Thursday, 8 August 2013

Leonard Foujita

Self Portrait with Cat

Leonard Foujita (1886-1968), as he was known in later life (Foujita Tsuguharu for the earlier part of his career) was an unusual figure in the Japanese art world - being, perhaps, the only Japanese artist who established himself in the artworld of Paris in the heady days of the 20s and 30s.

His style was distinctive, and grew from a thorough grounding in traditional Japanese brush techniques which he combined with modernist sensibilities. He worked mainly in oil, and produced works that are immediately recognizable, successfully synthesizing the two cultures into works that seem to partake of both yet not really sitting completely in either.

Unlike so many of his compatriots who followed the styles of their European contemporaries, Foujita maintained his identity through the use of subtle line-work over an almost translucent pearl-white ground. Given that the Japanese avant-garde felt the pull towards European styles as, in part, a reaction towards the more conservative and reactionary forces within Japanese society, Foujita's stance is perhaps a sign of the ambivalence that was to create problems for him later.

Self-portrait in the Studio (1926)

Obviously a character, whose persona bled into his artworks, he tended towards the depiction of figures, often women, and cats. This latter theme would be an unusual choice for western painters, but animal painting was a widely respected genre among Japanese painters (as it is to this day).

The 1930s saw his return to Japan, where he took up a pro-establishment role, and painted several large canvasses on military themes, abandoning the refinements of his previous style. It is hard to judge the motivations of those who supported harsh authoritarian regimes during the pre-war years, but in the case of Foujita, his contemporaries did not forgive him from cozying up with the government, and he was expelled from the New Art Association after the war. He moved to new York, and was eventually granted a visa to France, where he lived for the rest of his life. having converted to Catholicism along with his wife, his later works tend towards the sentimental, and much of it is religious in nature.
Cafe (1949)

The thirties also saw several extended painting trips – to China and to Latin America. It is from the former that he painted this image below of Chinese wrestlers. Afficianados of the martial arts will no doubt immediately recognize the characteristic clothes still worn by practitioners of shuai chiao today.

Wrestlers in Beijing (1935)

It is quite a striking work, much more so if you see it in the flesh, helped by its size (180x225cm) but it was his choice of subject that was so arresting for me, the martial arts having so little crossover into the fine art world in the usual course of things.

For comparison's sake, here is a painting of a Japanese wrestler. This is also quite large (155cm or so in height), and the way in which he combines the traditional and the modern is quite striking.

Although very popular in Japan right now, he is relatively unknown in the west. The Akita Prefectural Museum has a good collection of his works, and recently put on display a digital replica of a mural painted in the style of the traditional Kano school (with Rimpa influences). The original is on the walls of a private club in Paris, where it remained relatively unknown until just recently. What makes this even more surprising is that this work was painted in oils, rather than traditional pigments. I'm not likely to find myself in this kind of private members' club in Paris, but if I was, I would love to see the painting.

Flowers and Birds (1929)