Tsuguharu Fujita: brush, sewing, cats, and ladies
The artist who believed that God gave men cats to better understand the mysterious feminine essence. In the last decade, the name of Tsuguharu Fujita (1886—1968), a Japanese by birth, a bright and original representative of the "second wave" of the Parisian school of avant-garde art, has triumphantly returned to the art world. The story of this "samurai from Montparnasse" is complicated and fascinating: the artist created his own mythology, avoiding certainty, giving some fog from fables, and sometimes deliberately clearing up the details of real events.
Fujita arrived from Japan to the French capital in 1913 to immerse himself in the comprehension of pictorial skill; over time, he embodied the dream of taking a worthy place on the European artistic Olympus.
The facts of the biography of our hero are as nontrivial as they are contradictory. In his case, you cannot be sure of anything.
Legend has it that Fujita immediately gained success fresh off the boat upon his arrival in Paris: on the first evening, having visited the favourite bohemian taverns, he charmed the local public and the next day he was allegedly invited to the workshop of Picasso himself, an iconic figure among the Parisian artists. In fact, Fujita’s acquaintance with the "frantic Pablo" took place no earlier than six months later in the capital, as evidenced by Tsuguharu’s letter to his bride Tomiko.
Eyewitnesses said that Diego Rivera was painting a double portrait of Tsuguharu Fujita and Riichiro Kawashima in the cubist style, when the artist Manuel de Zárate ran into the studio bringing the incredible news — Picasso himself invited Rivera to pay him a visit!
The painting session was immediately interrupted, and all four rushed to the master’s workshop. The Japanese didn’t even change their clothes and remained in short tunics, woven sandals on their bare legs and in pot-like headdresses. The sight of these odd fellows shook the imagination of the most sophisticated metropolitan onlookers.
Among temptations and hardships
The tunics were no coincidence. Upon arrival in the French capital,
Fujita moved to the workshop of his compatriot Kawashima,
who also studied painting. The friends joined the naturism,
which was fashionable at that time. They attended the dance academy of Raymond (
Isadora Duncan’s brother), where they professed a return to naturalness,
to the natural way of life. The passion for wearing chlamys and other Greco-Roman props was a consequence of Tsuguharu’s interest in antiquity with its cult of corporeality,
outlandish for a descendant of samurai.
For some time,
Fujita rented a room in the Cité Falguier,
a place in Montparnasse, which was chosen by the colony of artists
. He lived side by side with Modigliani and Soutine,
with whom he became close friends. In 1914,
the "naturists" Tsuguharu and Riichiro,
driven by the desire to live in simplicity,
jointly acquired a plot of land with a house in a town near Paris. As soon as they had time to settle there and equip their modest life,
the First World War broke out,
the land was requisitioned,
the house was destroyed. A period of homelessness and hardship began.
In the autumn of 1915, Kawashima returned to Japan in despair. Fujita also tried to change circumstances and left for London, where at first he worked part-time as an antique restorer, and then got a job at the Selfridges department store as … a tailor. Yes, yes, our hero could even sew, which he willingly did all his life!
A tailor’s mannequin, scissors, threads with needles often appear in the artist’s still lifes, and in one of his photographs, he is captured at a sewing machine.
"Clothed with the beauty"
Having quickly realized that originality is encouraged, Fujita cultivated his own outward exoticism. The memoirs of contemporaries mention the striking appearance of the Japanese gentleman — homespun kimonos, loincloths, chitons of curtain fabrics, necklaces of large wooden beads. Tsuguharu intuitively built his personal brand, perfected the image of a "dandy samurai" in the smallest details and supported it all his life: crescent fringe, round horn glasses, funny styled brush-like moustache, earrings in his ears, bracelets and a tattoo in the form of wristwatch on his wrists.
In pursuit of extravagance, Tsuguharu succeeded so much that his friends nicknamed him Fou-fou (from French fou — crazy). The same friends began to call him Léonard — what Frenchman could remember and pronounce his outlandish native name at once? Fujita was flattered by the parallel with his idol Leonardo da Vinci, and many years later he officially adopted this name in Catholic baptism. This is how our hero entered the history of art: as Tsuguharu Fujita and as Léonard Foujita.
Exposing himself, Tsuguharu hid behind his invented image as behind a screen at the same time. No one could tell what was in this mysterious stranger’s soul, this circumstance surrounded Fujita with a mysterious halo, but it did not stop his friends from adoring him for his easy disposition, generosity and kindness.
"I really love Tokyo,
but opportunity to live in Paris as a foreigner gives me the detachment I need to understand myself."
In time of business I am busy, in time of fooling ‘round I am fooling
Although Tsuguharu did not drink alcohol, he willingly joined friendly spree. Paradoxically, our hero managed to be in everyone’s sight — and at the same time remain a recluse who worked hard and passionately. No matter how stormy the night passed, Fujita was always in great condition early in the morning, and those who happened to visit him in the morning said that by nine o’clock his first work was usually finished.
During his labour days, Fujita did not welcome idle visitors, jealously guarding his pictorial secrets. He had to comprehend a lot by trial and error — they did not paint in oil in Japan, and the pictorial canons were different. In the end, Tsuguharu invented his own technique: after having painted the canvas, he applied a thin ink drawing over it in the traditional Japanese drawing manner, revealing the contours and emphasizing the form plasticity. The composition of the milky-white glaze intended for the depiction of nudity was kept secret by the artist for years. It was possible to establish that the master was kneading crushed chalk or white lead in linseed oil, adding magnesium silicate. It was rumoured that the composition of the mysterious glaze included real mother of pearl — how else to explain the shining pearl tone of the faces and bodies painted by the artist?
"One day I suddenly realized that there is very little female nature in Japanese painting. In the paintings by Harunobu or Utamaro,
only parts of the hand or a small area of skin near the knee are barely visible. <…> I was the first to decide to try to depict the most beautiful of materials: human skin."
"Cherchez la femme!"
Despite all the misfortunes, Tsuguharu did not abandon his ambitions. He refused material support from his father, deciding to break through on his own, and also officially terminated his engagement with Tomiko. We don’t know how long Fujita’s life in poverty would have lasted, if in the winter of the difficult 1917, fate had not brought him together with a demi-mondaine, a model with a rich intimate biography, Fernanda Barry. Tsuguharu was said to have conquered the girl by appearing to her with a corset personally sewn as a gift. They also said that the samurai’s soul was captured by Fernanda’s sweeping gesture — wishing to heat her chilled house for him, she threw her father’s gift, a magnificent carved chair in the style of Louis XV, into the oven.
Portrait by Modigliani
Less than two weeks passed from acquaintance to marriage. Barry began to actively promote her husband, arranged for the first personal exhibition of his works with Georges Chéron, the owner of the gallery near the Champs Elysees. All 110 watercolours were sold literally from the walls, and Chéron, inflamed by the excitement, began to beg Fujita to paint at least two works a day, but he was only ready to pay 6—7 francs for each.
On the right — Tsuguharu Fujita and Fernanda Barry
Such works by Fujita were in great demand in the Chéron’s Gallery.
In 1919, Fujita was exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon. Encouraged by his success, Tsuguharu painted a magnificent portrait of a lying Kiki — a café singer and dancer, a popular model, Fernanda’s friend. The canvas would become a sensation at the Salon of 1922 and be acquired by a private collector for an incredible amount of 8,000 francs. The plane interpretation of volumes in combination with a fluid contour seemed very original to the public, and the following morning Tsuguharu, as they say, woke up famous.
The relationship with Fernanda came to its end when, in 1921, the artist met the young Lucy Badu. Legend has it that their first date at the hotel dragged on for three days, and only at the end of the delightful marathon Tsuguharu asked about the girl’s name.
It turned out to be so trivial that Fujita immediately gave his mistress a new name, Yuki, which means "snow" in Japanese, her skin seemed so white to him. Since then, Yuki has never returned to her first name.
The girl becomes Fujita’s favorite model, and over time, after the official divorce from Fernanda in 1924, his wife.
In 1923, Tsuguharu painted a nude portrait of Yuki with a cat. The work became significant for the master, since two distinctive moments took shape in it, which he began to cultivate consciously.
First, Fujita has finally managed to achieve an incredible porcelain glow of the skin. Secondly, a new image object appeared on the canvas, a cat, which has since become a kind of talisman for the artist. This cat once followed Tsuguhara on his way to the workshop, this is how it got its master and name Mika, which means "striped" in Japanese. Feline independence and unpredictability captivated Fujita, he believed that these traits made cats related to women and argued that God gave men cats to better understand the mysterious female essence.
There are also cats in Fujita’s self-portraits, and he painted them in vast numbers. Our hero used to give self-portraits instead of flowers and hand them over, saying: "Here's my head. At least it won’t wither!" In a number of canvases, we see a cat in Tsuguharu’s bosom, just as the Japanese master Kuniyoshi did during his work. His friends found the similarity of the pets to the artist striking, and even joked that he himself looked like a mouse hunter.
Yuki used to be Fujita’s life muse for a decade. They made a brilliant pair of metropolitan celebrities and became the object of secular gossip and the attention of photographers, and one of the department stores even made a dummy Fujita for displaying clothes in windows. The couple rented a beautiful apartment in a fashionable area with hot running water — a curiosity at that time. A convertible was purchased for car rides, on the hood of which was a small bronze bust by Rodin. Numerous parties were held — Yuki considered them the best medicine for any blues. So the "golden 20s" passed quite in the spirit of the times for the couple — stormy, happily, peppily.
At some point, Yuki was seriously carried away by Robert Desnos, a surrealist poet and mystic, and this passion turned out to be mutual. For the time being, a fragile balance was maintained in this "surreal triangle" of relations, but this could not last forever. In 1931, Tsuguharu decided to exclude himself from this game, left the house for cigarettes and disappeared for years.
Objective circumstances indicate that the global economic crisis put an end to the incomes of most of the artists, and Tsuguharu was no exception. Moreover, agents of the fiscal service began to persecute the artist, as he owed an astronomical amount for a long period of tax evasion.
Fujita went to Marseilles, from where he wrote a farewell letter of explanation to Yuki and set on a world tour that stretched over several years — the USA, the countries of Central and South America, China, Indochina, native Japan. The 25-year-old model Madeleine Lequeux, aka Madi Dorman, an ex-dancer, Fujita’s new pursuit, became his travel companion and the fourth wife. Exhibitions were organized on different continents, and they were extremely successful. Tsuguharu was full of energy, worked hard, wrote travel notes, his painting exhibitions brought tangible material benefits, and the fame of Fujita as an artist spread beyond Europe.
Tsuguharu Fujita (Léonard Foujita). Madeleine sleeping (1931)
Another Fujita’s family idyll did not last long. In 1935, in Tokyo, Fujita met a young waitress, Kimiyo Horiuchi. A girl with the warrior character became Tsuguharu’s mistress and entered into a struggle with Madeleine for her lover. This confrontation lasted for a year. The sudden end in it was put by Madeleine’s unexpected death from an overdose of cocaine. Kimiyo was a quarter of a century younger than Fujita, their marriage became the fifth and the last one for the artist.
Tsuguharu and Kimiyo. 1935
During World War II, Tsuguharu, a descendant of the samurai, saw it as his duty to participate in the war on the side of Japan. He zealously and enthusiastically served the cause of propaganda, singing the military victories of Japanese weapons with his brush. At the end of the war, the fact of the artist’s collaboration with the militarist regime drew sharp condemnation and criticism from many compatriots.
Public censure was the main reason Fujita decided to leave Japan — this time for good. In a roundabout way through the United States in 1950, the couple moved to France. Tsuguharu returned to his beloved old subjects — women, cats, children — in which there was a sense of dreaminess and melancholy.
He did not deserve light, he deserved peace
Since 1961, the Fujita couple has enjoyed a secluded, serene life in the provincial Villiers-le-Bâcle near Paris. Now there, in a house built in the 18th century, there is a museum of the artist, open to the public by his will. In the last decade of his life, Tsuguharu turned to religious subjects and decided to undergo a baptism into the Catholic faith.
After the artist’s death in 1968, Kimiyo did not permit to study the archives for a long time, and she did not support publications about Fujita. The widow outlived her husband for good forty years, and only in the last years of her life she opened up the artist’s personal documents and letters after she had made sure that the attitude towards Fujita was not negative and prejudiced, and also she bequeathed the artist’s works to the peoples of France and Japan.
The most significant collections of works by the "Japanese Parisian" are presented in the collections of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Reims Museum of Fine Arts, as well as in numerous museum exhibitions in Fujita’s homeland.
Until 2008, Fujita remained the most expensive Japanese artist, and a record cost for his work was set ten years later: 9.3 million US dollars was paid for his work named "Birthday", which was based on La Fontaine’s fable.
Also in 2018, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Tsuguharu Fujita’s death, the art world honoured his memory by organizing events in iconic places of the artist: Paris, Tokyo, Reims, Osaka and Kyoto. Thus, we have regained Fujita the artist — European as percepted by his compatriots, and truly Japanese in the European understanding.