PORTRAIT DE YOUKI ALLONGÉE (RECLINING NUDE, YOUKI)
It is at the beginning of the 1920s that Foujita started to explore the reclining nude motif, receiving an immediate acclaim from the international artistic scene gathered in Paris at that time. The figure of the nude which inhabits the whole Western art history is a new field of investigation and artistic breakthrough for the young Japanese artist. The meeting with Youki his second wife and muse would open a new era in his artistic journey and in the history of nude representations.
When Leonard-Tsuguharu Foujita met Youki in 1924, he disappeared from the Montparnasse district in Paris for three days. As a central figure of the Parisian cultural scene, this absence was noticed and his close friends were afraid that, overwhelmed by his separation with Fernande a few months before, he would hide his sorrow from the public space. Actually Foujita was indeed hiding but with his newest conquest, the young and joyful Belgian orphan, Lucie nicknamed ‘Youki’ (“snow” in Japanese). In no time, Foujita and Youki settled in a luxurious apartment in the rich 16th arrondissement in Paris and would become one of the most famous couple of what was called ‘Les Annees Folles’ (fig.1). These were the years of fast life and success for Foujita who was now member of juries in reknown Salons and decorated with the French Legion of Honour. As Youki said later in her memoires, ‘in 1924, life was easy, business flourishing and Foujita started to be known. We were in love with each other, we were good, and kind and happy of everything’. 1 1927 could be marked as the peak of his success. The couple moved to a new house, near Montsouris Park in Paris where their neighbours are no less than the painters Andre Derain and Georges Braque. Besides the legendary parties they used to host, Foujita and Youki were surrounded by many friends among them Alexander Calder, Jules Pascin or Constantin Brancusi.
This is also a period of intense productivity and Foujita has very rigorous working hours. Living up to his reputation, the painter alternates between society life and asceticism of creation in one of his studios.
Portrait de Youki Allongee painted in 1927, is one of the most beautiful testimony of the model’s beauty. Lying on a bed, his model and wife is depicted in a position of total abandon to the painter’s precise eye and brush. Far from the chaos of the Parisian life, Youki is here shown asleep in a chaste figure, with a unique line carving her shape on the sheets. The dexterity of the painter, formed to the finest calligraphic technics during his youth in Japan, enables his brush to be as precise and expressive as the menso, the thinnest brush used by traditional Japanese painters.
Despite Foujita’s exuberant personality, Portrait de Youki Allongee radiates from a sense of perfection and infinite calm that contrasts with the couple’s swirling social life. Hiding her hazel eyes under her closed eyelids, the figure of Youki melts into the white background naturally as her pale skin is depicted with the same nyuhakushoku (literally “whiteness of milk”) technique. Inspired by the use of mineral pigment in the traditional Nihonga painting, Foujita would layer his canvas with a white background to create a creamy and soft surface, ideal to capture the beauty of his models’ skin and create a mesmerizing atmosphere, leading the viewer into an indoor composition painted in a range of white shades and grey. This almost monochrome technique, a new treatment of the figure in the West can be found in the representation of nude figures by his peers who stayed in Japan. Hashiguchi Goyo uses ink washes to modulate the female shape of painted in 1920. This delicacy of colours and line creates a universal and almost abstract beauty that both Foujita and the Nihonga disciples seeks, freed from the particular features of the model. Only Youki’s copper-coloured hair would stand out of this vision, not without recalling the arabesque lines and abandoned figures painted by Ingres such as Odalisque with Slave (fig.2) in 1839.
This unique aesthetic language enables Foujita to range the figure of Youki besides the nudes painted by his fellows of Ecole de Paris such as Jules Pascin (fig. 3) and to distinguish by his timeless modernity. If Youki was Foujita’s model for a decade, and a muse for the cultural Parisian scene at that time, it is the representations painted by Foujita which would made her an indisputable figure among the historic paintings of female nudes.
1 Youki quoted page 112 in Sylvie & Dominique Buisson, Leonard-Tsuguharu Foujita Volume I, Paris, France, 2001