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From Parisian Salons to Japanese Nationalism, the Compelling Story of Painter Léonard Foujita

Two exhibitions in Tokyo celebrate the 50th anniversary of the artist's death and bring the frictions between Western and Eastern painting to light

In a canvas by Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, titled Combat (Cats) (1940), 13 cats claw at one another in a grotesque, mid-air scuffle. In its characteristic stylization, agonistic subject matter, and historical context, the work is emblematic of the tumultuousness of the artist’s own life. In the 1930s, Foujita – a Japanese émigré who frequented the salons of the École de Paris in the 1920s – chopped off his signature bowl cut, returned to Japan and exchanged his trademark painting style for brutally heroic war paintings supporting Japan’s war effort, first against China and, later, the Allies in World War II. In the years following the war, Foujita was publicly denounced and shamed on account of these works; he left Japan for good at the end of the 1940s, besmirched and dishonoured.

One of Foujita’s wartime paintings, the monumental Final Fighting at Attu (1943), depicting heroic Japanese soldiers in a final stand against US forces, is being shown for the first time in 75 years in ‘Foujita: A Retrospective’ at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. The largest Foujita retrospective to date, it is a complex, comprehensive show commemorating the 50th anniversary of the painter’s death. With more than 100 works presented in eight chapters, it tells the compelling story of a painter of undeniable quality who merged European and Japanese traditions; his capitulation to political nationalism; and, ultimately, a devotional phase of strange, Catholic religious art before his death in France.

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Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, Combat (Cats), 1940. Courtesy: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo © Fondation Foujita / ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2017

In Paris, Foujita developed a trademark style of precise stylization consisting of black ink outlines and a delicate palette, above all of white, borrowed from traditional Japanese painting techniques. Foujita befriended Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani, for a while outshining them in acclaim. Through nudes, domestic scenes of models and dancers, and numerous self-portraits, Foujita gained fame for a ‘milky white’ style of ghostly, pearlescent limpidity. His Two Women and Young Woman with Flowers (both 1918) are masterworks of figural stylization; the macabre-looking women, with darkened eyes, peer out with pouted lips, holding flattened flowers in levelled perspective.

In the 1930s, Foujita travelled across Latin America and Asia, but his early attention to corporeality and the muscularity of bodies culminated in the heroics of his 1940s paintings. The murky, post-impressionistic Cambodian Plain (1943) and A Tempest, (Storm, after J.-F. Millet) (1943) lead quickly to two colossal paintings lionizing the Japanese war effort: Final Battle at Attu, and Compatriots on Saipan Island Remain Faithful to the End (1945). Both depict the banzai suicide charges of Japanese troops, rendered in dark, muddy brown tones. It’s a jarring experience, all the more so since they led directly to the artist’s own defamation; as a viewer unfamiliar with this complicated history, I hungered for contextualization, even as I recognized Foujita’s power as a painter.

Across the street, at University Art Museum at Tokyo University of the Arts, a response exhibition has been organized by the art school’s former students and professors. ‘Foujita in the 1940s: Tributes’ features work by seven contemporary Japanese artists, which give a deeper sense of the many ambivalences to the artist’s story. Entering the museum, six monitors hang, fanning like helicopter rotors, over a military jeep. For Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s The Return of Painter F (2015), the artist reconstructed aspects of Foujita’s life in postwar Japan, at times using puppets, shot in the places in which they occurred in contemporary Tokyo, also drawing on research on Foujita’s travels. The multi-media work, alternately comical and grave, constructs a narrative of Foujita’s instrumentalization; it presents him as an ultimately tragic figure, a puppet to the vicissitudes of history.

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Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, Self-Portrait, 1929. Courtesy: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo © Fondation Foujita / ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2017

Upstairs, Hirakata Kota presents two dramatic large canvases which, on first viewing, resemble ink-black, colour field paintings. Looking closer, we see that their surfaces bear outlines of bodies – screaming and clawing at one another in battle. Trinitite – Compatriots on Saipan Island Remain Faithful to the End (2013) is an acrylic and oil work which takes as a model Foujita’s infamous masterwork. In Hirakata’s rendering, it’s redone done in black, where the specific figuration of the battle figures are viewable in haunting outlines of raw bellicosity. Installed in this room, we see Takayuki Akimoto’s KA (1997–98), an impressive, gridded row of small-format works, which initially look like raw canvases. In each, however, a face is faintly visible on the canvas, like a ghostly afterglow of pained expression.

In both series, detached abstraction capitulates to harrowing figuration. This speaks volumes about the opposition in Foujita’s own work between the ostensible freedom of modernist stylization and his political and religious engagement. Together, these two shows present a highly complex picture involving Western and Eastern painting and historical traditions, and the frictions between them. Looming behind their staging are the emergent nationalist developments brewing in contemporary Japan, which are putting to question precisely these histories. For instance, the influential Japanese ultranationalist group Nippon Kaigi has been advocating revisionist history textbooks for schools, which reframe WWII heroically, claiming that Japan put an end to Western colonialism in East Asia. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe serves as an enthusiastic ‘special advisor’ to the organization. Against the backdrop of these political exigencies, Foujita’s combative canvases continue to touch nerves.

'Foujita: A Retrospective' was on view at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum from 31 July until 8 October 2018.

'Foujita in the 1940s: Tributes' was on view at University Art Museum, Tokyo, from 20 July until 15 August 2018. 

Main image: Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, Portrait of Emily Crane Chadbourne (detail), 1922. Courtesy: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY © Fondation Foujita / ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2017

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin.

Issue 199

First published in Issue 199

November - December 2018
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