Foujita: A Retrospective ― Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of his Death. How Tsuguharu Foujita achieved international renown.
What does it take for a Japanese artist to receive international recognition?
This has been the challenge for Japanese painters working in the Western tradition ever since the Meiji Period (1868-1912). One solution was to master Western painting techniques, be accepted into the famed Salon de Paris, and carve your name into the walls of Western art history.
Both Seiki Kuroda and Yoshimatsu Goseda, two Meiji Period artists who achieved renown in Japan, spent their early years in Paris, refining their oil painting technique and even exhibiting at the Salon. However, both returned to Japan without having left their mark on the world of Western art.
The reason they made no impact is that despite their high levels of technical accomplishment, their work did not rise above the level of imitation. Like many talented Japanese artists intent on mastering the (superficial) technical aspects of the medium, they lost sight of the content.
European art started out as a way of illuminating the lessons of religious or mythical subject matter. While Japanese artists unfamiliar with Christianity or the Greek myths might imitate the surface appearance of Western art, they did not share the spiritual or cultural background underpinning this type of art, and this left their technically accomplished works somehow lacking in authenticity.
Did Japanese artists then have to turn their backs on their own Japanese heritage and become thoroughly westernised in order to achieve recognition? But becoming westernised would only be the beginning. The real challenge would lie in showing originality. And how could this be achieved?
An alternative solution was to take a completely different path. To use Western art techniques to express the Japanese spirit and culture. In other words, a uniquely Japanese aesthetic expressed in oils. This would be something completely original, and something that Western artists could not imitate.
And this is precisely the route that Tsuguharu Foujita took. We can trace Foujita’s evolution at the retrospective of his work currently being held at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto.
Tsuguharu Foujita was born in Tokyo in 1886. His father was an army doctor and the family was well-off. After graduating from what is now the Tokyo University of the Arts, he set off to study in Paris. This may sound like a life of privilege, but the reality was that having rebelled against his professor, Seiki Kuroda, he had graduated near the bottom of his class and his work had been repeatedly rejected by the Japanese Ministry of Education ‘Bunten’ exhibitions. For Tsuguharu Foujita, Paris was an attempt to reverse his fortune.
Foujita made it to France just in time for the outbreak of the First World War. While most of his compatriots returned to Japan, Foujita stayed put. At that time, there had been a steady stream of Japanese painters and students heading to France to study. Most of them stayed for a couple of years, painting nudes and Parisian scenes, then returned to Japan, where they added the line, ‘studied art in France’ to their resumes, and set themselves up as teachers. Many of them spent the majority of their time in France associating only with their fellow Japanese and returned to Japan without ever learning to speak French. Foujita had no time for this crowd.
Paris in the early 1900s was a vibrant centre for the arts, with foreign painters such as Picasso, Modigliani and Chagall all jostling for position. Rather than milling about with his compatriots, Foujita joined the ranks of these émigré artists, who were soon to become known as the Ecole de Paris (School of Paris,). His paintings of this period were much like those of Picasso or Modigliani. The works, Cubist Still Life and Young Couple by a Cliff, on display in this exhibition are examples from this time.
Having embraced Western art, Foujita was perhaps now trying to ride on the coat-tails of the modern art movement. However, a Japanese artist in Paris, painting in the latest style, could only ever be considered a second-rate artist following the latest trends. At some point Foujita must have realised that to succeed abroad as a Japanese painter, he would need to produce something that other artists couldn’t – something uniquely Japanese.
Through a series of artistic twists and turns, Foujita eventually arrived at his signature style, typified by his ‘milky white nudes’, which he began painting around the end of the First World War. These were female nudes, their contours delineated with a fine brush on a white ground in a style reminiscent of ukiyo-e. This is when his paintings began to sell and he was accepted into the French salon, becoming the darling of the art world through the 1920s.
And so this is how Tsuguharu Foujita became the first Japanese artist to achieve international fame – for at that time, success in Paris was success on the world stage.
By the 1930s, however, Foujita’s work was becoming stale and the Great Depression had cast its shadow over his popularity. Foujita’s response was to try something new. He left Paris and toured and exhibited through North and South America, before returning triumphantly to Japan.
Naturally, word of his Paris success had got back to Japan, stirring up a certain amount of envy. For Foujita, accustomed to the liberal atmosphere of the West, Japanese society, with its petty ‘village mentality’ must have seemed rather claustrophobic.
When the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) broke out, Foujita displayed his loyalty to Japan by painting war pictures, intended not only to serve as a record, but also to rouse the fighting spirit of the Japanese. Following the outbreak of war with America he became completely absorbed in his war paintings. However, as the unthinkable prospect of military defeat began to loom, his efforts became increasingly desperate. In the paintings, Final Fighting on Attu and Compatriots on Saipan Island Remain Faithful to the End, there was no longer any attempt to stir up the Japanese fighting spirit. These works were a gruesome depiction of hell with no trace remaining of the artist who painted the milky white nudes.
As an aside, war painting had long been esteemed in Western narrative art alongside religious and mythical works, and Foujita’s former professor, Seiki Kuroda, had tried unsuccessfully to establish narrative art as a genre in Japan. Ironic then, considering the enmity between the two artists, that Foujita should be the one to achieve this.
But, despite having gained popularity as a master of military art, Foujita was shunned by the Japanese art world after Japan’s defeat, accused of being a military propagandist. Disillusioned, he returned to France in 1949, where he took up permanent residence and never returned to Japan again.
This is not where the story ends, though. Relinquishing his Japanese nationality, Foujita became a French citizen. He converted to Catholicism, taking the name, Leonard Foujita, and spent his final years decorating the interior of the chapel he commissioned in Reims with religious frescos.
By now, Foujita was no longer Japanese. Having turned his back on his Japanese origins, Foujita was now thoroughly Western.
Venue: National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. Enshōjichō 26-1, Sakyō Ku, Kyōto.
Dates: Friday, October 19th – Sunday, December 16th, 2018.
Times: 09:30~17:00 (Friday & Saturday 09:30~20:00). Last entry 30 minutes before closing.
A graduate in Fine Arts from Tokyo Zōkei University, Makoto Murata worked in the editorial department at the magazine, Pia, before setting out as a freelance art writer. He lectures part-time at Tokyo Zōkei University and is the principal of the BankART School (post-graduate school of art) in Yokohama. He has authored a number of books on art in Japanese.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.