“Foujita fell in love with a beautiful woman from Belgium. She had just discovered Montparnasse, first through Guillaume Apollinaire’s La femme assise and then by becoming part of the international Bohemian world. She was eighteen in 1921 when she first met Foujita. With her fair hair and hazel eyes, she was the image of health and happiness, brimming over with gaiety and good nature. She was called Lucy, but Foujita christened her Youki (snow), and it was not long before he marked her with her special sign—a little mermaid tattooed on her thigh” (J. Selz, Foujita, New York, 1981, p. 61; fig. 1).
La Sirène is an important large-scale painting in which Foujita returns to the mermaid motif which first appears in his work in 1918 (fig. 2), and would occupy him intermittently for the next three decades. Unrivalled in beauty, seductive, charming and ferociously independent, Foujita’s siren is the essence of feminine power. Here, the artist boldly returns to the reclining nude motif which he first explored, to immediate acclaim, in the early 1920s: "For a long time he remained particularly fond of painting nudes lying down, as can be seen, for example, in Reclining Nude with a Cat or Reclining Nude with Toile de Jouy. It is their simplicity, serenity, and purity of line that makes his nudes at once so lifelike and so chaste. The way the forms are modeled, with scarcely any shading and very little color, recalls the stump technique the artist used so often in his drawings. Thiébault Sisson wrote of Foujita, 'It is the relief without shading of M. Ingres—with whom, indeed, Foujita seems to have as much in common as with his Japanese ancestors—a relief which is suggested, at least in its essentials, merely by the supple arabesques of the lines'" (ibid., 1981, pp. 32 and 61).
La Sirène stands out as a truly exceptional work, not only in scale but also in terms of the monumentality of the allegorical figure. The stark juxtaposition between the siren’s pale skin and the ink-black background vividly recall the artist's nudes of the 1920s. Foujita’s seductress has the long flowing locks customarily associated with the subject and is surrounded by majestic namazu (cat fish), thought to hold special abilities like predicting earthquakes and thus are a mysterious and powerful image in traditional Japanese culture.
The present work was painted during a turbulent period in Foujita’s life. Although he had achieved critical and commercial acclaim and enjoyed the patronage of numerous collectors—including the prominent collector Masakichi Hirano—the rising tension between Japan and China restricted his movements. By 1939 the Chinese-Japanese war was at its height and Foujita and his wife Kimiyo left Japan for Paris in April, taking a house on the rue Ordener. La Sirène was completed a year later in April 1940, just prior to the German invasion of France and Foujita’s departure from Paris.
Youki showing her tattoo depicting a mermaid by Foujita, circa 1950. Photograph by Robert Doisneau.
Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, Anges et sirènes, 1918. Private collection.