(Paris.) Still today, the mutual obsession between Japan and France, and the city of Paris in particular, is somewhat out of the ordinary. “Japonisme” and Occidentalism never get out of fashion, from the annual Japan Expo - a sort of comic con for cosplaying manga-heads and other “eccentrics” (to put it mildly) - to scores of highly skilled artists changing their homes on Honshu or Hokkaido for the French capital every year. The Japanese quarters of Paris host an abundance of restaurants to supply them and everybody else with all Japanese specialities this side of fugu fish (and I did not actively search for it). Japan must be the last country on earth where art students don’t dream of a move to New York (or Hong Kong!), but Paris – just like the whole world did at around the (next to last) fin de siècle. Even in times like ours, when we witness a mass exodus of European artists from France, either following tax-conscious collectors and their favourite galleries to Brussels, or answering the lure of Berlin with its (still, comparably) low rents and cheap beer. But Japanese art grads often stem from a wealthy background, and don’t necessarily need to set the same priorities as their European peers.
A true influencer a century before social media came around, Tsuguharu - later baptized “Léonard” - Fujita unwittingly started the trend when in 1913, he became one of the first artists from the Land of the Rising Sun to settle in Paris and enjoy considerable success. This spring, Musée Maillol, thus named for the early 20th Century sculptor Aristide Maillol whose long-time “muse” provided the founding collection, hosts an extensive retrospective on Foujita’s life and work. He routinely mixed Eur-Asian traditions and iconography (if you will, call it “pioneering frog sushi”). Only the expert will recognize some of the references, though (and patrons attentively reading the wall texts): Ying and Yan symbols hidden in Child’s plays, links between colour choices and Taoism, &ct.
To the educated, trained, or simply: prejudiced, Western eye, a Standing Woman (Femme debout) of 1914 might refer to Roman mosaics, Russian matryoshkas, and later Latin American wall paintings, where the official interpretation labels it an “androgynous demi-god”. A Little Buddha (1919) is only a schoolboy, or: -girl? - androgynous once again, caught between the sexes, perhaps even a doll, and a little precocious. This is actually Foujita being the most kind to his child models (more to this later). Quite similarly, the Portrait of a Boy (1923) will strike you as very modern “metrosexual” - and notice a trademark of the artist’s here: A sort of “halo” surrounding the body, rather not implying astral bodies, but movement. The Wrestler Tochigiyama (1926) – drawn in equally realist style -, features the same extra line(s), like a “second silhouette” or “shadow”. He appears stepping forward, almost cartoon-like, almost leaving the canvas. A sculptor’s mould comes to mind (and so do the shadows of Pompeii and – much anachronistically impossible: Hiroshima). Is this a Kung Fu stance, a “crouching tiger”, or “pirouetting pug”, or the like? Much to the contrary: Tochigiyama-san politely declines your invitation to brawl. A wall in the background carries the poster of two Yokozunas (i.e. sumo masters) in heavy embrace, but he himself would not – was not even allowed to -, pretend fighting, we‘re told: at the time of the portrait, he had already, and formally, retired from the ring.
Curators Sylvie Buisson and Anne Le Diberder lay a special emphasis on Foujita’s rooting in the Roaring Twenties. Always keep in mind: What happens in Montparnasse will NOT stay in Montparnasse. Foujita was not alone to document the debaucheries (Le salon à Montparnasse, 1928), we’re also treated to Tulio Garbari’s Les intellectuels à la Rotonde (1916) and a revealing film with contemporary images of bare-breasted symposiums in questionable café parlours (potentially cocaine- and morphine fuelled). Foujita knew every artist you'd instinctively place in 1920s Paris, the not-so-lost generation of European sculptors and painters. Moving in these circles meant mutual influence, and wilful minds could add that in Asian cultures, “copying” is often understood as an act of reference. His close friendship with Modigliani and Zadkine shows in Foujita's works, just like “Bonnard-ish” pastel colours, Matisse-ean “à plat” colour fields, and now and then even a touch of Rousseau. Those freakish “alien” heads came not out of nowhere (and Primitivism influenced the whole bunch of them, of course).
Foujita would experiment with a vast variety of styles, his post-Impressionist scenes (Place du Tertre in the Snow, 1918) remind of Maurice Utrillo (much more than of Sisley - despite the snow), but in the end, it’s futile, all those artists kept their eyes and minds open to what was happening around them, forever collaborating, cooperating, and carousing.
Look around, and you discover more traces of European art history and, closely tied to it, but also to the artist’s individual development: Christian imagery. That “later baptized Léonard“ is to be taken literal. One of the Three Dancers’s (or: The Circle, 1918 – not the more famous version sold at auction a couple of years ago, and whose image you’ll find all over the internet) face owes at least as much to Dürer’s uber-famous 15th Century self portrait as to Matisse.
A crucifixion, a Mother and Child with background angels, the latter motif returns in more versions, less (obviously) religious and more grotesque instead. Particularly in one case, dated 1918, one might be tempted to talk of a certain “freakishness”, heads bent over as if tormented by severe neck cramps, disfigured, distorted, torn. Proof of a fascination with handicapped people on the side of the artist? Or merely another Zadkine reference? A special mention must go to Foujita’s children in this context: They are twisted. Evil. Spectres, spirits, spooky little monsters, (un)dead brats straight from some Japanese horror story. Just look at those eyes and try not to be scared!
Curves not only appear in contorted necks, Foujita liked them the Rubens way, too: Three Women (or: graces) of 1930 are curvy, and really nude, and if I say really nude, I really mean it. Very expressive eyes, too. They get joined by Lupanar at Montparnasse (∼1930) and a Reclining Nude (1922, after Manet’s Olympia). On a different note, Foujita’s nudes are not the freaks of nature of those other series.
The large show continues in the basement with wall paintings, panels, in situ works, created for the Cité Universitaire students’ residence in the South of Paris (1928), and a French Union’s headquarters (1929). Think Monet’s Orangerie water lilies in human frame, or Raoul Duffy’s The Fairy Electricity at Musee d’art moderne de la ville de Paris. Peaceful river and Combat scenes 'au chien, chat or lion'; human and non-human animals living and fighting; in preparatory drawings to that "Cité U" work, the beasts appear skeletal, almost demoniac, an impression the artist alleviated for the final version.
Finally, Foujita had a penchant for porcelain, china not from China but Delft, Belgium. In an studio self portrait, we perceive two faïence dogs and Maillol Museum even provides the actual, antique, models. Also photos that have not been shot by anyone, but André Kertesz – Montparnasse oblige, show the artist absurdly posing with cigars and a revolver. Not a cat in there though, the animal that so much resembled him, and that he abundantly painted throughout his career (by the way: If you happen to stumble over a Foujita signed 1930 book of cat pictures in your great-grandparents attic, don’t just throw it away: “Chritheby’s” might be very interested.)
And to the downsides: The exhibitions design will strike you as chaotic, more often than not you wonder where to turn next – that’s indeed not the linear level design of a classic Japanese video game.
"Arrigato gozaimasu" (pronounced “Arrigato say mass” by patrons leaving Japanese restaurants, e.g. Europe’s best Ramen spot Naritake, or the Bento wizards at Juji-ya), dear reader-san.
Foujita, Painting in the Roaring Twenties, 7 March-15 July, Musée Maillol
World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism