There’s a good reason that the artists given the moniker the Ecole de Paris were called a “school” — in the early 20th century they had flocked from all over the World to Paris to learn the styles, techniques, and attitudes that had put the French capital at the cutting edge of art.
The most famous among the Japanese contingent was Tsuguharu “Leonard” Foujita (1886-1968), whose art is enjoying its first comprehensive retrospective in Japan at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo till May 21. According to exhibition curator Mika Kuraya, Foujita’s motivations were different than other Japanese painters.
“Most of them were trying to master some techniques so they could return home to become painters in Japan,” she says. “Foujita’s ambition was to become famous in Paris.”
Arriving there just before World War I, Foujita stayed for almost 18 years, a testament both to his commitment to the Parisian art scene and the success he enjoyed there. But although he seems to have made some impact on the scene, his most important legacy is not his art but rather his proximity to some of the premier art legends of the 20th century — such as Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso and Man Ray — and the fact that he was Japanese. This is the reason why audiences here flock to his exhibition, while outside Japan his art has been largely forgotten.
That’s not to say that his painting is without merit, but that it has limited significance. Its idiosyncratic blending of Western techniques and Japanese sensibility couldn’t really be further developed by others, and it is highly self-conscious in that it is painted with undue reference to the people, trends, and situation of the time, rather than being driven by the deep, internal urges of a truly creative artist.
According to Kuraya, one of the reasons Foujita was successful in Paris was because he emphasized his nationality, personally and in his art. Paintings like “Nude with Tapestry” (1923) feature the sinuous line and flatness of nihonga and the muted colors of the medium that were ideally suited to the pale, milky skin then in vogue. But his utilization of aspects of Japanese art was really merely a convenience, as he stated that he was simply avoiding what everyone else was doing — in other words, seeking his own niche.
Such an attitude explains his odd choice to sport a toothbrush mustache and bowl haircut, clearly a self caricature, but one that helped people to remember him. In his personal style, as in his creative, Foujita was acting tactically. That his art sold well suggests that these ploys paid off handsomely.
In addition to Japanese influences, other elements in his painting clearly arise from his sensitivity to artistic trends. In 1914, when Cubism was still popular, he was painting Cubist works. Later, paintings, like “Girl with a Flower” and “Two Women” (both 1918), with their elongated and stylized figures, seem like attempts to impinge on Modigliani’s territory.
The style that became his trademark after well-received entries at the Salon d’Automne in the early ’20s, had much to do with the conservative trends following World War I and the Russian Revolution. At the time even painters such as Picasso had returned to figurative styles and classic motifs. The height of this backlash against the chaos of cubism, abstraction and Dadaism was the Detailliste movement, which believed in painting each blade of grass or individual cat’s whisker. In his focus on exquisite detail and his choice of classically posed nudes and Christian themes as subject matter, Foujita reflects this now largely forgotten step backward from the endless rule breaking that typified 20th century art.
As he always had one eye on how he was perceived in Paris, his most visually impressive paintings are the ones that he did when he finally left the city in 1931 and journeyed for two years through Latin America and the United States before returning to Japan. Instead of the pale, flat works that he previously did to set him apart from other artists, the paintings he executed on this trip, such as the earthy prostitutes in “Two Women in a Room” (1932), are flush with the rich colors he encountered, and have a raw energy that his more considered works lack.
This period, when he appears to have gone through something of a midlife crisis, presents some of his best and most honest art, like the introspective “Self Portrait” (1936), painted when he was 50 years old.
During the war years, Foujita tried hard to be a patriotic Japanese, painting melodramatic battle scenes, but as Kuraya says, he was already too de-Japanized.
She points out that “The Western soldiers look more human, while the Japanese soldiers are more caricatured . . . as he had lived among Westerners for 17 years.”
A few years after the end of the War, Foujita returned to Paris, where he converted to Catholicism in hopes of assimilating even more. As Kuraya explains, “He said he could become more like a real Frenchman.” Although his affinity with France is undeniable, it is Kuraya’s belief that Fujita still felt at times like an outsider.
Perhaps this is the meaning of the cat motif present in many of his works, including two self portraits from 1926 and 1929. Just as cats remain aloof while living in perfect intimacy with humans, Foujita’s cats seem to express a cozy sense of alienation by an artist who, landing on his feet as a foreigner in France, clearly figured out his way around the backstreets of the Parisian art world.