|Foujita with a feline friend. Image courtesy of The Cultural Cat|
Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita (1886-1968) was a painter and printmaker who was prominent in Europe and Japan throughout his long career but is relatively unknown today outside of Japanese art circles. I have a soft spot for those dynamic characters whose stories somehow become buried in history despite their huge cultural strides (see "Professor" Richard Risley Carlisle, for instance), and Foujita's life and work are immensely inspiring to me. The only known work of his in a U.S. museum is in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (Portrait of Emily Crane Chadbourne, 1922), but hundreds of his paintings, prints, drawings and watercolors are held in public and private collections around the world. I just finished Phyllis Birnbaum's excellent biography Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita--the Artist Caught Between East and West and have been obsessed lately with learning as much as I can about this fascinating person who was one of modern Japan's most prominent global artists.
I actually first learned about Foujita when I was studying at Waseda University from 2005-2006. I found my way to his huge 2006 career retrospective at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo-- a rare exhibit that featured dozens of his paintings. It was so crowded that I could barely move, let alone get close enough to see the details of the works. But, I remember that I was immediately struck by how "creamy" his paintings were. The colors were so beautifully saturated and blended to a smooth, almost iridescent sheen. Foujita's ease with fusing the medium of oil painting with the technique of Japanese ink painting is unlike anything that I think we will ever see again.
And, I love his cat paintings! He lovingly captures every hair, whisker, and snaggle-toothed grin. You can feel the deep love that he has for cats, and he truly captures their essences. Many of his self portraits and press photos feature him cuddling up with a cat.
According to several sources in Birnbaum's book, Foujita's greatest talent was his charm. Although he lead a incredibly disciplined life and was deadly serious about his work and reputation (he refused to touch even a drop of alcohol), he was not afraid to be the life of the party and knew how to make fast friends wherever he went. He also understood the powers of persona and personal style, and he painstakingly crafted a public image that was not just unique, but extraordinary. He was so well known on the streets of 1920s Paris that a department store there used mannequins fashioned in his likeness!
I was re-working a paper that I had written on contemporary Japanese artists living and working outside of Japan and decided to re-aquaint myself with Foujita's world. I dove right into Glory In A Line and immensely enjoyed learning more about the intricacies and controversies of this man's life. Birnbaum is a true Japan scholar, and she conducted an exhaustive examination of a person whose legacy continues to provoke. I appreciated how she broke up the narrative of Foujita's life into short, fact-filled thematic essays and occasionally included asides featuring anecdotes wrapped up in some of the interviews with her sources. She is especially skilled at presenting the stories of Foujita's women without allowing their voices to color the story (a challenge that she readily acknowledges to the reader, given her background and speciality in giving voice to the lives of historical Japanese women). The book flows along, highlighting times good and bad, extravagant and humble, but by the chapters outlining Foujita's involvement in WWII as a war artist for the Japanese effort, things get a bit sticky. I feel that this isn't necessarily the writer's fault, and if anything it's a reflection on how the last third of Foujita's life was filled with personal and political tensions. Birnbaum also clearly shows how difficult of an endeavor it was to present Foujita in an objective light. He is still a controversial figure in Japan mainly because of his contributions to WWII, but also because of some lingering discomfort with his ultimate decision to leave the Japanese art world behind and settle in France after the war. The only thing that was disappointing in the book was the lack of actual reproductions of Foujita's art. Birnbaum discusses a number of works at length, but only a few are included as black and white plates. I had to spend a good amount of time cross-referencing and tracking down paintings in online archives while reading, and even then some of my searches to find certain works were fruitless. I suspect, though, that this lack of context is due to issues with permissions for images. Even nearly a hundred years after his heyday, Foujita's world is still very much behind closed doors.
What I enjoy most about studying Foujita's body of work is that it reflects many of the themes that I am obsessed with researching: Japanese artists working abroad, national artistic identity, and multiculturalism in art styles. He was certainly an artist who was comfortable moving between places and cultures, but with this came a heartbreak that is all too familiar to the life of the ex-pat. He seemed to fit in everywhere and nowhere, and although it must have been a burden at times, Foujita refused to compromise his strong style and sense of pride. In his art and in his life story, he shares great lessons about the power and possibility of following one's path with unbridled passion.