|Foujita: Dora Kallmus
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
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.
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!