The first biography in English of the Japanese artist who was a central figure in the dazzling artistic milieu of 1920s Paris When we think of expatriates in Paris during the early decades of the twentieth century, certain names come to mind: Hemingway, Picasso, Modigliani—and Foujita, the Japanese artist whose distinctive works, bringing elements of Japanese art to Western oil painting, made him a major cultural figure in 1920s Montparnasse. Foujita was the only Japanese artist to be considered part of the “School of Paris,” which also counted among its members such prominent artists as Picasso and Modigliani. Noteworthy, too, was Foujita’s personal style, flamboyant even for those flamboyant times. He was best known for his drawings of female nudes and cats, and for his special white color upon which he could draw a masterful line—one that seemed to outline a woman’s whole body in a single unbroken stroke.
With the advent of the Second World War, Foujita returned to Japan, where he allied himself with the ruling Japanese mili-tarists and painted canvases in support of the war effort. After Japan’s defeat, he was scorned for his devotion to the military cause and returned to France, where he remained until his death in 1968. Acclaimed writer and translator Phyllis Birnbaum not only explores Foujita’s fascinating, tumultuous life but also assesses the appeal of his paintings, which, in their mixture of Eastern and Western traditions, are memorable for their vibrancy of form and purity of line.
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Phyllis Birnbaum is a novelist, biographer, journalist, and translator from the Japanese. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She lives near Boston.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Between East and West
I love Tokyo very much, but being a foreigner in Paris provides me with the distance I require to understand myself.
It seems best to think of Foujita in Paris. After all, he first attracted attention on the Left Bank, winning applause for his drawings of cats and for the startling whiteness of his nudes. At Parisian cafés during the 1920s, Foujita became a fixture, with his trademark bangs, round glasses, and hoop earrings; late into the night, he could be found chatting with cronies at the tables of his favorite haunts. He took pleasure in dressing up for his appearances around Paris’s Montparnasse district and sported a slave trader’s loincloth at a costume ball, but he also went through a Neo-Grecian period. Decked out in a Greek tunic and sandals, Foujita joined a group dancing in the woods.
Foujita liked to say that he knew everyone worth knowing in 1920s Paris. Picasso was one of his acquaintances; Diego Rivera painted him in his Greek outfit; his memoirs tell of the time when he lived just a floor above Modigliani, whose untidiness was apparently monumental. More important to his career was his friendship with the voluptuous Kiki, the celebrated Montparnasse personality. Known as the “Queen of Montparnasse,” Kiki was the nude in a painting that brought Foujita acclaim. The relationship between Foujita, a Japanese artist brought up in a military family in Tokyo, and this bawdy, full-breasted woman from Burgundy has been the source of speculation. Until he died, he felt obliged to insist to one and all that they had been only the best of friends. Foujita recalled that when Kiki arrived at his studio, “she came in slowly and timidly, her cute little finger held up to her small red mouth, swinging her behind confidently.” And since this was, after all, Paris in the Roaring Twenties, he went on to concede that she was naked beneath her coat—“a small handkerchief, in lively colors, pinned to the inside of her coat gave the illusion of her latest dress.”
Around 1922, when Kiki turned up in her coat, Foujita had been an expatriate in Paris for nine years. He had left Tokyo with few prospects for success, but vowed to make his mark in France. In this he was like the many artists from all over the world who flocked to Paris during that time, but Foujita stood out from the others in his exuberance, his discipline, and his expertise with a delicate Japanese paintbrush. Early in his career, Foujita established an artistic reputation when his paintings of Parisian landscapes and vivacious cats were exhibited in galleries around town. Still, Foujita was shrewd enough to recognize that cat paws, which he could draw in remarkable detail, would not get him the world-class fame he so eagerly sought. It was perhaps with this in mind that he followed the example of the masters in the Louvre whose works he studied for hours on end: Foujita also put effort into painting nude women.
Kiki proved crucial to this endeavor, but Foujita admitted that he had certain difficulties with her at first. Not the kind of model who meekly settled down, she required expert handling, and Foujita was not immediately up to the job:
She took my place in front of the easel, told me not to move, and calmly began to draw my portrait. When the work was finished, she had sucked and bitten all my pencils and lost my small eraser, and delighted, danced, sung, and yelled, and walked all over a box of Camembert. She demanded money from me for posing and left triumphantly, carrying her drawing with her. Three minutes later at the Café du Dôme, a rich American collector bought this drawing for an outrageous price. That day I wasn’t sure which of the two of us was the painter.
We can assume that Foujita gained control of the situation, for the next day Kiki returned to his studio in a more docile state of mind. He had her pose nude on a couch covered with white fabric, where she reclined in grand languor, her hand at her head. In Foujita’s painting, Kiki has the look of a woman accustomed to disrobing, and we know from available evidence that the expression came naturally to her. Foujita portrayed her showing off a fleshy, lovely body without the slightest qualm. He entered this work in the Salon d’Automne and was elated by the reaction. “In the morning, all the newspapers talked about it. At noon the Minister congratulated me. In the evening, for the sum of 8,000 francs, it was sold to a famous collector. The buyer for the State arrived too late. It was an immense success.” Kiki would not, of course, permit him to forget her role in this triumph. “Kiki and I were each equally pleased; for the second time I wasn’t sure who was the artist.”
Since others had no doubt about who was responsible for this and other creations, Foujita became the darling of the French art world. That was a big change of fortune for an artist who had, just a few years before, sold his clothing to pay for meals. The French critics were ecstatic about Foujita’s originality and his combination of Eastern and Western traditions. They were impressed by Foujita’s restrained use of color: in those days artists usually brought countless hues to their paintings, but Foujita made his name on white. Foujita employed a special, spectacular white in his paintings, a white that seemed to give Kiki flesh of ivory. At the Salon d’Automne, crowds jockeyed for space in front of Foujita’s works to take in their magical emanations, while artists tried to determine the ingredients that had gone into producing such effects. For this reason, Foujita guarded his recipe for the white color, keeping competitors out of his studio where they might steal his secrets.
Not only did his white bring a splendid shimmer to Kiki’s skin, that same white also allowed Foujita to introduce Japanese elements into his creation. His white oil paint had been concocted so that he could draw upon it with what looked like sumi, the ink the Japanese used in ink paintings and calligraphy. This may not seem like an earthshaking achievement, but for Foujita, the look of black sumi on white made all the difference. In his version of sumi, he could outline Kiki’s body with a thin line of amazing flexibility and grace. The line seemed to flow with impossible fluidity as it followed her legs, her hips, her whole torso. Foujita’s lines, which harked back to traditional art forms, gave his oil paintings just the Japanese touch that he sought. Though many contemporaries tried to imitate Foujita—“That’s a line which never stops,” according to one admirer—none ever succeeded.
The Japanese elements introduced into his Western-style oil painting served Foujita well, since things Japanese were still venerated in France during that period. Decades before, the Impressionist Monet had painted his wife in a gaudy Japanese kimono; Toulouse-Lautrec tried out the techniques he had learned from Japanese woodblock-print artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige; van Gogh, another enthusiast, went one step further in creating oil paintings that closely resembled actual Japanese works. In this atmosphere of lingering japonisme, where Japanese fans, leaping carp, and vases also had a place, Foujita—in residence on rue Delambre, Paris, but lately of Tokyo—reminded the art world of his origins.
Foujita wrote later that he had trained himself over long years to create his paintings of nudes: “I suddenly realized one day that there are very few paintings of nudes in Japan. In the paintings of Harunobu or Utamaro, there are merely glimpses of part of an arm or a small area around the knee. I realized that they conveyed the sensation of skin only in those places. For the first time I decided to try to represent that most beautiful of materials: human skin. It had been eight years since I had drawn nudes, but I really attained exceptional success.”
The French were captivated by Foujita’s descriptions of artistic struggle, and critics clamored for the superlatives to describe this Japanese artist’s achievements. He went on to paint more nudes and cats and still lifes, showing off the white color and the faultless line in many variations. “In the art of Foujita there is a little bit of the magician’s art and even the illusionist’s,” rhapsodized the French critic André Warnod. “His paintings bloom like the Japanese paper flowers children love.” Back home in Japan, Foujita’s colleagues were less inclined to go in for such expressions of rapture. On the contrary, some of Foujita’s countrymen saw his success as a sham. These Japanese believed that he had too keen an eye for the marketplace and too little respect for the purity of his calling. They said that in his oil paintings, Foujita was offering the French a warmed-over version of the kind of art available in Japan for centuries. “His work seemed very Japanese to the Japanese,” the art historian Hayashi Y¯oko has written. “Many Japanese artists, indignant, couldn’t figure out what this work was all about. They thought that they could do better.”
Despite these dissenting voices, Foujita achieved great fame with his paintings of cats and femal...
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