“An idea struck me one day: there are only very few nudes in Japanese paintings. Even painters like Harunobo or Utamaro let only appear a portion of the knee or the leg, and these were the restricted area where they could represent the skin sensation. This is what encouraged me to paint nudes again after 8 years of break with the clear objective of depicting the most beautiful material that can be: human’s skin.” (Foujita quoted page 96 in Sylvie & Dominique Buisson, Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita Volume I, Paris, France, 2001.)
The Western canon of the Nude
By the 1920s, Foujita is already a well-known figure of Montparnasse and recognised as a leading artist of the School of Paris. Since 1919 he has become a celebrity in the Parisian society after six of his works were exhibited in the Salon d’Automne. The artist explores a new environment made of parties and admirers after going through a troubled period in the First World War years in France. And he can now focus on his intention to become a world acclaimed artist who will not be identified from his Japanese identity only. Foujita is a singular figure of the art history who will have an eccentric life style, without commitment to a specific heritage or a nation but only to himself and his art. The theme of Nudes is the perfect field to illustrate this battle: an iconic canon of Western art history illustrated by his own vocabulary, inspired by Asian calligraphic technique. Foujita’s nudes would enter into the pantheon of nude representations of that time, led by figures such as Amadeo Modigliani or Chaïm Soutine.
Both Reclining Nude painted in 1917-18 by Modigliani (Fig. 1) and Buste de jeune fille (Lot 8)represent a modern figure of the woman. Published in 1922 the scandalous book La Garçonne (Fig.2) written by Victor Margueritte describes an urban liberated woman who proclaims to be at the borders of genre, wearing her hair short and her freedom as a banner. The model depicted in Buste de Jeune Fille illustrates this woman: seated in a languid pose, the posture is feminine while the fine and simplistic lines are shaping a figure that remains on the edges of genre. More than the traditional feminine features, this is the painted technique and the tenderness in Foujita’s representation which create this sensual feeling radiating from the portrait.
The calligraphic heritage
While exploring this theme, Foujita built his esthetic language that would characterised his unique artistic quest. The composition is almost monochrome, but her skin skin is dazzling in shades of white and grey. Afaded pink brings colour to the lips of the melancholic face. This technique called nyuhakushoku (literally “whiteness of milk”) was closely guarded secret by Foujita: he would layer his canvas with a white background to create a creamy and soft surface, perfect to capture the beauty of his models’ skin. The lines are then applied with the Japanese ink sumi technique with the menso, the thinnest brush used by traditional Japanese painters. This use of calligraphy materials is similarly found in his fellow contemporary artist Sanyu who would also circle his nudes with a refine black line, with the assured wrist of a well-trained calligrapher (Fig. 3). The purity of the line renders a lively and chaste feminine figure who inspire and mesmerize the viewer.
Buste de jeune fille stands out in Foujita’s nudes work, being also painted at a turning point in his life. 1924 was a turbulent year for the artist who divorced his first wife Fernande and marry Youki. Lucie, nicknamed Youki (literally “Snow”) by Foujita represents this “Garçonne” modern woman of the 1920s as well as Foujita’s faithful friend Kiki, the “Queen of Montparnasse.” This nude exemplifies the critical moment when Foujita’s work would become an influential figure for both spheres of the art world being eastern or western.