During the unprecedentedly hot and uncomfortable summer of 2018, an exhibition titled “Foujita: A Retrospective ― Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of his Death” was held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. The retrospective featured works right from the beginning of Foujita’s career, dating from before he went to France and around the time he started to study oil painting at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (now Tokyo University of the Arts) to his late years when he poured his energies into the construction of the chapel of Our Lady Queen of Peace (Chapelle Foujita), which he designed himself in Reims, in the French region of Champagne. The retrospective was well worth seeing, including over 120 key pieces from more than sixty fertile years of artistic work; many oil paintings, but also watercolors, sketches, woodblock prints and ceramics.
As the retrospective’s title, “Foujita: A Retrospective ― Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of his Death” indicates, Foujita died half a century ago, in January 1968. I learned of Foujita’s death while staying in the United States.
That January I had been invited to the annual general meeting of the College Art Association of America, which was being held in Saint Louis. I had taken the opportunity to spend around two weeks traveling between cities of the American Midwest on shaky propeller planes and Greyhound buses. Everywhere I went, I saw the same scenes: the vast American Midwest spread out before me, before finally I returned via late night jet plane from Kansas City to New York. The next morning, for the first time in a while I picked up the New York Times and learned that Foujita Tsuguharu had died of cancer in a Zurich hospital.
The headline — and quite a prominent one too — read as follows: “Foujita, Japanese Painter of 20’s, Is Dead at 81.” Below that there was even a photo of a Foujita self-portrait: showing him with a bowl haircut, round black-rimmed spectacles, and a cat on his shoulder. It was very unusual for the New York Times, considered a high-quality broadsheet, to treat the death of a Japanese artist as such big news. At the very least, it is hard to think of another twentieth-century Japanese artist who was treated in this way. No doubt this was due to the international fame of Foujita, and it is well-known that this renown was caused by his spectacular endeavors in Paris during the period following World War I.
In 1913, at the age of 26, Foujita Tsuguharu traveled to France to try his hand at becoming a painter. Initially he planned to spend three years studying there then return, but the following year World War I broke out and it was no time to train as a painter. While the majority of other Japanese artists decided to return home, Foujita hardened his resolve to stick it out in France and worked hard at his creative efforts, even while he struggled to find enough food.
A reward for this suffering came in 1919, the year following the war’s end. Foujita submitted six pieces that he had worked on during the war to the reestablished Salon d’Automne. On that, his first attempt, he achieved the distinction of having all six accepted. Following this, he had work accepted almost every year and Foujita’s name rapidly became well known in the Paris art world. In particular, his series of female nudes were praised for the subtle expression of their lines and wonderful milk-white background. They were avidly received and propelled Foujita to fame. The talented French art historian and critic Henri Focillon described Foujita of this time as the Utamaro of Montparnasse. He accurately identified these female nudes as superbly combining a high sophistication with a delicate sensibility and imbued with a profound spirituality from both Japanese and Eastern art in general. The fact that the New York Times article reporting Foujita’s death classified him as a “Japanese Painter of the 20’s” is surely a reference to the works of this period that cemented Foujita’s fame.
The large number of nudes from the 1920s and other periods on show in the retrospective is also one of its key attractions. And they are not just demurely sleeping female nudes. There are his large-scale group studies, “Five Nudes” and “Before the Ball”; works that depict arrangements of nude women in varied poses and which could be described as pinnacles of Foujita’s artistic achievement.
Later, Foujita himself recalled this glittering period of honor as follows.
I lived in Tokyo until the age of 25. Then I spent 20 years living in Paris. My body developed in Japan, but my pictures developed in France. My family is in Japan and my friends in France. Now I am a world citizen with home countries of Japan and France. I feel nostalgia for two countries that are my home.
Foujita probably never imagined that, around twenty years after he reminisced in this way, the day would come when he would have to say a permanent farewell to one of those longed-for home countries: Japan. Nevertheless, in 1949 Foujita left Japan with a resolve to likely never return. In 1955 he gave up his Japanese nationality to become a French citizen, then four years later converted to Catholicism and became Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita.
Yet, despite this significant and fateful turning point in his life, Foujita the artist continued his creative activities without pause. If we take the time up to the 1920s establishment of Foujita’s international fame as the first period of his career as a painter, the thirties and forties were his second period: a complete change to upheaval and wanderings.
During the 1930s, Foujita and his new wife Madeleine traveled around Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and other countries of Central and South America. Then, having returned home briefly, he set out again for the Korean peninsula and the Chinese mainland. The legacy of these long journeys was a series of paintings showing colorful scenes of everyday life, such as the daily lives of ordinary people that he witnessed abroad, street performers and circus artistes, and also women working in brothels. Meanwhile he also directed his gaze towards different regions of Japan. Notably, in 1937, at the invitation of Hirano Masakichi from Akita Prefecture, he produced a mural titled “Events in Akita.” It was more than 20 meters in length, based on a detailed and keen-eyed observation, and featured seasonal festivals and everyday scenes from the snowy prefecture.
The following year he traveled to the Chinese mainland at the request of the military, being present at the battle of Hankou and producing a visual record of the battle’s progress. This was his “war paintings” period. Two of Foujita’s many extant war paintings were displayed at the exhibition: “Final Fighting on Attu” and “Compatriots on Saipan Island Remain Faithful to the End.” Although these works stemmed from requests by the military, nevertheless there is little sense that he was glorifying the fighting spirit. Rather, these are masterpieces that show Foujita’s sharp perception of human nature and, above all, his deeply-felt prayers for the repose of the war’s victims. As an artist in the postwar period, however, it is difficult to deny that these and his many war paintings put him in a difficult position. His fellow artists pressed Foujita to take personal responsibility for his war pictures, and it seems certain that painful feelings regarding this lay behind his decision to say goodbye forever to his home country of Japan.
The last twenty years of his life that followed his relocation to France can be considered the third period of Foujita’s career as an artist. During this period too, his creative passion as an artist remained as strong as ever. The works of this period are richly imbued with reminiscence, from his lyrical work “Au Café (At the Café),” painted while he was temporarily living in New York before his first move to Paris, to his landscape-style street scenes of Montparnasse where he spent the years of his youth.
Alongside these, he once again focused heavily on the world of children, a theme that he had enjoyed from early in his career. These children are sometimes portrayed as noble, sometimes as mischievous, but they are always cute and full of energy. For Foujita, who was never blessed with children himself, they may represent a longed-for world of dreams.
At the same time, there was no lack of captivating and demure female portraits like those he completed in the 1920s. Sometimes they borrowed the form of the Graces of Greek legend, sometimes they transformed into Eve from the Old Testament, and they also adorned Foujita’s art as portraits of the Madonna and child that were filled with deep religious feeling. The greatest work of Foujita’s latter years, however, was decoration for his chapel of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Reims; including altarpieces, murals and stained glass. Religious-themed pieces created alongside this last great undertaking were also on display at the retrospective. Finally, I would like to re-emphasize what an excellent retrospective this was: one that more than adequately conveyed Foujita Tsuguharu’s magnificent work as an artist who lived through two great wars.
Foujita: A Retrospective ― Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of his Death: https://www.tobikan.jp/en/exhibition/2018_foujita.html
Events in Akita: http://www.pic-hiranofound.jp/collection.html#hiranotofujita (Japanese only)
Translated from “Futatsu no kokyo wo motsu gaka, Fujita Tsuguharu (A painter with two home countries, Foujita Tsuguharu),” Asteion, Vol. 089 2018, pp. 142-145. (Courtesy of CCC Media House Co., Ltd.) [July 2019]