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Tsuguharu Foujita: The lost Bohemian of 1920s Paris


The life of Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita raises one, unignorable question: How is it that a man who was once the toast of bohemian Paris is now only known among art-obsessives, while the names of his once-ignored and penniless contemporaries are treated with the reverence of holy scripture by practically everyone on the planet?

Paris in the 1920s was the centre of arts and culture in the western world; home to one of the most diverse and vibrant international art scenes of the century. And yet, we continue to fixate on an incredibly small and select group of artists; I’m talking about Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse – the big hitters. But what about those artists who fell through the cracks, who slipped into the shadows despite their obvious talent and immense success? I think it’s about time we started rooting around behind the chaise lounge of 1920’s Bohemia, and who better to start with than Foujita, one of the most ego-driven, chaotic, and wonderful artists to emerge from the murky world of inter-war Paris.

Foujita’s ambition was almost as big as his parent’s income. Born into an aristocratic family in Tokyo in 1886, he knew that if he wanted to make it as an artist he needed to go to where the most exciting artworks were being made, which, at that time, was Paris. So, after graduating from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts, he took a ship across the Pacific and eventually settled in Montparnasse. As he walked along the rain-soaked cobbles towards his new studio at no. 5 rue Delambre, passing beggars and brothels as he went, he began to understand that this was a city so beautiful, people would surely rather be poor here than rich anywhere else. Back in Tokyo, meanwhile, Foujita’s father was opening the letter his son had hastily written prior to his departure. It read, “Consider me dead until I become famous.”

Thankfully, fame was forthcoming. Foujita’s combination of traditional Japanese ‘ukiyo-e’ painting and European post-impressionism, alongside his eccentric fashion sense, earned him something of a reputation among Parisian art circles. With his neat bowl-cut, tortoiseshell glasses and huge gold earrings, he made the dandies of yesteryear look like chimney-sweeps. But, then, he could get away with his outrageous style because he was treated with a certain exoticism, despite the fact that he was quickly becoming one of the most prized Japanese painters working in France. He even managed to sport a lampshade as a hat while visiting the opera, arguing that it was a traditional Japanese head garment if anyone dared question its presence in the front row of La Vie Boheme.

In this early period, he painted some truly astonishing cityscapes, such as Scéne de Rue (1917), in which he captures the glamourous grime of the Left Bank with the unique perspective of an outsider looking in. At this time, he was already mingling with the likes of Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso, the latter of whom bought as many of the 110 works that made up Foujita’s debut show as he could carry under his arms.

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By the time the ’20s were in full swing, Foujita had developed a signature style that saw him blend oil paint with doses of Sumi, an oriental ink which – along with the ultra-thin Menso brushes he used – allowed him to bring the precision of Japanese painting to his incredibly popular female nudes. Foujita married five times in his life, with each of them modelling for him at one point or another. However, there were times when he chose to use cabaret performers or models as his subjects — just as he did for one of his first nudes, Nu couché à la toile de Jouy, which featured a dancer and model known as Kiki de Montparnasse. It was an absolute sensation and made Foujita one of the most celebrated artists in Paris.

Foujita’s real love, however, wasn’t for women but for cats. His passion for felines, which are symbols of good luck in Japan, was shared by his friend Jean Cocteau, who would attend cat shows with him on a regular basis. Foujita included cats in the background of a large number of his works, but it wouldn’t be until the release of his Book Of Cats (1930) that they would become his main subject. Today, the collection of etched plate cat drawings is one of the rarest and most sought-after art books in the world.

With the dawn of a new decade, the limits of Foujita’s success became clear. The 1920s had been his time; an era of glamour, eccentricity, and excess, but now the hangover of the 1930s was beginning to set in. Although he’d achieved his adolescent ambition to be famous, he’d never really been treated as an equal by his European contemporaries. To them, he had always been the oddball from Tokyo, the loveable outsider with a taste for expensive cars and outlandish costumes. Indeed, despite his success, Foujita hadn’t managed to save any of his earnings and was eventually forced to flee Paris for South America after being handed a huge tax bill by the French government.

As the years passed, the international spirit that had defined inter-war Paris was replaced by the simmering xenophobia that was already beginning to consume France’s European neighbours. Foujita chose to return to Tokyo, where he became the official war painter of the Japanese imperial army, a decision that saw him ridiculed by his pacifist friends in Europe. Then, after the war, he returned to France, where, in 1955, he became the first Asian to be made an Officer of the Legion of Honour by the French government.

But by the time of his passing in 1968, Foujita’s star was also beginning to emit a dying flicker. Interest in his work saw a resurgence in the 1980s, at which time paintings were readily bought by Japanese collectors, but then he disappeared from view once again in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s not entirely clear why Foujita’s name isn’t included in the pantheon of era-defining artists that includes Mattise, Picasso, and Modigliani, but it’s possible his outsider status played a part. European culture has always had a tendency to celebrate internationalism and multiplicity only to abandon it shortly afterwards. The 1920s gave way to a period of economic hardship, nationalism, and war, meaning that international artists such as Foujita, who weren’t felt to be suitable examples of European artistic expression, were often willingly ignored, which begs the question: who are we choosing to ignore today?