|Self Portrait, 1936|
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 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 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|
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.
“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.”
“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