NEW YORK – Few artists of the 1900s experienced the exhilarating highs and devastating lows as Léonard Foujita (1886-1968), the Japanese French painter and printmaker who was once called “the most important Japanese artist working in the West during the 20th century,” but was vilified during and after World War II for being a leading and enthusiastic painter for Japan’s military. Today, works by Foujita are prized by collectors and can be seen in many museums worldwide.
Born Fujita Tsuguharu in Tokyo, Léonard Foujita studied Western art at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. At age 27, he set sail for Paris, where he commanded almost immediate and explosive success, enjoying such luxuries as running hot water in his apartment and a chauffeur-driven car. He sought out, and befriended, artists such as Amedeo Modigliani, Pascin, Chaim Soutine, Fernand Leger, Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray and a host of others.
Foujita was able to nimbly bridge the cultures of Japan and France by introducing a completely new and original style of painting, one that blended traditional Japanese painting and inking techniques with popular modern European composition, styles and mediums (such as oils and watercolors). He was extremely prolific and painted a wide range of subjects that included cats, beautiful women and other portraits, military scenes (mostly during World War II) and himself.
Especially popular were Foujita’s grand fond blanc paintings – milky female nudes, outlined on white backgrounds. These served him well throughout the 1920s, when he was earning as much money as Picasso. But in 1929 he returned to Japan, primarily to escape the tax collectors in Paris, and got a chilly reception when he attempted to sell his paintings to a Japanese public that was oblivious to his fame and reputation in France. In 1931, he left Japan, this time for Brazil.
Again, success followed. Foujita traveled and painted throughout all of Latin America, giving hugely successful exhibitions along the way. In Buenos Aires, 60,000 people attended his exhibition, and more than 10,000 lined up just to get his autograph. By 1933 he was back in Japan, where the winds of war were beginning to blow. He was welcomed back as a celebrity this time, but became a noted producer of propagandistic art in Hirohito’s bellicose Japan.
After the war, he returned to Paris, renounced his Japanese citizenship, became a French citizen and converted to Catholicism. Most of his bohemian friends had scattered, and the Paris art scene of his youth was also gone. He began painting caricature portraits of elfin children and took on commission work, like the decoration of a chapel in Reims. Still haunted by the war, Foujita said in a prayer at the chapel’s dedication, “I would like to atone for my sins of the last 80 years.”
Still, his successes could not be denied. His Book of Cats, published in New York in 1930, with 20 etched plate drawings by Foujita, is one of the top 500 (pricewise) rare books ever sold, and it is ranked by rare book dealers as the most popular and desirable book on cats ever published. Also, a portrait of Man Ray’s liberated lover Kiki, titled Reclining Nude with Toile de Jouy, was a sensation at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1922. The work sold for $1.2 million in 2013.
“I believe Foujita’s popularity had a lot to do with his unique blend of Eastern and Western artistic traditions,” said Lauren Bradley, a fine art specialist with Rago Arts & Auction in Lambertville, New Jersey. “He tended to explore personal subject matter – portraiture, beautiful nudes, quirky interior scenes and the like, which are more consistent with Western art. But his execution tended to be very Japanese – delicate, expressive lines, simple, bold bands of lights and darks. This combination resulted in a unique final product that was really eye-catching, particularly in Paris in the 1920s.”
Bradley said it didn’t hurt that Foujita was also a larger-than-life character. “He had a very curated look – severe bowl-cut hairdo, round glasses and big gold earrings. He wanted to be noticed. In fact, he told his father in a letter, ‘Consider me dead until I’m famous.’ Foujita was also a master at self-marketing. He took photos of himself painting and wasn’t afraid to include himself as the subject of his own works. People really fed off of it.”
Bruce Wood, a painting conservator, auctioneer and owner of the Woodshed Gallery in Franklin, Massachusetts, said, “In Paris, the avant-garde artists of Montmartre in France embraced Foujita and his art as exotic. He became part of the scene that nurtured the edgy images of Picasso and Soutine, but also was inhabited by romantics. Mondrian, who became a good friend, and Cocteau, both of whom produced lyrical renderings of the human body, found a kindred spirit in Foujita, whose work represented sexual yearning and subterfuge.”
When Japanese collectors were seemingly buying everything in the go-go 1980s, Foujita’s market was “very strong – the strongest it had been since his first Parisian period,” Lauren Bradley said, “Then there was a bit of a contraction in the ’90s and early 2000s, but in just the last several year we’ve seen a renewed interest in his work. The collector pool also seems larger than it was in the ’80s, with demand from collectors all over the world. His work is still fresh and distinctive, even after all these years. Plus, because he was an adept painter, draftsman and print-maker – there are many mediums to collect at a variety of price points, which makes him really accessible.”
Bruce Wood said because Foujita was so prolific, many lower priced works are readily available. “However,” he added, “the most sought-after pieces depicting cats continue to rise in price. Still, and I think it’s mostly that Foujita worked primarily on paper, and (because) works on paper historically command less money than those on canvas his works have not achieved the stellar results of many of his peers. I think that demand for his work will continue to accelerate here in the United States as multicultural awareness raises demand for it.”