Saturday, October 27, 2018

Foujita - Artist of Fluidity, Les Années Folles and the Feline Form...

Foujita: Dora Kallmus
The name Foujita is tied to the cultural and, to a degree, spiritual heritage of Reims. The Romanesque- style chapel of Notre-Dame de la Paix, a listed historic monument since its construction in 1965 - commonly referred to as la Chapelle Foujita - is part of the stock ‘to visit’ sites for tourists to the city. It was drawn up and entirely decorated by the Japanese artist at the behest of the head of the champagne house Mumm, the site of which is just across from the chapel itself. As part of the champagne circuit, other visitors may haphazardly come across this small edifice that lies in a modest walled garden but should they go at this time of year, will be disappointed since it is closed until next Spring! I had forgotten that practical point when returning recently, so will have to wait till next May to enter. I particularly liked the carved mermaid on the façade of the building and have kept it on the right of my home page since this the last visit.... 8 years ago!

Beyond that, many people are largely unaware of who Foujita actually was, or what his full contribution to the art world represented. Until earlier this year, that is, when a large exhibition of his works was held at the Musée Maillol in Paris. Incredibly, I managed to miss Foujita; Peindre dans les années folles and so now have to live with the frustration!
However, there is a currently an exhibition in the Bibliothèque Carnegie in Reims, which coincides with the twinning of the cities of Reims and Nagoya –both martyrs of wartime hostilities in the Great War and the Second World War respectively – and the fiftieth anniversary of Foujita’s death. Furthermore, key to the works on show, under the collective title Foujita, artiste du livre, is the illustrated piece, La Rivière Enchantée, which was acquired by the Bibliothèque Carnegie in 2016.

Many of his other illustration are on display and this follows on from the donation of a vast collection of artifacts ; objects and documents to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims by the estate of his last wife, Kimiyo. Reims is certainly proud of its connection to this celebrated, yet rather enigmatic artist, and through his spiritual epiphany and baptism, Foujita felt a close bond to the city. He indeed chose to be inhumed there with his tomb lying in the Chapelle de la Paix. However, Foujita goes far beyond this final creative stage at the end of his life. Indeed, his very name was once synonymous with the unique spirit of euphoria and exoticism from Les Années Folles of Paris wherein Foujita represented the meeting of East and West as the Empire of the Rising Sun collided with the Hedonistic stamping grounds of the French capital, all explored and expressed in his art, aspirations, influences and incomparable persona.

Foujita arrived in Paris just before the start of the First World War, and set about studying the great works of the Louvre in the city that he had dreamt of visiting since his art studies in Japan. By then, he was already 27 years of age, and having followed an initial artistic training in Tokyo where he had also learnt French, was finally able to explore Western art, past and present, at first hand. His perseverance, versatility and commitment to his artist endeavours enabled him to endure the war years. Not limiting himself to one particular medium, he observed and experimented in all, soon earning the reputation as a genial touche-à-tout; painter, printmaker, photographer, watercolourist, illustrator, furniture designer, film-maker, clothes designer and excentric dandy.

His name might not be an immediate reference to us today, but the names of the individuals he encountered and frequented certainly are; Modigliani, Matisse, Soutine, Pascin, Picasso, Rousseau and Renoir and the ‘Muse of Montparnasse’ and of Man Ray – Kiki. Foujita and the other members of this bohemian set of artists of the Jazz age - the Montparnos - blazed an avant- garde trail through the post-war Roaring Twenties. However, in certain respects Foujita was even more progressive than the figure at the head of the artistic and trend-setting vanguard – Picasso himself. It is said that Foujita even initiated the wearing of the striped breton shirt which would become the emblematic garment of his Spanish contemporary. Certainly his unique manner of dress caught public attention from the onset as his very appearance was another artistic venture in itself and was subject to aesthetic experimentation, be that in the multitude of mondain soirées or merely daily routines around the Montparnasse quartier.

Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jacqueline Hyde
Although he remained faithful to his ‘trademark’ round glasses, moustache and pudding-bowl hairstyle, his clothing and general aspect changed perpetually whilst maintaining the same note of sophistication and elegance that marked his work. As for his artistic style, that too was experimental, explorative; eclectic. He extended and blurred the boundaries between Eastern and Western art, Classicism and Modernism, drawing up new lines by using the same dexterity with which he handled his brush strokes. His calligraphic lines, from a Japanese heritage of brushwork were exemplary and drew great acclaim as he applied them to recurrent themes of women, self-portraits, still lives and cats. The ivory, lustrous foundation employed in many of Foujita’s works was based on a technique that he kept guarded as it afforded a luminosity that was largely unfamiliar to the Western public, yet was one of the signature traits of his art.

The flat, decorative approach that Foujita often turned to, bore the native Eastern influences that he would merge with Western influxes. His approach appealed to the aesthetic tastes and innovative spirit of the inter-war years that readily embraced Art Déco and hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. Whatever the medium he was working with, his treatment or the genre from which he drew inspiration, each piece proved to be unique in itself. His work seems quite distinct in this respect and wholly impressive. From the delicately ‘scrubby’ brushstrokes that capture the dense fur of his animal subjects, to the transparent layers of oil paint that appear like watercolour, the buffing effect and use of gold leaf both reminscent of early Orthodox icons, the fluid movement of the painted line that recreated a fish in a series of rapid sketches, to the odd, rather creepy fillettes with with their detailed garments, yet unsettling domed forehead and dark, unnerving eyes ; all is undeniably Foujita. This originality led him to occupy a distinct position amongst the members of the 'School of Paris' and drew him great public acclaim.

From the encounter and mariage, some two weeks later, to his second wife Fernande Barrey in 1917, Foujita signed a contract with the art dealer Chéron. His notoreity rapidly grew during a period of prolific production that coincided, remarkably, with a wild, bohemian existence. Indeed, the City of Light wished nothing more than to forget the dark war years and embrace the new. This expat protégé was ready to help the Parisiens celebrate the aesthetics of life in every aspect and would even lead the way. However, it would be an error to assume that Foujita succombed to the same inebriating forces that flooded the city’s nocturnal festivities, in a sea of powerful alcohol and periodic inactivity. As was later remarked by an acquaintance, Foujita had a "Samurai’s strong spirit about him" which translated itself by a steely ambition and a rigid diligence in work that made him devote himself religiously to a strict creativity, to the detriment of lovers or social levity. Although the ‘Montparnos’ frequently lived in conditions barely above the direst poverty and the very poorest hygiene– the stories of Modigliani and Soutine’s state of impoverishment are legendary - Foujita seemed to thrive despite these and avoid the alcoholic excesses that incapacitated many an artist. Rumour has it that as soon as he possessed the necessary financial means to do, he had a bath with hot-running water installed in his flat – to the astonishment and envy of those who knew him, all too eager to benefit from this remarkable acquisition.

By the end of the 20s, Tsugarahu Foujita, born to a family of Japanese nobility in the late 19th century, had risen to occupy a noble position in the art world. His work was being exhibited and sold worldwide. Furthermore, he had been nominated Chévalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1925. His watercolours had made him one of the richest, most successful artists and by this time, Foujita was sharing his fame with a ‘Queen of Montparnasse’, Lucie Badoud, whose white complexion had earned her the name Youki – signifying ‘snow’ in Japanese. She and Foujita had met in La Rotonde, one of the renowned brasseries frequented by artists and writers alike, along with Le Dome and La Coupole. The artist’s attachment to Montparnasse and his years there were represented in several of the works that form his Tableaux de Paris, published in 1929 and that mark the end of this episode in his life. For success had come with a price, in this case a heavy tax bill which led to him to return to Tokyo in order to sell his works. Furthermore, the art market that had exploded following Armistice and post-war investment now imploded.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 heralded the long Depression years but did not prevent the Book of Cats from being published in New York in 1930 or from its going on to be a huge success – then and still today. Indeed Foujita’s love of the feline, feminine form is well documented and his numerous representations of cats and female nudes testifies to this mutual admiration and attraction. In 1931, he left for Latin America with a new partner, a dancer from the Casino de Paris – Madeleine ‘La Panthère’, having finally lost Youki to the Surrealist poet, Robert Desnos.

The couple continued to travel, but on Madeleine’s death, Foujita briefly returned to Paris yet the advent of the Second World War forced him to regain his homeland, where he was employed by the Japanese military as a war painter to record scenes of victory and loss. Accused of being a fascist collaborator, Foujita feared for any free movement in the future, but was finally able to settle in France and declared in 1950 that he intended to remain there for good, bringing with him his fifth and final wife ; Kimiyo. However, the war experience had changed him, Hiroshima had affected the man and artist. He took French nationality in 1955 on renouncing Japanese citizenship, and forsook the name Tsuguharu in favour of Léonard – in honour of Leonardo da Vinci. He and Kimiyo went to live in the Essonne at Villiers-le-Bâcle.

Raised in the Buddhist faith, Foujita had often been fascinated by mysticism throughout his life, but in the late 1950s he underwent a spiritual awakening on visiting the Basilique de Saint-Remi in Reims - the Cité des Sacres. He was subsequently baptisted in the cathedral there and the ties between artist and future patron, René Lalou, were forged when the latter became Foujita’s godfather. It was Foujita who created the symbolic rose to decorate grande cuvée bottles of the Brut Rosé champagne of Mumm in 1957.

Chapelle de la Paix, commissioned by Lalou, cemented their friendship, a shared artistic appreciation and Foujita’s conversion to the Catholic faith yet the symbolic references serve to highlight the artist’s deeply-rooted Oriental influences. Chrysanthemums feature amongst the other delicate flowers, butterflies, insects and preferential feline figures in the religious scenes depicted on the frescoes, whilst the protagonists’ expressive Asian eyes catch our attention. I just wish I could go back into the chapel to have another look!

The chapel was the last great work created by the artist as he died shortly after, in 1968, and the name of Foujita was shrouded for many decades. His widow, herself baptised as Marie-Ange, guarded her husband’s art and honour, forbidding any reproduction of his work or exhibition to celebrate his life-time achievements.

Such a vast artistic career, with its extensive range and versatility is humbling, but anyone who worshipped cats as much as Foujita did can do no harm in my eyes!

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