Leonard Foujita: Paris's Pet Oriental

Self Portrait, 1936
It wasn’t for nothing that the Ecole de Paris was called a school. In the early decades of the 20th century artists from all over the World flocked to Paris to learn the styles, techniques, and attitudes that had put the French capital at the cutting edge of art. The most famous among the Japanese contingent was Tsuguharu ‘Leonard’ Foujita, whose art is now enjoying its first comprehensive retrospective in Japan at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

According to exhibition curator, Mika Kuraya, what set Foujita apart from other Japanese painters was that he didn’t come to Paris just to learn.
“Most of the Japanese painters were trying to get some technique to return home with to become painters in Japan,” she explained. “But Foujita’s ambition was to become famous in Paris.”
Arriving in Paris the year before World War One, Foujita stayed for almost 18 years, the length of his stay a testament both to his commitment to the Parisian art scene and the success he enjoyed there. But what exactly was the nature of this success? Although he seems to have made some impact at the time, Foujita’s most important legacy is not his art but rather his proximity to some of the premier art legends of the 20th century combined with his Japaneseness. It is this that makes Japanese audiences flock to this exhibition, while his art is largely forgotten outside Japan.

Nude with Tapestry, 1923
This is not to say that Foujita’s painting is without merit, but, as a rather idiosyncratic blending of Western techniques and Japanese sensibility that couldn’t be taken up by others, it has a limited significance. Another problem is that it is ‘high self monitor’ art, that is art painted with undue reference to the people, trends, and situation around him, rather than art driven by the deep, internal urges of the truly creative artist.

According to Kuraya, one of the reasons Foujita was successful in Paris was because he emphasized his Japaneseness. Paintings like Nude with Tapestry (1923) utilize the sinuous line and flatness of Nihonga, as well as its muted colors, ideally suited to the pale, ‘milky’ skin then in vogue.

This might be seen as a mark of integrity, as an Asian asserting his Asian identity against the "default racism of European ethnocentrism," but Foujita’s own explanation was less strident. He simply stated that he was avoiding what everyone else was doing, in other works he was seeking his own niche. In this, his utilization of aspects of Japanese art was merely a convenience.

This attitude also explains his rather odd personal image choice of toothbrush moustache and pudding bowl haircut, an image that has clear elements of self caricature, but also one that helped people to remember him. In his personal image, as in his creative style, it seems that Foujita was acting tactically. The fact that his art sold well suggests that these ploys paid off handsomely.

Two Women, 1918
In addition to Japanese influences, other elements in his painting clearly arise from his sensitivity to artistic trends. In 1914, when Cubism was still popular, he was painting Cubist works. Later, paintings, like Girl with a Flower and Two Women (both 1918), with their elongated and stylized figures, seem like attempts to impinge on Modigliani’s territory.

His trademark style, which received the seal of approval at 1921’s Salon d’Automne, had much to do with the conservative backlash that occurred following the war and the Russian Revolution, when even painters like Picasso returned to figurative styles and classicizing motifs. Another part of this trend away from the ‘chaos’ of cubism, abstraction, and Dadaism was the Detailliste movement, which believed in painting each blade of grass or individual cat’s whisker.

In his focus on exquisite detail and his choice of classically posed nudes – and even Christian themes – as subject matter, Foujita seems a reflection of this now largely forgotten retreat from the endless rule breaking that typified 20th century art.

Self Portrait in the Studio, 1926
As Foujita always had one eye on how he was perceived in Paris, it is not surprising that his most visually impressive paintings are the ones that he did when he finally left the ‘City of Light’ in 1931, taking almost two years to return to Japan as he journeyed through Latin America and the United States. Instead of the pale, flat works that he did to set him apart from other artists in Paris, the paintings he executed on this trip, like the earthy prostitutes in Two Women in a Room (1932) are flush with the rich colors he encountered, and have a raw energy that his more considered works lack.

This period, when he appears to have gone through something of a midlife crisis, presents some of his best and most honest art, like the deeply introspective Self Portrait (1936), painted when he was aged 50.

During the war years, Foujita tried hard to be a good patriotic Japanese, painting melodramatic battle scenes, but as Kuraya points out, he was already too dejapanized.
“In these works the White soldiers look more human, while the Japanese soldiers are more caricatured,” she points out. “This is understandable as he had lived among White people for 17 years.”
A few years after the end of the War, Foujita returned to Paris, where he converted to Catholicism and finally died in 1968, a year when French society was tearing itself apart.
“By converting to Catholicism he said he could become more like a real Frenchman,” Kuraya reveals. “He was always struggling between the two cultures.”
Although his affinity with France is undeniable, as Kuraya suggests, Foujita, being an Asian in a White country, at times felt like an outsider. Perhaps this is expressed in his art by the cat motif, which is present in many of his works, including two self portraits from 1926 and 1929. Just as cats remains aloof and alien while living in perfect intimacy with humans, so these cats seem to express a cozy sense of alienation by an artist who clearly landed on his feet and knew his way around the backstreets of the Parisian art World.

The Japan Times
4th May, 2006
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