Few Japanese artists have received the extremes of acclaim and censure that Leonard Foujita (Tsuguharu Fujita, 1886-1968) has. Based in Paris from 1913 he became Japan’s only painter of international significance at that time, and by the 1920s, he commanded prices comparable to Picasso. As a leading and enthusiastic painter for Japan’s military during World War II, he was subsequently vilified in the postwar manhunts seeking ideological complicity.
Foujita studied the mix of Impressionism and French Academicism that was at the avant-garde of Japanese oil painting under Seiki Kuroda. Frustrated by three rejections from government-sponsored exhibitions, he sailed for Paris, where he avoided the senior Japanese artists in residence and made Cubist paintings until he could determine his own style.
The popularity of his grand fond blanc paintings — milky female nudes, carefully outlined on white backgrounds — launched Foujita to upward mobility and its perks, including a chauffeur-driven car. Cutting a cosmopolitan, bohemian figure with his bowl cut, round glasses and earrings, the demand for his self-portraits was testament his pin-up status. His fame, however, did not follow him to Japan in 1929. When he tried to sell paintings to cover French tax arrears, he was slammed for self-promotion by an audience unfamiliar with his work.
His subsequent battle-record painting in the service of Japan’s war from 1938 engaged him little. With an apparent case of artist’s block, he sojourned in Paris before returning to Japan in 1940 and throwing himself into painting war conflicts of tangled complexity. Foujita’s imagery was propagandistic and officially sanctioned — onlookers could be observed kneeling and crying before his “Final Fighting on Attu” (1943) — yet some young artists thought Foujita’s paintings were anti-war.
Epic battle paintings brought Fujita the acceptance he craved from his homeland, but it was short-lived. He was, most prominently, held accountable for the artistic wrongdoing of the many artists who glorified Japan’s wartime aggression. When he left for France again in 1949, he first stopped off in New York where the press denounced him a fascist and artists Ben Shahn and Yasuo Kuniyoshi hounded visitors to his exhibition.
With abstraction in fashion, the Paris art scene of Foujita’s youth had also gone. Pictures of elfin children that mostly caricatured early paintings preoccupied him in his later years, as did conversion to Catholicism and a commission to decorate a chapel in Reims. For the chapel’s dedication, Foujita prayed: “I would like to atone for my sins of the past 80 years.”
“Leonard Foujita — Art Bridging the East and West” at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs until Sept. 22; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,400. Closed Mon. www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp