Japanese artist Foujita’s life, even though he lived in the earlier 20th century, has parallels with today’s expats. He too came from afar to settle in Paris and be inspired by our lovely city.
The Maison de la Culture du Japon à Paris is currently presenting «Foujita, works of a life (1886- 1968)». The retrospective of the first Japanese artist of international renown to have lived in Paris brings together 36 representative paintings of the artist’s evolution, carefully selected from the collections of Japanese and French museums. It traces the entire career of Foujita – from his arrival in Paris in 1913 to his death in 1968, highlighting his highly productive period of the 1920’s. Nearly every work from the 1930s and 1940s produced in Latin America and in Japan – including two war paintings – are being shown in Paris for the first time. The exhibition’s itinerary, which is divided into five sections, presents the essence of 60 years of creation and offers an unprecedented perspective on Foujita’s work and how it was influenced by his Paris (and other) surroundings. 1955, Foujita obtained French nationality. His final work was the construction and decoration of the chapel Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix in Reims. A monumental comprehensive work of art, it embodies the artistic and spiritual achievement of his œuvre.
I personally see plenty of influence of French painters in Foujita’s work along with his use of the western technique of oil painting. I was struck as to how Au Café brought to mind Edgar Dégas’s L’Absinthe mixed with Manet’s Un bar aux Folies Bergère and Foujita’s Nu à la toile de Jouy conjured up Manet’s Olympia. Both paintings remain however clearly connected to Foujita’s Japanese roots. As a true expat or immigrant Foujita (I wonder what he would have called himself), like the rest of us, takes the best of both worlds never fully detaching from one nor transitioning to the other. For many years he signed his painting with both Japanese characters and Latin ones. His clever mix of East and West became the key to his artistic success. Those from a western perspective would call his art Asian and those from an Asian perspective might call it western. In the last period of his life though Foujita realized he could no longer go back to Japan because of WWII repercussions and it seems that he embraced France fully to compensate. He became Christian, changed his name to Leonard, his painting focused on Parisian and Christian subjects and he longer use Japanese characters alongside his signature. One tableau from 1960 is called the Les 48 Richesses de la France and is composed of vignettes mentioning the things he loved about France: oysters, champagne, the Champs-Elysées, invention, chateaux, the Tour de France, medicine, postage stamps (yes really!)… (a bit like our own article 90 Reasons We Love France). The expatriate became an immigrant and was in France to stay. I spent a few minutes watching the French crowd take in this particular painting – they quickly pointed out “les huitres” spelled incorrectly. He may have been Japanese and I may be American, but by living away from our roots and in Paris we share a lot. — LV