Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita is recognized as one of Japan and France's most celebrated painters of the 20th century. His career spanning across Europe, the Americas and Asia was one filled with loss and success but most of all determination. It perhaps began even before he entered the Tokyo University of Fine Art to study yoga (Western painting) under famed Seiki Kuroda, exhibit at the Autumn Salon in Paris or become an integral part of the Paris School in the 1920s. When Foujita was a tender 14 years old, his watercolor was chosen to be exhibited at the World Exposition in Paris (1900). His recognition by the art community in the early 20th Century was amplified by his vibrant personality, and was often found in the company of Modigliani, Diego Rivera and numerous models. (1) Soon, he became a legend in Montparnasse where he settled down in 1913 to Reims where he built his last atelier and was followed by Japanese and French audiences alike through newspaper articles and press. Each reader became enamored by this character became known simply by his last name, much like the other great masters before him. In examining his works from the 1930s and 1960s, we can re-construct the diverse themes central to Foujita's oeuvre and how his Japanese techniques and flavor remained constant and ultimately set him apart from other artists.
Foujita's intention was to become the greatest artist in history, a notion reflected in his following statement: "I wondered why my predecessors had only come to measure themselves against Europeans with the intention of returning to occupy important positions in JapanK I on the other hand was determined to lead a serious struggle on the continent, to compete on the real battlefield, even if it meant rejecting everything I had learned up until then." (2) While his predecessors took their education back to Japan to revitalize oil painting there, Foujita sought to be recognized on the world stage, influencing both spheres of the art world.
However with Paris plagued with the First World War the year after he arrived, like his fellow artists Foujita could not afford oil paints and survived in abject poverty. As a result he painted numerous watercolors and sold them through his first agent Georges Ch?ron and slowly developed his popularity. Even though Foujita transitioned to painting on canvas with oils and gold foil, the use of ink and the brushwork seen in his watercolors remained integral to his painting. As early as 1920 we begin to see works where Foujita layers his canvas with a smooth white layer of paint to create a creamy and soft flat surface; one perfect for reflecting the lustrous skin of his beautiful models. On top he shaded it with black ink to give volume and depth, turning the background a tender shade of grey which revealed a modernity and simplicity. Only then is ink employed to outline the intricate details of his painting. The ink lines ultimately defined the subject, and contained the essence of the artist himself. Of lines Foujita wrote that whether they be the result of careful analysis and employment was not of importance. What mattered was the instinctive nature with which Foujita painted, thus revealing a realistic interpretation and the emotional core of the subject (3). In his self portraits, he is always found holding a fine ink brush, with a suzuri (ink stone) next to him and is perhaps indicative of how he wanted to be remembered.
Such use of emotional calligraphic lines is similarly found in his fellow contemporary artists Sanyu who was also in Paris in the 1920s and mingled in similar social crowds at Le D?me and La Rotonde. Foujita's ink paintings were more delicate while Sanyu's brushwork is more powerful yet equally precise, offering a visual parallel between the two artists. Foujita found that in France sensuality was embraced rather than hidden. With no conservative objection he could paint a full nude form rather than depicting only partial nudes and leaving the rest to the imagination of the viewer. Indeed painting the nude form lent itself nicely to express the artistic freedom and exploration of Europe.
In Femme au Petit Chat (Lot 1003) of 1939 we find two of his beloved subjects: cats and women. Having adopted several cats himself, he often found them curious to see his paintings and thus slowly inserted themselves in his works. Once asked on why he liked to paint the two subjects together, Foujita amusingly replied "Because cats and women are the same, if you play and entertain them, they become calm and obedient and if not, they rebel. See, if you give a woman whiskers and a chapeau (hat), the woman becomes a cat." (4) With cascading blonde hair, the featured model is likely Madeleine Lequeux, a striking hostess from Paris. Painted just a few years after Foujita's trip through South America with Madeleine, the painting is executed with a pleasantly oriental flair, a notion aided by his return to signing his name in both Japanese and French. In limiting the details to the lower right corner, Foujita leaves room for the viewer to catch his or her breath in the emptiness as to not overwhelm the eye. Despite the monochrome palette, the soft grey wall behind the figure creates a clear perception of depth, one that is aided by dark pillar on the left. As if to guide the eye through the painting, Foujita applies a light pink to her lips, nails and the seams of the pillow, hinting at us to not miss the delicate ruffles of her dress and the cuddled kitten.
In the 1940s, following an extended tense period serving as a war painter in Japan and struggling to return to Paris, he was finally granted a visa and returned to the artists' second haven, Montmartre in 1950 with his newlywed wife Kimiyo. His invigoration, new surge of creativity and perhaps his nostalgia for France is found in the works in this decade. Perhaps his reminiscence also extended to the memories of his childhood where the passing of his mother at an early age left a distinct impression. There is no story stronger than the Madonna and Christ when discussing mother and child; a narrative frequently explored by Foujita even before his baptism in 1959. From this day on, he would sign his painting 'L. Foujita', after Leonard, his Catholic name.
In both Madone (2 figures) (Lot 1001) and Madone (3 figures) (Lot 1002), Foujita applies rich red, blue and green colors and glistening gold foil like delicate 'altarpieces', to welcome the viewer to share his joy as a new born French Catholic. Though the classic subject has for centuries been depicted, Foujita's rendering is distinctive in its authentic yet unique image. It is through the delicate yet distinct lines of the expressive hands of the babe, Madonna and devotee that Foujita expresses an overwhelming sense of devotion and need. As the Madonna presses the Christ child against her body in both works, the child's body bends towards her protective arm. His crossed legs and arms also lean towards Madonna yet this gesture equally conveys a sense of maturity and self awareness. The crisp lines form the gentle expression of both figures from his early works still remains and is not lost despite his more conservative subject. Both works in their small scales are like small devotional works for the artist and pre-empt the grand masterpiece, the Foujita chapel that Foujita would build shortly after. The dense yet luminous colors of each work carry a translucency like stained glass windows which we can imagine adorned Foujita's chapel.
Despite living and working through World War I and World War II, Foujita's persevered to paint and carry on holding exhibitions in Japan, Europe and South America simultaneously. He fascinated the art world and the general public with his vivid social life and more importantly the tenderness of his paintings. Few artists in Japan had attained such fame early on in their careers and found themselves recognized world wide with such enthusiasm and admiration. Foujita in building his chapel hoped not only to gain eternal life as a Catholic but also to solidify him into the realm of the indisputable leaders in the art world and without question, achieved this perhaps years before the chapel was ever conceived.