Collecting guide: Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita

Specialist Aisi Wang guides us through the life and art of one of the finest — and most flamboyant — Japanese artists of the 20th century. Illustrated with lots offered online in Contemporary Art Asia, 19-26 March


Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, photographed in Paris in 1927. Photo: Boris Lipnitzki / Roger-Viollet / TopFoto

Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita was born into an aristocratic family in Tokyo in 1886. In his mid-twenties he moved to Paris, setting up a studio in Montparnasse and finding instant success among the Modernist crowd of Picasso , Modigliani et al. ‘He was, without question, one of the finest Japanese artists of the 20th century,’ says Aisi Wang, Christie’s specialist in Asian 20th-Century & Contemporary Art.

Foujita was also a colourful character, who — according to Phyllis Birnbaum in her 2007 biography of the artist, Glory in a Line — ‘had an ego as big as a chateau’.

Today his work appears in museum collections across the world, such as the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. In 2018, marking the 50th anniversary of his death, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum staged the biggest retrospective of his work to date.

Fou Fou – the bon viveur

From a young age, Foujita had ambitions of making it as an artist in Europe. In 1913, after graduating from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts, he duly moved to the bustling, bohemian area of Montparnasse. In an early letter to his father back home, he declared: ‘Consider me dead until I become famous’.

In Paris, Foujita developed a reputation as an extrovert and bon viveur. Known to his many friends as ‘Fou Fou’, he threw lavish parties and sported large gold earrings, a bowl haircut and tortoiseshell glasses. He even wore a lampshade as a hat on visits to the opera, pretending it was conventional headgear in Japan.

Among his earliest art works were a set of cityscapes depicting the streets of Paris, such as Scéne de Rue (1917). In the same year he painted this picture, he signed up with the eminent art dealer, Georges Chéron (who also represented Modigliani). 

Not long afterwards, he had his debut, one-man show at Chéron’s gallery near the Champs-Elysées. It was a triumph, all 110 works selling on the first day. Among the buyers was Pablo Picasso, who is said to have purchased as many works as he could carry out under his arm.

The birth of Foujita’s signature style

By the early 1920s, Foujita had hit upon what became his signature style: a hybrid of Eastern and Western elements. His canvases regularly combined oil paint with touches of the oriental ink known as sumi. His choice of brush, meanwhile, was the ultra-thin menso, renowned in Japan for its precision.

Foujita’s reputation rests predominantly on work in Western genres such as the female nude and self-portraiture. However, his lack of interest in perspective and fondness for sinuous, black outlines were derived from traditional Japanese painting.

What made his work stand out, above all, was a mesmerising, milky-white glaze, the recipe for which he kept a secret. It was made — he eventually revealed — by mixing flaxseed oil, crushed chalk and magnesium silicate: a combination of which gave his paintings a pearly luminescence that Western viewers had never encountered before.

‘The glaze was revolutionary and became a trademark,’ says Wang. ‘Foujita’s paintings from the 1920s and early 1930s are his most sought-after at auction — and his introduction of milky translucence at that time is a key reason for that.’

Models, muses and cats

Foujita married five times. Each of his wives would serve as a model for nudes. His subtly erotic images in this genre are among his most celebrated. The subjects tend to recline in the manner of odalisques by Ingres, yet are modelled with a lack of shading and colour that creates an atmosphere of simplicity and serenity.

One of Foujita’s first nudes, Nu couché à la toile de Jouy — of the model and cabaret performer, Kiki de Montparnasse (today housed at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art) — caused a sensation at the 1922 Salon d’Automne and confirmed his place as one of the leading artists in Paris. In recent years, many of Foujita’s reclining nudes have passed through Christie’s, such as Nu  and Portrait de Youki Allongée.

The artist’s other famous motif was the cat. He adored felines, which in Japan symbolise good luck. Foujita depicted them in various ways over the years: alone; together with other cats; with himself in self-portraits; and with his female models in nudes.

‘In each case, he captured every square inch of fur with such meticulousness that it almost produces a trompe l’oeil  effect — making you think the cat is real,’ says Wang. In 1930 Foujita produced A Book of Cats, a limited-edition publication (of just 500 copies) featuring 20 etchings of different felines. ‘Works with female nudes and/or cats tend to be his most desirable among collectors,’ the specialist adds.

Works in charcoal, ink, watercolour and pastel ‘are very highly thought of’

As well as paintings, Foujita also made works on paper throughout his career. It’s estimated he produced 6,000 female nudes alone.

‘His drawings are very highly thought of,’ says Wang. ‘He mastered many different media: charcoal, ink, watercolour, pastel… having shown his virtuosity from an early age. At just 14, he was receiving commissions [for drawings] from the emperor of Japan — and also had a gouache selected for display at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris.’

Foujita experimented on tracing paper, Japan paper, board, card and vellum, but what remained constant was ‘his handling of thin lines with sublime precision’, says Wang. ‘He produced delicate drawings that conveyed both the vitality and details of his subjects.’

Among his main achievements was a set of pen-and-wash drawings that illustrated Pierre Loti’s 1922 novel, Madame Chrysanthème.

Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968), Untitled (Le sage), 1965. Watercolour and charcoal on paper. 55.5 x 38.3 cm (21⅞ x 15⅛ in). Estimate: $8,000-15,000. Offered in Contemporary Art Asia, Online, 19-26 March 2020

The artist himself thought the key to his draughtsmanship was his affliction with myopia: short-sightedness allowing for heightened attention to detail. According to our specialist, ‘his works on paper offer an excellent way for those wishing to enter the Foujita market to do so at a low-ish price point’. 

Tax bills and flight to South America

Foujita earnt well from his art, although he wasn’t one to save his money. (Much better to spend it, he felt, on possessions like his yellow Ballot touring car, on the bonnet of which he had a small Rodin sculpture mounted). In the early 1930s, Foujita was handed a large bill by the French tax authorities that he was unable to pay. His response was to leave Paris — and his third wife, Youki — behind and flee to Latin America with his new lover, Madeleine.

Later that decade, he moved back to Japan, where he became official painter for the imperial army during the Second World War. His work from this time proved controversial: large battle scenes that were criticised as propaganda by many of his pacifist peers.

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Conversion to Catholicism, and frescoes for the Foujita Chapel

After the war, Foujita returned for good to France. and in 1955 he became a French citizen. Two years later, he became the first Asian artist to be made an Officer of the Legion of Honour by the French government.

Then, in 1959, he converted to Catholicism — after which he increasingly began to adopt religious subject matter, in works such as Madone (Two Figures).

Perhaps the greatest feat of his final years was conceiving, designing and painting frescoes for the Chapel of Our Lady Queen of Peace, in Reims (commonly known as Foujita Chapel). The artist died in 1968, aged 81, and his remains are in the cemetery outside.

What’s the current market like for Foujita?

The market for Foujita’s work was subdued in the years after his death — only to peak in the late 1980s. ‘His art started to be keenly bought by Japanese collectors,’ says Wang, ‘in part because of the shared nationality, but also because Japan was a dominant force back then for buying all  Impressionist and Modern art.’

Interest in Foujita rather fell away again in the 1990s and early 2000s, yet we seem to be reaching a second peak on his market now. The record price for a work by the artist was set in 2018, when La Fête d'Anniversaire  sold for £7.1 million.

‘Nowadays, the collector base extends far beyond Japan,’ says Wang. ‘To Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, mainland China, even Europe. Foujita’s appeal is much broader.’

Of the 10 most expensive works by the artist ever to appear at auction, five were sold from 1989 to 1990, and five between 2014 and 2018.

Does Wang have a tip or two for those wishing to invest in a Foujita today? ‘Alongside the works on paper [already discussed], I’d say his portraits are worth looking at: of women, children, sometimes soldiers… Many of these are highly impressive but haven’t had the same recognition or exposure as his other works yet’.

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