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Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita–the Artist Caught Between East and West, by Phyllis Birnbaum. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006, 332 pp., with photographs. $27.50 (cloth)

The line referred to in this excellent biography of the troubled artist, Tsuguharu Fujita (1886-1968), is the “thin line of amazing flexibility and grace” that “outlined cat and nudes alike.” It could, the biographer tells us, “sweep around a naked woman’s body with much courage, following the curves of hips and calves, seemingly without a break.”

In describing his celebrated line, Foujita (he preferred the French rendering of Fujita) said “before I draw a line, I want to become one with the object and draw from my instincts.” An implication was that he shared this idea with earlier Japanese artists, the sumi-e painters, the print-makers, all of whom cultivated a like line.

Indeed, as Foujita always claimed and as the patterns of his life here indicate, though he spent half of his life abroad, he felt (“from my instincts”) the strongest and most troubled affinity with Japan and “Japaneseness.”

It is this that Phyllis Birnbaum indicates in her subtitle: “The artist caught between East and West.” The Japaneseness of Foujita’s work served him well in Paris but badly in Tokyo where he was seen as offering the French “a warmed-over version of the kind of art available in Japan for centuries.”

One reaction to such criticism would have been to ignore it. Foreign success was his. During his first “French period,” Foujita became rich and eventually so famous as to be almost notorious. Yet he continued to worry about the folks back home. Birnbaum has described the state. “To the end of his life, Foujita lurched between patriotism and fury, never able to break free of his native country.”

Apparently this is difficult to do. Perhaps, given the examples, it is particularly difficult for Japanese. Soseki Natsume all but emotionally paralyzed in London; Toson Shimazaki lugubrious in Paris. And the spectacle of those returning — Yukio Mishima becoming more Japanese than the Japanese.

One need not even have lived abroad. Both Yasunari Kawabata and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, who never had foreign addresses, were much involved with the West and things Western, yet they ended up fixated on Japanese traditional arts and aesthetics. Foujita’s career was exceptionally troubled in that he went back and forth so often, each time with the highest expectations, each time only to find them dashed.

On the first trip back to Japan he was jealously attacked by the arts establishment, which questioned all of his French credentials. Running back to France, he discovered that the Japan-boom was over, that his popularity was nothing like it had been thanks mainly to his country’s invasion of China and beyond.

Back in Tokyo again, he this time “offered his painting arm in service to the nation.” This was in 1938 and Japan was well advanced in its disastrous military adventures. As the biographer shows us, “Foujita transformed himself into an earnest representative of the state just as easily as he had changed [Paris] coffee shops.”

Not that he was alone in such “patriotism.” Almost everyone joined the military. The exceptions are so rare that they stand out: Tanizaki and Kafu Nagai in literature, Iri Maruki and Toshi Maruki in art. Foujita, on the other hand, was positively enthusiastic about what the military was doing. Maybe this was his way of finally again joining Japan.

He was officially honored and made the equivalent of a general. Birnbaum has described this as a kind of gratification for the artist. “As throngs of Japanese flocked to see his prominently displayed war paintings, Foujita at last made the connection with the general public in his native country that he had sought for so long.”

It availed him little, however. The war lost, Foujita found himself once more attacked, this time on political grounds. There was even talk of him being made a war criminal because of his strenuous wartime activities — talk that came to nothing. No artists of any sort were ever indicted. But the invective became so extreme that the artist fled back to France and, eventually, to a Swiss hospital where at the age of 86 he died.

That was 40 years ago. The posthumous reputation has been happier. Foujita’s work has been seen in major retrospectives including a significant one in Tokyo last year, and his prices have never been higher. He is also fortunate in that, in this first full-length biography, he has found a chronicler of the caliber of Birnbaum.

She has proved herself one of the fairest and most meticulous of biographical essayists and many of us still treasure her “Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese Women,” which appeared originally in The New Yorker, where much of her work has been published.

Foujita, caught between East and West, has happily here had his likeness completely caught, his whole, wonderful, terrible, happy and sad saga now perfectly preserved for us.

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