne Erhards

Drinking Tiger, by Raden Saleh © State Palace of the Republic of Indonesia. Courtesy Susanne Erhards

In his desire to recuperate the complexities of expatriation, James takes tedious jabs at feminist and postcolonialist critics who have questioned the power dynamics involved in, for example, Gauguin abandoning his wife and taking pubescent lovers; that James is an American expat who settled in Indonesia explains his investment in the subject, but it makes the book feel less intimate than defensive. He argues, with some persuasiveness, that his exotes should be considered visionary, even great, artists and not simply interesting adventurers. Walter Spies, he writes, is not famous because he didn’t want to be; Victor Segalen’s Réne Leys is a “pioneering work” of modernism on par with The Castle. “Don’t they know,” he quotes Borges as saying, “that in Victor Segalen they have one of the most intelligent writers of our age, perhaps the only one to have made a fresh synthesis of Western and Eastern aesthetics and philosophy?”

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share

More from Christine Smallwood:

New books From the November 2017 issue

New Books

New books From the October 2017 issue

New Books

New books From the September 2017 issue

New Books

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content
Close

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.