In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Un-PC Reading 2.5 | Main | Audiovisual Through Time Entertainment Linkage »

July 24, 2008

Foujita, the Serious Show-off

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Paris in the 1920s was crammed with artists. A few, such as Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi and Léger are still famous or at least well-known to art fans. Many never got much notoriety and are deeply buried in the footnotes of art history.

Then there was a middle group whose members were fairly well known at the time but whose reputations since have fluctuated at best or, more often, slowly faded. How many of you have heard of Kees van Dongen (from the Netherlands), Moïse Kisling (Poland), Jules Pascin (Bulgaria) and a Japanese import who was usually called by his family name, Foujita (French spelling -- the English version is Fujita).

All four expatriates were party animals. I first encountered them in this book, a photo-filled tour of the Paris art world of the first 30 years of the last century. The book uses famed model, singer (sort of), writer (an autobiography), painter (amateur) and art world personality (huge!!) Kiki (née Alice Prin) as its title's centerpiece even though she didn't arrive on the scene until the early 1920s and became artist-photographer Man Ray's muse and mistress. Furthermore, pages and pictures devoted to Kiki are a small share of the total. That's okay, because the rest of the cast is an amusing and often, eventually, tragic lot that I, at least, find fascinating.

As for Foujita, we find him at Kiki's book-signing party (p. 189), And there's a spread (pp. 180-81) devoted to him. Photos include three of him and third wife "Youki" (née Lucie Badoud, who later married poet Robert Desnos), one a portrait, another a publicity shot in his studio and one of them on the beach at Deauville. Another Deauville photo has Foujita and famed musical hall star Mistinguette hugging. Yet another shows him with singer Suzy Solidor on a beach wearing beach costumes he designed and made. Finally, there's a photo of Foujita riding a mini-bicycle along a boardwalk. Page 175 shows him playing drum for a miniature-circus performance by Alexander Calder (of later mobile fame) in his (Foujita's) studio. There's another spread (pp. 150-51) with a photo of the building where his fancy studio was located, and another of Youki, the expensive Ballot automobile Foujita bought her with their Basque chauffeur. Other pictures are of Foutjna vacationing in the Pyrenees and of painting Anna de Noailles. Pages 130-31 have party group-photos that include Foujita. A third spread (pp. 100-101) deals with early days of the Foujita-Youki relationship. There's more, but you surely get the idea that Foujita was a publicity hound as well as a successful society painter during the Twenties.

So I found it interesting to read this fairly recent biography of the man by Phyllis Birnbaum, who knows Japanese and has spent plenty of time in Japan. I haven't read other books about Foujita to give me a wider perspective, but Birnbaum's biography strikes me as being fair in that she presents opposing takes on him by Japanese observers.

Although Foujita could be a publicity-seeking clown, he was also a hard-working painter who avoided alcohol and drugs (but not cigarettes). He came from a military family. His physician father held a general rank in the Imperial army. Foujita took Western art training in Japan, but was frustrated by its lack of quality and finally persuaded his father to send him to Paris where he could learn at the source. After some difficult early years in France he attained fame and prosperity that lasted until the end of the 1920s when French tax authorities discovered that he hadn't been paying taxes for several years. So he fled to the Americas with wife number four, a singer. The Great Depression made art much harder to sell, and his career was in eclipse anyway; part of the rationale for his flight was to head to places where his name was known, but not his problems.

Finally he returned to Japan, where his reception was mixed. He tried to fob himself off as a true Japanese, but this was hard to pull off because of his expatriate years and many statements recorded by the press disparaging Japan and lauding France. Ever-flexible and public-relations-savvy, Foujita started trashing France, extolling Japan and making paintings in a more traditionally Japanese style. These tactics weren't completely successful. His fourth wife dead, he married a Japanese woman (wife number one also was Japanese) and went back to France, his tax troubles apparently resolved. That sojourn lasted until the spring of 1940 when German troops were approaching Paris. Foujita and his wife dashed off to Marseilles where he was able to catch the last Japanese maru leaving France for the islands.

Before and after this French episode Foujita became a war artist for the Imperial army, at first in China and Manchu-quo (Japanese Manchuria). His Manchu-quo work included a painting that glossed over the Japanese defeat at the hands of the Red Army at Nomonhan. Following Pear Harbor and the start of the Great Pacific War, Foujita became Japan's top war artist, holding the courtesy rank of major general. His most famous war painting was "Last Stand at Attu" (1943) that once again tried to glorify a defeat. The Japanese, in a diversionary tactic of the 1942 Midway campaign, occupied the Alaskan islands Attu and Kiska at western end of the Aleutians. The following year, the Americans returned to find Kiska abandoned, but had to retake Attu by force. Foujita's painting depicts the Japanese army's last-ditch banzai charge. It's one of those war paintings with lots of figures and bits of action. Since Foujita wasn't on the scene, he had to use his imagination. One false detail had American soldiers wearing British-style helmets, garb that was being phased out a year earlier in favor of the familiar "steel pot" helmet that remained a trademark style until the late 1980s.

Following Japan's surrender in August, 1945, Foujita again landed on his feet, getting work with the American occupation forces. His war paintings were hailed by the Japanese public when they were new, but defeat made his efforts for the cause questionable. In 1949, he left for the USA and then moved on to France again. Rather than re-settling in Paris, he and his wife lived in a small town where he remained until his death from cancer in 1968 at age 81. Before that, he became a Roman Catholic, dropping his Japanese given name Tsuguharu for Léonard.

According to Birnbaum, Foujita's art was popular in France because it seemed Japanese, and Japanese art had been esteemed since the mid-1800s following its "opening" by Commodore Perry. It really wasn't fully Japanese, though it did have a Japanese feel to it. Nor was it Modern, and that's perhaps why Foujita is far less known today than during his 1920s heyday; his work didn't fit into the standard art history narrative.

Regardless, Foujita was an interesting man who was a lot more than a clown and party boy.


His trademarks included his bangs, those eyeglasses and earrings.

Restaurant party with Kiki and friends.
Foujita is left-center, apparently in drag, head-to-head with Kiki.

Café - 1918
This was done as his career was finally taking off. His signature style at the time was to work considerably with highly-controlled black lines and a secret off-white with other color accents. This painting seems to echo Toulouse-Lautrec in its subject matter. Well, that guy wearing the hat seems kind of familiar.

Cat picture
Foujita was famed for his depiction of cats.

Femme nue à la tapisserie - 1923
Putting it all together: a nude, dominant whites, thin, black lines and a cat.



posted by Donald at July 24, 2008


I saw Foujita's work when they had the "Paris-Japan" Exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art by Japanese artists at home and abroad at the Honolulu Academy a few years back. He was one of my favorites, though not my most favorite. That belonged to a guy who committed suicide. He had striking scene of a Parisian bar at night. Foujita's were definately one of the largest canvases there, though.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on July 24, 2008 9:40 PM

Thanks for this. I'd heard the name and probably seen a few of the pix but had never bothered to find out anything about him. That's quite a life he led. I wonder what his view of it was. What's your reaction to his art? Or his arts, since it sounds like he moved through a bunch of different incarnations. I like the cat a lot.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 25, 2008 12:35 AM

Regarding MB's comment: it's almost as much of an accomplishment to have survived the vicissitudes of a tumultuous life as it is to be a first rate artist: on the that score Foujita gets high marks (from me at least).

The other two artists mentioned in passing - Van Dongen and Pascin - were not much more than purveyors of high class porn, Pascin especially. Not that there's anything wrong with that. ;^)

Posted by: ricpic on July 25, 2008 11:45 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?