Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita was a Japanese artist with an outstanding career who achieved unprecedented success as an Asian artist in Europe in the 1920s and subsequently expanded his fame to the other continents, in the Americas and Asia. The transformation seen in his name itself implies a dramatic life with a constant search for true identity of himself from the nomadic Parisian to the Diaspora in Paris. Born Fujita Tsuguharu, he adopted a single name and vowel-enhanced French spelling while developing his career in Paris and added Leonard, his baptized name, chosen in homage to Leonardo da Vinci, almost at the end of 82- year life. In great contrast to his physical separation from his mother land throughout his life, his paintings explicitly prove that spiritually he was more Japanese than any Japanese who never left their nation. No one will argue that it was the cultural underpinnings and Japanese traditions that shaped Foujita and his art.
A Japanese sense of refinement that we, even a novice to art, can easily discover from his paintings, basically originated from his employment of certain Japanese materials such as menso (fine brushes), nikawa (animal glue) and sumi (ink). It was, however, his dexterity and expert draftsmanship with these materials and his own invention of techniques that allowed him to achieve his characteristic traits of novelty beyond Japanese tradition, and to reach his ultimate originality. His needle-sharp-lines are created with a menso, the thinnest type of the numerous brushes used by traditional Japanese painters. However, unlike them, his Japanese sensibility in addition to the modernity from his life experience in the West drove him to create his unique style of sinuous lines uncommonly strong, yet delicate at the same time.
His ink technique was also very unique, which differentiates his paintings from old style sumi-e, traditional Japanese ink brush painting. He developed a characteristic style by combining liberal use of his own white paint and ink. As early as 1920, we begin to see works where Foujita applies this type of technical development. He layers his canvas with a smooth white tone to create a creamy and soft flat surface; one perfect for reflecting the lustrous skin of his beautiful female models. On top he shades it with black ink to give volume and depth, turning the background a tender tint of grey. Only then he outlines the intricate details of his painting with his characteristic emotional lines. The ink lines ultimately defined the subject, and contained the essence of the artist himself. Of lines, Foujita wrote that the instinctive nature with which he painted a realistic interpretation, along with the emotional core of the subject were the primary matters to him. We can better savor the ultimate beauty of his paintings with an extra attention to his exquisite brushstrokes resulted in his unique free and bold lines. It is no exaggeration to say that he can embody delicate, even very subtle emotions of his subjects and himself in a single short line. He had an outstanding talent to express every little detail of emotions and thoughts with his brushstrokes and lines, almost unmatched by any other painter of the 20th Century, including Asian artists who inherited an Asian tradition of line techniques.
In Les deux amiesi (The Two Girlfriends) (Lot 1008), we feel enchanted by the beauty of its females depicted with simplicity, serenity and a subtlety, mainly achieved by all of those traits explained just above. It describes two female friends holding hands, exposing the upper bodies and the remaining lower half covered with cloth. During the 1920s and the early 1930s, but more intensively in 1926 when Les Deux Amies (The Two Girlfriends) was produced, Foujita vigorously explored a theme of nudes with two females engaged with each other. Apparently he tried to make a certain distinction between East and West in his motifs and genres, as he regarded the nude as one of the main images in Western art history. From that point, we can assume the reason why he was persistent with Western women in the topic of female nudes. It is, however, perhaps his uncanny strategy to make Westerners, his major audience at the time, more easily associated with his paintings. On the contrary to the artist's ironic insistence, his nude paintings described with purity of lines, evoke within us a restrained eroticism of the Edo period, imbued by his refined Japanese sensibility.
Without exception, he always painted one as a brunet and the other as a blonde, when painting two females, as if each symbolizes East and West, although apparently both models look Westerners. They remind us an Asian tradition of philosophically describing two figures as reflections to each other or one as a shadow of the other, when painting two individuals in a painting. Their poses engaging with each other in Foujita's two female nude paintings perhaps imply the perfect harmony of Yin and Yang, filling mutual deficiency. In Les deux amies (The Two Girlfriends), the exposed upper bodies of the two beautiful ladies illustrate a good example of his invention of dazzling creamy white colors mentioned above, which make them so lifelike and so chaste. When we carefully examine this painting, we can understand the reason why Foujita refused to divulge the recipe for his white concoction and why he kept its exact ingredients such a closely guarded secret.
Although Foujita gained his fame mostly by his graceful nude paintings, he seemed to find certain exuberance of joy in portraying himself. His obsession with self-portraits can be first explained by his eccentric ego. A recent biography of him introduces his huge ego by saying that "Monotonously, with an ego as big as a chateau, he insisted over and over that he was going to explore everything, going to succeed, going to create something original." In fact, we feel it was inevitable for him to shape this spectacular ego, especially if we consider his independent life style, which made him never truly belong to any communities committing only to himself and his art. In that his life mission was to become the greatest artist in history, there was nothing but himself that he could rely on. It never changed throughout entire his life, from his first Paris period (1913- 1929) when he became an integral part of the Paris School along with Modigliani and Soutine, the period of travelling to the Americas (1930-1933) where he gained exceptional fame as well as in Europe, even the period with his return to Japan and travelling to East Asia (1933-1949), and not to mention the final period of permanently departing from Japan to settle in Paris (1949-1968). It is also probably true that his family background as the son of a Japanese general, a high-ranking military doctor, elite education from the Tokyo University of Fine Art, and attractive appearance with an extraordinary fashion sense would partially contribute to his enhanced ego.
In Self-Portrait with a Cat (Lot 1009), one of his best examples of self-portraits, frequently produced during the 1920s and 1930s, we face the artist who friendly gazes at us, posed a bit tilted on the slant, holding a fine ink brush with a cat stretching its neck from his back. There are always some riddles in his paintings, dexterously devised by the artist and at the same time some hints for us to decode them. His self-portraits are not an exception. If we carefully probe his self-portraits of those decades, we can find a striking fact that Foujita's appearances throughout them remain almost identical, only with slight changes in hand position and background. It is the result of repetitive depiction in the same outfits and much more importantly his trademark bangs, mustache, tortoiseshell glasses along with a hand holding a fine ink brush. He even sometimes appropriated an image of himself, as we can find an identical Foujita of Self-Portrait with a Cat again in the subsequent self-portrait, Autoportrait dans l'atelier, painted in 1932. He intentionally reused the identical cat, stretching its neck upwards, in many of his other self-portraits as well. These factors evidently prove that he aimed, with his self-portraits, casting a cat as a supporting actor, to establish himself as an iconic figure of the number one artist in history, perhaps following some examples of religious iconography in the past. To Foujita, self-portraits were an efficient channel for a self-propaganda through setting an iconic image of himself, not a mere tool to record his private life. Through self-portraits, he perhaps intended to provide us with a specific guideline how he wanted to be seen by us and remembered in the history. Thus they are all extremely carefully created with his scheme to cultivate his celebrity status and build his public personality, similar to Andy Warhol who repetitively created self-portraits with his trademark silver wings
In Le marche aux puces (Le clochard) (Lot 1010), we witness how he succeeded in going further, even beyond his exquisite paintings produced during his heyday. It is a perfect balance between ink and oil that seizes our eyes at first glance. Then with a careful examination we are amazed by a highly elaborate manner of applying many delicate layers, resulting in a dazzling surface but still remaining Japanese in the intelligent use of line and ink. It is also very interesting and helpful for decoding the riddles of the painting to scrutinize unusually complicated composition and details of the figures and objects emerging in it. Foujita depicts a flea market scene, locating an aged man in the center, occupying most of the canvas, with a little girl behind him. The man is supposed to be a tramp judging by his worn garments and obviously by the subtitle, Le clochard . Despite his ratty cloths, the man seems to have dignity almost akin to a noble king. A supreme confidence expressed on his relaxed face primarily accorded him noble dignity, enhanced by a solid triangle structure of his pose which reminds us the men with high degrees depicted in Hans Holbein' s noted portraits such as The Ambassadors and Henry VIII . There is one more triangular composition in the painting, composed by the relationships among a man, a girl and a female portrait painting. It leads us to a crucial hint that perhaps the painting is a metaphorical self-portrait. The Asian-looking man with the Western garment is the artist himself. While his humble attire symbolizes his life as an innate outsider who never felt entirely at home anywhere, the dignity is intended to manifest Foujita' s artistic achievement.
As was a cat in Self-Portrait with a Cat , both a little cute girl who looks vivacious and a female portrait with an initial F for Foujita are casted as supporting elements for the man, the artist himself, each probably symbolizing youth and his lovers who has inspired his art through his life. In the painting three main subjects are surrounded by miscellaneous objects such as a broken doll, a clock, a jar, a painting on the ground, and an empty cage hanging on the wall, which illustrate his admiration of everyday objects throughout his life. Foujita seems to pour all wisdom and experience from his past into this painting, judging from detailed elaborations in every aspect we can trace. The painting corresponds to the sediment piled up by his technical inventions and hard training of brushworks, both arousing and old-fashioned air that he was personally fond of and conveying an loneliness and air of isolation, whether he intended it or not.
If Foujita's flamboyant, yet mysterious life needs to be summarized in one word, it would be a "riddle", with no answer. His unequivocal and even paradoxical manners of talking made the riddle remain securely unsolved, which provokes infinite curiosity amongst people, with the result that he will never be forgotten. Like a pendulum swung back and forth, he consistently oscillated between East and West, war criminal and a closet pacifist, and patriotism and nomadism during his entire life. As Jean Chatelain, then a director of the Museum of France said in 1966, "Foujita, while never denying his origins, has produced a synthetic work where French and Japanese influences are intermingled." The lonely path made by his oscillation eventually rewarded him by becoming the best example of a Japanese diaspora who found the answer for originality.
Foujita traveled and painted around Latin America from 1931 to 1933, when a few significant self-portraits mentioned above were produced. He held numerous exhibitions there and achieved unexpected huge success in both artistic and commercial points of view. During this period, he painted many great paintings of native men and women such Bolivian women with their round hats and Mexicans draped in their ponchos. Le carnaval, a Rio de Janeiro (Lot 1011) produced in this period illustrates Foujita's ambivalent attitude; the excitement of exotic experiences and analytical observation on the unfamiliar cultures. It depicts a celebrated carnival in Brazil, fully covered whole canvas with eight persons, which makes it a rare example, one of scarce paintings that large numbers of people appear in a picture throughout Foujita's oeuvre. He exquisitely depicts the frenzied atmosphere of the festival by carefully describing each person's emotion. At first blush, they all appear to be on the spree, probably intoxicated with liquor and lost in music. We can tell, however, that everyone is in a different state of mind through a close examination on their face expressions and gestures. For instance, a seemingly enchanted lady with a timberline in her left hand, lifting her red skirt with the other hand makes a great contrast with a man behind her, with a grimace of fury.
Technically Foujita induces us to focus on the elaborated surface of the painting through his characteristic effect of oil and ink in addition to enhanced two-dimensional impact due to no hint of perspective. While the vibrant varied colors of people with different skin tones from pale pink to dark brown and colorful garments combined with a background of crossed diagonal patterns bring a dynamic energy of Latin America to painting, the compact composition evokes within the viewer a physical tension among people, reflecting Foujita's rational analysis. The painting shows that he was extremely talented to sharply catch and express the traits of the local people and their indigenous culture, never forgetting to add his own thoughts from a careful observation. As a result, his painting that deals with a familiar subject to the natives remains very exotic and fresh to them, and naturally captivates their attention. It is not very surprising that he gained such a huge fame despite his short staying in Latin America. As we have seen in the example of a self-portrait above, Foujita always followed through on the plans he devised. It was not an exception when he chose to permanently settle in Paris for the rest of his life. We can try to assume a few reasons why he left his mother country and never returned: the postwar criticisms on his devastating paintings of Japanese military subjects; his innate resistance to be tamed by a community. It is also because he felt in his bones that it was ironically the best way to engrave him as a symbol of Japanese artists in history and to get wider posthumous recognition from the Japanese. Most importantly it is perhaps because he was eager to go back to the most creative time of his artistic career. With his aspiration to be productive once again, he explored varied themes widely ranging from the religious figures to life of the poverty-stricken, at the same time maturing his line and ink techniques developed during his early career.