“YOUKI AU CHAT”, 1923.
(Sotheby’s estimated value in 2017 : £220,000—280,000)
Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (aka Fujita Tsuguharu / Foujita Tsuguharu / Fujita Tsuguji) was born in 1886, in Tokyo, and died in 1968 in Zurich.
He was a Japanese expatriate painter who applied French oil techniques to Japanese-style paintings, a member of the School of Paris, a group of now-famous artists who resided in the Montparnasse district of that city. In 1910 Fujita graduated from what is now the Tokyo University of the Arts. Three years later he went to Paris, where he became the friend of many of the great forerunners of modern Western art, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Chaim Soutine, and Amedeo Modigliani. He exhibited his works for the first time in Paris in 1917.
He became known for his portraits, self-portraits, nudes, city scenes, and drawings and paintings of cats. He also published the limited edition A Book of Cats (1930), which included 20 drawings of cats and became a highly sought-after (and thus very valuable) art book. (In 2014, this was estimated at $60-80,000 at Bonhams.)
In 1921, Foujita met a young woman named Lucie Badoud; for the following decade she lived as his muse, lover and wife, inspiring some of the most sensual and striking paintings that the artist ever produced. Together, Badoud and Foujita were celebrities of the Montparnasse social scene: they hosted lavish parties at their home while their names continually graced contemporary gossip columns.
Foujita had been taken at once with Lucie’s beauty: her snow-white complexion and sinuous curves. He re-named her ‘Youki’, meaning ‘snow’ in Japanese. She remembers: “I didn’t like my first name, Lucie. So Foujita’s first move was to ‘de-baptise’ me and rename me Youki; his second: to request I pose for a large nude painting”.
Indeed it was precisely at this time, when Foujita incorporated into his œuvre two of the elements for which he is today most celebrated: his motif of the nude figure and his ‘fond blanc’, a specific white ground which he applied on canvases to give them a luminous quality. The latter technique was developed out of the artist’s desire to represent what he now considered the most beautiful of materials: human skin. Foujita had striven to perfect his fond blanc and reportedly never revealed the unique formula to anyone.
He was no stranger to relentless work, frequently practicing his techniques and sticking to a strict sleeping schedule to maximise his productivity during waking hours. He explained: “I leave all my materials in a state of disorder in my studio; I never tidy them away even to receive a visitor. To do that would be stupid. The visitor would scarcely have left when I would get back to work two minutes later. To save even more time, I cook in my studio” (quoted in Sylvie Buisson, T.L. Foujita inédits, Paris, 2007, p. 122).
Another very important individual in the artist’s life and œuvre was his cat, named ‘Mike’ (meaning ‘Tabby cat’ in Japanese). This cat was adopted by the artist shortly after his arrival in Paris after following him home one day and refusing to leave his doorstep. The presence of a cat would go on to be a mainstay of Foujita’s works: sometimes as companion to a figure, sometimes as the central subject itself. Foujita adored their individuality and recognised in them a certain indefinability and unpredictability which he also attributed to women: he is noted as saying that cats were given to men such that they could learn from them the mysterious ways of women!
Fujita’s work is distinguished by his strong evocative line, an aesthetic that stemmed from his art training in Japan and was greatly admired by the Paris School artists. Foujita loved drawing, and like his illustrious predecessor Hokusai, painted with great skill. Foujita’s drawing is incredibly assured and his lines have an exemplary calligraphic finesse, achieved through the use of sumi (Japanese black ink) on paper and in his oils. Colour played a secondary role in his work but was used in such a decisive way that it enhances the drawing. The subtlety of the gouache and watercolour fills the forms with layers of flat colour, creating subtle effects of transparency in his oils. His gold backgrounds strengthen the impression of refinement and preciousness.
In 1931–32 Fujita traveled throughout Latin America and had a major exhibition of his work in Buenos Aires. During World War II in Japan he was a war artist for the Japanese government, a decision that was criticized by his pacifist peers in the Japanese arts community, who accused him of using his art to promote the militarist actions of Japan. With a marred reputation in his home country, he went to the US in 1949, then back to France in 1950 – for the rest of his life. He became a French citizen in 1955, and a Legion d’honneur in 1957.
Exhibition in Paris in 2018
From 7 March to 15 July 2018, the Musée Maillol in Paris is presenting an exhibition devoted to Foujita. More than a hundred major works, originating from public and private collections, show the exceptional nature of his period in Montparnasse—where his friends Modigliani, Zadkine, Indenbaum, Kisling, Pascin, and Van Dongen lived— during the Roaring Twenties. The exhibition focuses on the artist’s first and very productive Parisian period between 1913 and 1931.
“Couturier cat”, 1927 painting
“Cat”, 1926 ink on paper
Inspired by Foujita
My drawing is in pencil, of my Maine Coon cat Orlando looking over my sewing essentials!
I am an artist who makes work of animals and people.
Three cats live with me – Maine coon Orlando, Bengal Pandora and black moggy Rio.
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