If you study Japanese art you see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philosophic and intelligent, who spends his time studying the distance between the earth and the moon…he studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure. So he passes his life, and life is too short to do the whole.”

(Vincent Van Gogh)

Around 1874, the term “Japonism” came to light among the masters of Impressionist artists—undoubtedly among them, Claude Monet, who was immensely inspired by Hokusai. This phenomenon was triggered by Japan’s participation in the Paris World Fair in 1867 where Parisians were struck by the delicacy and exoticism of Japanese woodblock prints, kimonos, fans and other antiquities. Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Marry Cassatt, Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pissarro, George Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-August Renoir and others adopted some features of Japanese art into their masterpieces. Hence, it comes to no surprise that such a distinct Japanese artist penetrating into the Western art world would be received with so much enthusiasm.

The man with the bowl haircut and small, round eyeglasses, as he was fondly identified by, Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita was only in his 20s when he plunged into the sea of European art masters Amedeo Modigliani, Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso Henri Matisse, and others living in Paris during the 1900s. Setting up his first studio in Montparnasse, he became an instant sensation during his first solo exhibition at Gallery Chéron in 1917, selling more than 110 watercolours. However, it was at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1922 when Foujita’s familiar naked paintings took the trademark for his art. He will always be remembered as the most important Japanese artist who immersed into the West during the 20th century.

The National Museum of Modern Art Kyoto is currently celebrating Foujita’s 50th death anniversary with an explosive exposition of approximately over 125 oil paintings and watercolours of the artist’s full career including works from France, Belgium, Switzerland, U.S.A. and other countries. Running until the 16th of December this year, the exhibition Foujita: A Retrospective Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of his Death covers drawings, book covers, illustrations, photos, films, stage art, writings, and ceramics, with themes on landscapes, portraits, religion, and more than 100 of his much talked-about “milky white” nudes, many that have never been displayed in Japan before.

Primal Landscapes. Family & Surroundings

Foujita was nicknamed “Tsuguji” and always dreamt to be a painter in Paris. He joined the “Hakubakai” (White Horse Society), which was a group established by teachers focusing on a conservative style of Western art prominent in Japan. This section comprises his early works (particularly portraits) in Japan and Korea.

Early Paris Days. The First World War

Foujita’s early works in Paris revealed stark influences from cubism, landscape, Paris scenes, human figures, still life and inspirations from Modigliani who became a close acquaintance. Gradually, he developed his passion for the “milky white ground” approach in his nude drawings and paintings. One of his notable works using this milky white background is “My Room in Paris, Still Life with Alarm Clock” (1921, oil on canvas©Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Jean-Claude Planchet/distributed by AMF ©Fondation Foujita/ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2017). Foujita practices on his still life technique, depicting an austere look into the interior of his studio in Montparnasse. The favourite items include his famed spectacles resting on a red and white-checkered cloth that adds contrast to the quite sepia touch.

Self-Portraits & Portraits of the 1920s. Faces of the Times

During the 1920s, Foujita was fond of painting self-portraits, particularly highlighting his bowl hair look style. “Self-Portrait” (1929, oil on canvas©Fondation Foujita/ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2017) again adopts his milky white technique and his identifiable thin ink-line drawing style. There are also many works in this section showing his favourite cat and memorabilia in his apartment, owing much to the trend of the art deco style in this period. Very active in the social circle, he also received many commissions from Paris celebrities.

The “Milky White Nudes” Era

Foujita soon began to be known as the painter of nudes in the 1920s and highly noted for his black outline touch over a milky white ground. He garnered much success in numerous galleries after his first nude exhibition at the Salon d’automne Paris in 1921. Works such as the “Nude with Tapestry” (1923, oil on canvas©Fondation Foujita/ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2017) emphasized a soft and creamy feeling depicted by the white skin against the contrast of a decorative piece of cotton fabric.

Artist on the Move. The 1930s in North America, Latin America, and Asia

The era of the 1930s was a critical time for Foujita when he returned to Japan after sixteen years. His works took a more surrealistic appearance, reflecting the collapse of the world’s financial market. He travelled extensively throughout Latin America, North American and Asia and consequently returned to Japan once again in 1933, this time inspired by the vivid atmosphere he embraced in his travels, as seen in the change of his color approach.

Face to Face with History. Encounter with the Second “Great War” and the War Paintings

Having returned to Paris from Japan in 1939 facing the invasion of the German troops, Foujita contemplated on his Japanese roots and developed a quite nationalistic attitude, even joining military troops to paint battle scenes and the sufferings of the people. “Combat (Cats)” (1943, oil on canvas©Fondation Foujita/ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2017) exemplifies this chaotic mood of fighting cats in varied positions.

The Last Twenty Years. Tokyo NY Paris

When Foujita was accused of collaboration with the war efforts, his bitterness drove him to leave his mother country, and pacify his spirits in New York and Paris. He returned to his original nude art, streetscapes, and scenes of children. “At the Café” (1949, oil on canvas©Musée La Piscine (Roubaix), Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Arnaud Loubry/distributed by AMF © Fondation Foujita/ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2017) is one of Foujita’s revered works, which he painted while in New York. The seated woman projects a hazy aura, deep in contemplation. Her black dress against the brown shades of the Parisian scenery provides perfect contrast and accent.

Path to Catholicism

Finding his final niche in France, Foujita obtained French citizenship in 1955, and was baptized as a Catholic, adopting the name Léonard. From this period, he would devote much of his themes on religious settings. In the “Adoration” (1962-63©Museé d’Art Moderne/Roger-Viollet © Fondation Foujita/ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2017), Foujita paints a portrayal of the Virgin Mary with himself dressed as a monk and his last wife Kimiyo as a nun. The was exhibited in 1964 at Galerie Paul Pétridés, which eventually became the artist’s last solo exhibition.

Léonard Foujita may be considered as a man who breathed both the oriental and the Western air, and it is perhaps in the duality of his character that his exemplary works continue to mystify all art lovers.

"I became one of the successful painters in Paris, because I received the basic Japanese painting training in my mother country, Japan…I became a man in Japan, and I became a painter in France. I would like to live in the world as a Japanese."
—Léonard Foujita

(The Soul of Japan)

With special gratitude to the National Museum of Modern Art Kyoto.