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​ Another year in the spotlight for Foujita…

[08 Aug 2017]

Having generated strong results in the auction market in recent years, the oeuvre of Tsuguhara-Leonard Foujita will be highly visible over the coming months, particularly in France, where the Musée Maillol is preparing an exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death (March-July 2018).

Tsuguharu FOUJITA’s market already made a spectacular jump in 2016 after events in France and Japan to mark the 130th anniversary of the artist’s birth triggered a new auction record above the $5 million threshold when his Nu Au Chat sold at Sothebys Hong Kong on 3 April 2016, to the Long Museum in Shanghai (a private museum founded by Liu Yiqian, chairman of Sunline group, and Wang Wei). The subtle and majestic work had already made secondary market news by fetching $1.9 million in 2014; but the 2016 result more than doubled its previous sale price, providing a substantial stimulus to Foujita’s market last year and the momentum could well be reactivated in 2018 with new tributes planned as part of the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

The Lewis Carroll of painting, as Jean Cocteau called him, was a prolific artist, painting between six and eight thousand works during his life. An exceptional portrait artist and a painter of cats and beautiful women, Foujita could have had a splendid career without leaving Japan. A remarkable Fine Arts student in Tokyo, he graduated in 1910 and the following year his works were being collected by the Japanese Emperor. But the young artist was determined to visit Paris. He gave up his title of official painter, arrived in Paris on 6 August 1913 and the following day met the Chilean painter Manuel Ortiz de Zarate on the terrace of a Parisian café.

Before long, Ortiz took him to Pablo Picassos studio. This initial shock seems to have given Foujita the idea of an inescapable destiny … and for Foujita that destiny was anchored in the Modern cultural revolution… in the Parisian vortex that became the world’s artistic centre. At the time, the epicentre of this vortex was of course Montparnasse, where Fujita installed himself alongside some of the biggest names in Modern art history like Amedeo Modigliani, Moïse Kisling, Chaïm Soutine, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Fernand Léger, Juan Gris and Henri Matisse … Admired by his new friends, he soon received critical acclaim and public success.

A life of success…

Foujita’s first solo exhibition at the Cheron gallery in 1917 was an immediate success. Dealer for Amedeo MODIGLIANI and Chaïm SOUTINE, Georges Cheron showed a hundred or so watercolors by Foujita, whose singular style – mixing traditional Japanese and gothic hieratismattracted Picasso’s admiration. A cultural fusion was already visible in Foujita’s work and he continued to integrate numerous influences after a trips abroad. His discovery of Michelangelo during a trip to Italy in 1921 proved decisive in his body modeling, and he was very impressed by Italian Renaissance Madonna paintings, from Raphaël to Leonardo da Vinci. His admiration for Leonardo da Vinci was so intense that he adopted the name ‘Leonard when he converted to Christianity in 1959.

Foujita developed a passionate interest in Western art history, but he was also influenced by his close friends, particularly Modigliani, while never abandoning his taste for Japanese calligraphy, delicate lines, empty spaces and flat tints suggesting Japanese prints. At the crossroads of influences, Foujita’s art derived from a process of hybridization, between traditional and modern, between East and West.

During the 1920s, Foujita enjoyed a series of successful exhibitions and developed his chalk-white technique (nyuhakushoku) to paint and draw models. His canvas Youki déesse de la neige, was given a rapturous reception at the 1924 Salon d’Automne, attracting crowds of visitors and rave reviews. In 1925, he was awarded the Order of Leopold in Belgium and made a Knight of the Legion of Honour in France. Swept up by the mood and dynamism of the Parisian années folles, Foujita received accolades from every quarter, enjoying considerable personal success. He was earning good money, attracting positive media attention and was envied by many; however, in 1928 Foujita’s personal situation was seriously impacted by a major tax adjustment that prompted his return to Japan where he hoped to restore his financial health.

When he returned to Paris, it was not for long: between his chaotic personal life and his desire to travel… Foujita decided to move to Latin America with his model, Madeleine Lequeux (1931-1933). After Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and California, where he lived on income from exhibitions, he returned to Tokyo in 1933, then back to Paris in 1939 and then back to Japan when the German army entered France. In his home country, he was appointed official painter of Japan’s military exploits in Asia … i.e. a propaganda painter. He returned to the United States in 1949 and subsequently moved back to Montparnasse in Paris with his last wife Kimiyo, where his career once again flourished.

Market resurrection

According to Sylvie Buisson, author of Foujita’s catalogue raisonné, Kimiyo, his beautiful Japanese wife who remained with him to the end, was traumatised by insistent interested demands after her husband’s death. She therefore returned to Japan and forbade all reproductions and even exhibitions of her late husband’s work. That is essentially why Foujita’s work was largely forgotten for so many years. Fortunately, in the 1980s, his work attracted the interest of Japanese collectors who supported Japanese artists in Western auction houses with unprecedented financial vigour.

In 1985, a Foujita Still Life (Nature morte) reached $110,000 at Christie’s in New York and, after several results above $200,000, his prices soared in 1990, leading to his first million-plus result (Enfant égarée, $1.14 million at Sotheby’s New York). But that surge was short-lived, and his prices subsequently remained fragile and his market more or less fell into oblivion. For nearly a quarter century, there wasn’t a single ‘spectacular’ result to whet the market’s appetite, although Fujita remained the most expensive Japanese artist on the market thanks to that 1990 result. However, since 2014 four new million-plus results have confirmed global demand for this work.

Outside the market, some of Foujita’s best works are kept at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, the Georges Pompidou Center (Paris), the Carnavalet Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Belgium, the British Museum in London and, of course, in all major Japanese museums. Nevertheless, France hosts the largest collection after the city of Reims received a donation of 663 Foujita works, the best of which will be exhibited by the new Museum of Fine Arts, scheduled to open in 2018… an event that will complement the major exhibition scheduled at the Maillol Museum in Paris.

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