Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1962)
Do you think you may own a painting by Tsuguharu Foujita? We perform art authentications, art appraisals, art research and provide Certificates of Authenticity (COA) as well as consultations, for all paintings by Tsuguharu Foujita.
Foujita Tsuguharu (Leonard) was born in Edogawa, Tokyo. He received full formal training at the Imperial School of Fine Arts. Success came quickly for Foujita, and he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Emperor of Korea, and subsequently, the Japanese Emperor bought one of his pictures. In 1913 at the age of 27 he traveled to Paris, immediately making the acquaintance of the leading painters of the day. Several artists became his close friends, sharing models, lovers, and the tribulations of impecunious artists in the metropolis, among them, his friends included Picasso, Soutine, Rivera and Cocteau and many others such as the Sculptor Ossip Zadkine. He struck up a particularly close friendship with the famous Italian artist Modigliani.
Japan in WWI was an ally of France and Belgium, and Foujita’s loyalty and sociability endeared him to the establishment as much as the avant-garde. In the 1920’s he was awarded state honors by both France and Belgium. In fact, he was far more popular than many of the luminaries of Paris who are now far better known. Foujita was also commercially more successful in the 1920’s than most of his contemporaries. He was to most people a loveable eccentric; exotic, but unthreatening. His name in Japanese means ‘field of Wisteria and Peace’, yet, the life he led was certainly not quiet and peaceful. In fact he was one of the more eccentric artists of the time in Paris. His hair was cut in the style of an Egyptian statue; he wore earrings, dressed in tunics and had a tattoo around his wrist. He even wore a lampshade sometimes rather than a hat!
The enormous influence of Meiji Japan on late 19th century Europe continued right through to the 1930’s, wrecked only by the rise of Japanese fascism and of course WWII. Foujita blended traditional Japanese art with European Modernism in a unique manner, especially in his works on paper. He is best known for his nudes and cats, and he was in fact was an accomplished landscapist, poster artist and muralist as well.
In 1931 he headed for Latin America, where he spent the next six years. Enormously popular there, he was one of their first art superstars. Ever open to new influences, his work in this period takes on something of the palette and style of Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, which no doubt endeared him further to the Latin Americans. In 1937 he returned to Japan where he was again acclaimed, not least as a European success story: local boy matches the metropolitan greats. By 1939 he was back in Europe. Later, his war art showed compassion for the suffering Japanese as they were crushed by the advancing allies. He was criticized both for being too patriotic and not patriotic enough. Disillusioned, he never visited Japan again after 1950. Foujita became a naturalized Frenchman in 1955 and converted to Catholicism in 1959.
Today, Foujita is seen as somewhat as a lightweight, decorative artist, though his popularity in France itself has not waned. Straddling two worlds, Foujita was in fact remarkably inventive, not merely in matters of style but also technique. He experimented with watercolor, inventing a unique blend of crushed oyster shell and color to produce the milky skin tones for which he is still famous today. Stylistically, he amalgamated Japanese calligraphic and ukiyo-e techniques with European Modernism, flattening or eliminating perspective while maintaining a silky sinuous line. Foujita is probably overdue for reevaluation, and in any case he would not regard the label “decorative” as derogatory.
The evolution of Foujita’s cats can be seen below. The very traditional Japanese/Chinese approach is evident throughout, although later versions are more sparing and linear and hence appear more European. For instance the 1934 version is almost devoid of Western influence, whereas the 1947 example is far closer to European realism. The point is that there is a drift from East to West through his career, but he is a master of both and can switch at will. In 1955 he became a French Citizen and in 1959 he converted to Catholicism and changed his name to Leonard Foujita. At the age of 80 he was honored to be asked to paint part of the chapel of Notre Dame de la Paix at Reims.
The amount of work that he produced throughout his life is prolific, yet, there are not many substantial museum collections in existence, with the exception of collections in museums in his native land, Japan. This means that there must be an enormous number of paintings by Foujita in private collections. In 1998 a couple took a painting to the Antiques Road Show (a television program where members bring possessions such as paintings and china for appraisal by experts). The couple gasped when they were told that their small painting of cats was a Foujita and was worth in the region of $85,000. In 1990 a painting by Foujita titled ‘The Young Girl in the Park’ sold for $5.5 million at Christies in New York.
Many of Foujita’s paintings of cats and young woman are very simple in nature, but do not be deceived by the simplicity, for they could be worth a lot of money. The next time you are tempted to throw away the painting of a cat which is in your attic or which you may have inherited, take a second look at the signature…it could be a Foujita!