Simone Gouzé, historical woman, artist and explorer

Simone Gouzé, China in the early 30’s, seen through the eyes of a French Artist and Explorer

The art world is currently re-evaluating female artists and pioneers who had been forgotten by history books. French artist and explorer Simone Gouzé can be added to the list of those whose talent and courage deserves a due recognition.

As the first European woman who traveled to the Yunnan mountains, she is to fine arts in China what prominent explorer and writer Alexandra Davide Néel was to literature and Tibet. Through her life, trips, and the numerous representations of China that she has left behind, we now discover the singular look that a French artist in the 1930’s casts on the world around her.

First years in Asia

Saïgon, March 1928. In that colonized era, journeys between the different continents were safer, and cultural exchanges were blooming. Simone Gouzé arrived in the south of Vietnam –former Cochinchine-, under French colonial dominion. Her social status, as the spouse of the artist Jules Gustave Besson, new director of the school of fine arts in Gia Dinh, and the freedom she was granted in a country far from her homeland, enabled her to fulfill her urge for autonomy, discovery, and creation. She soon left the world of artists she was meant to belong to in Saigon, to go and explore Cambodia and Yunnan.

Settling in Yunnanfu for a few months, she became acquainted with Chinese society, and developed a deeper knowledge of the country’s culture and language. But Simone Gouzé’s wish was to get out of the beaten paths, and travel through the remote and lesser known mountains of inner Yunnan. After becoming proficient in Chinese, she soon left the city to explore Yi territory.

Chinese landscape, Chinese city, Chinese city painting
Chinese Village Announced in Southwest China. Yunnan region. Pastel by Simone Gouzé. It represents the villages, for some now missing.
Chinese character in straw hat.
Pastel by Simone Gouzé representing a Yunnan Chinese with a big straw hat.

A Humanist artistic look

Simone Gouzé’s benevolence, and the kind eye she has on the individuals she represents are typical of her style. Through a variety of subjects and formal choices, she mixes a psychological approach with an ethnographic standpoint, and captures the personality of her models. She often depicts intimate moments of everyday life, and her representation of women, children, music players, or elderly reflect the connection she develops with her subjects, and with China ; a relationship of trust, connected with a respectful distance.

Her drawings and texts, such as those she wrote for the magasine l’illustration, also demonstrate a special interest, empathy, and concern for the condition of the women she met throughout her trips : daughters, wives, mothers, courtesans, young girls… She was especially aware of the struggles of her peers, and shows great consideration towards them.

In Yi Country

Simone Gouzé would spend many years in Yi country, horsebackriding through numerous villages, many of them nowadays erased. There, she met the « Yi » people – known in those days as « Lolo », one of the 56 ethnic minorities present on Chinese territory, and who had been living in those mountains for more than 2000 years. The Yi possess their own traditions, language and belief system.

During that period, she created hundreds of colorful illustrations, documenting the various lives and faces of the inhabitants, crossing the path of Yi from all ranges of society, sometimes encountering independent armed groups, as the rare portraits of pirates she made fully illustrate.

Simone Gouzé is, undoubtedly the first European artist who brought back artistic representations of these regions and their inhabitants, despite the earlier presence of evangelical missions.

A singular voice

Simone Gouzé’s stay in Asia took an end in 1933, because of health issues, but she kept a close connection to China all her life. She kept on traveling, continuing to tell the story of French presence in the world. She captured the vision that she, as a French artist had of territories and of individuals outside Europe. Through all her work, her desire to connect with the « other » and the « outside » is felt, as is her eagerness to expand and redefine the limits imposed on her.


Natacha Pope

Translated from french