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About The Author

Phyllis BirnbaumPhyllis Birnbaum

Phyllis Birnbaum is a novelist, biographer, journalist, and translator from the Japanese. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She lives near Boston.

photo: Sheila Mabry

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EXCERPT

Glory in a Line
ONE
BETWEEN EAST AND WEST
 
 
I love Tokyo very much, but being a foreigner in Paris provides me with the distance I require to understand myself
--Foujita
It seems best to think of Foujita in Paris. After all, he first attracted attention on the Left Bank, winning applause for his drawings of cats and for the startling whiteness of his nudes. At Parisian cafés during the 1920s, Foujita became a fixture, with his trademark bangs, round glasses, and hoop earrings; late into the night, he could be found chatting with cronies at the tables of his favorite haunts. He took pleasure in dressing up for his appearances around Paris's Montparnasse district and sported a slave trader's loincloth at a costume ball, but he also went through a Neo-Grecian period. Decked out in a Greek tunic and sandals, Foujita joined a group dancing in the woods.
Foujita liked to say that he knew everyone worth knowing in 1920s Paris. Picasso was one of his acquaintances; Diego Rivera painted him in his Greek outfit; his memoirs tell of the time when he lived just a floor above Modigliani, whose untidiness was apparently monumental. More important to his career was his friendship with the voluptuous Kiki, the celebrated Montparnasse personality. Known as the "Queen of Montparnasse," Kiki was the nude in a painting that brought Foujita acclaim. The relationship between Foujita, a Japanese artist brought up in a military family in Tokyo, and this bawdy, full-breasted womanfrom Burgundy has been the source of speculation. Until he died, he felt obliged to insist to one and all that they had been only the best of friends. Foujita recalled that when Kiki arrived at his studio, "she came in slowly and timidly, her cute little finger held up to her small red mouth, swinging her behind confidently." And since this was, after all, Paris in the Roaring Twenties, he went on to concede that she was naked beneath her coat--"a small handkerchief, in lively colors, pinned to the inside of her coat gave the illusion of her latest dress."
Around 1922, when Kiki turned up in her coat, Foujita had been an expatriate in Paris for nine years. He had left Tokyo with few prospects for success, but vowed to make his mark in France. In this he was like the many artists from all over the world who flocked to Paris during that time, but Foujita stood out from the others in his exuberance, his discipline, and his expertise with a delicate Japanese paintbrush. Early in his career, Foujita established an artistic reputation when his paintings of Parisian landscapes and vivacious cats were exhibited in galleries around town. Still, Foujita was shrewd enough to recognize that cat paws, which he could draw in remarkable detail, would not get him the world-class fame he so eagerly sought. It was perhaps with this in mind that he followed the example of the masters in the Louvre whose works he studied for hours on end: Foujita also put effort into painting nude women.
Kiki proved crucial to this endeavor, but Foujita admitted that he had certain difficulties with her at first. Not the kind of model who meekly settled down, she required expert handling, and Foujita was not immediately up to the job:
She took my place in front of the easel, told me not to move, and calmly began to draw my portrait. When the work was finished, she had sucked and bitten all my pencils and lost my small eraser, and delighted, danced, sung, and yelled, and walked all over a box of Camembert. She demanded money from me for posing and left triumphantly, carrying her drawing with her. Three minutes later at the Café du Dôme, a rich American collector bought this drawing for an outrageous price. That day I wasn't sure which of the two of us was the painter.
We can assume that Foujita gained control of the situation, for the next day Kiki returned to his studio in a more docile state of mind. He had her pose nude on a couch covered with white fabric, where she reclined in grand languor, her hand at her head. In Foujita's painting, Kiki has the look of a woman accustomed to disrobing, and we know from available evidence that the expression came naturally to her. Foujita portrayed her showing off a fleshy, lovely body without the slightest qualm. He entered this work in the Salon d'Automne and was elated by the reaction. "In the morning, all the newspapers talked about it. At noon the Minister congratulated me. In the evening, for the sum of 8,000 francs, it was sold to a famous collector. The buyer for the State arrived too late. It was an immense success." Kiki would not, of course, permit him to forget her role in this triumph. "Kiki and I were each equally pleased; for the second time I wasn't sure who was the artist."
Since others had no doubt about who was responsible for this and other creations, Foujita became the darling of the French art world. That was a big change of fortune for an artist who had, just a few years before, sold his clothing to pay for meals. The French critics were ecstatic about Foujita's originality and his combination of Eastern and Western traditions. They were impressed by Foujita's restrained use of color: in those days artists usually brought countless hues to their paintings, but Foujita made his name on white. Foujita employed a special, spectacular white in his paintings, a white that seemed to give Kiki flesh of ivory. At the Salon d'Automne, crowds jockeyed for space in front of Foujita's works to take in their magical emanations, while artists tried to determine the ingredients that had gone into producing such effects. For this reason, Foujita guarded his recipe for the white color, keeping competitors out of his studio where they might steal his secrets.
Not only did his white bring a splendid shimmer to Kiki's skin, that same white also allowed Foujita to introduce Japanese elements into his creation. His white oil paint had been concocted so that he could draw upon it with what looked like sumi, the ink the Japanese used in ink paintings and calligraphy. This may not seem like an earthshaking achievement, but for Foujita, the look of black sumi on white made allthe difference. In his version of sumi, he could outline Kiki's body with a thin line of amazing flexibility and grace. The line seemed to flow with impossible fluidity as it followed her legs, her hips, her whole torso. Foujita's lines, which harked back to traditional art forms, gave his oil paintings just the Japanese touch that he sought. Though many contemporaries tried to imitate Foujita--"That's a line which never stops," according to one admirer--none ever succeeded.
 
 
The Japanese elements introduced into his Western-style oil painting served Foujita well, since things Japanese were still venerated in France during that period. Decades before, the Impressionist Monet had painted his wife in a gaudy Japanese kimono; Toulouse-Lautrec tried out the techniques he had learned from Japanese woodblock-print artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige; van Gogh, another enthusiast, went one step further in creating oil paintings that closely resembled actual Japanese works. In this atmosphere of lingering japonisme, where Japanese fans, leaping carp, and vases also had a place, Foujita--in residence on rue Delambre, Paris, but lately of Tokyo--reminded the art world of his origins.
Foujita wrote later that he had trained himself over long years to create his paintings of nudes: "I suddenly realized one day that there are very few paintings of nudes in Japan. In the paintings of Harunobu or Utamaro, there are merely glimpses of part of an arm or a small area around the knee. I realized that they conveyed the sensation of skin only in those places. For the first time I decided to try to represent that most beautiful of materials: human skin. It had been eight years since I had drawn nudes, but I really attained exceptional success."
The French were captivated by Foujita's descriptions of artistic struggle, and critics clamored for the superlatives to describe this Japanese artist's achievements. He went on to paint more nudes and cats and still lifes, showing off the white color and the faultless line in many variations. "In the art of Foujita there is a little bit of the magician's art and even the illusionist's," rhapsodized the French critic André Warnod. "His paintings bloom like the Japanese paper flowers children love." Back home in Japan, Foujita's colleagues were less inclined to goin for such expressions of rapture. On the contrary, some of Foujita's countrymen saw his success as a sham. These Japanese believed that he had too keen an eye for the marketplace and too little respect for the purity of his calling. They said that in his oil paintings, Foujita was offering the French a warmed-over version of the kind of art available in Japan for centuries. "His work seemed very Japanese to the Japanese," the art historian Hayashi Yko has written. "Many Japanese artists, indignant, couldn't figure out what this work was all about. They thought that they could do better."
 
 
Despite these dissenting voices, Foujita achieved great fame with his paintings of cats and female nudes, which became the rage of Europe. As the years went by, he continued to develop his talents for art and controversy and flamboyance. In 1927, he moved into a house in an elegant part of Paris, on a narrow cobblestone street. He made so much money that he bought a fancy car and stuck a small Rodin bust on the hood. A Basque chauffeur (who was also a jai alai champion) wore a cap and uniform as he drove Foujita and his third wife, Youki, around town. Exulting in his notoriety, Foujita tattooed a watch on his wrist and led the line of cancan dancers at the Ubu Ball. He was a publicity hound from the outset, and there were accusations that Foujita had purposely risked his life in a bicycle accident just to get his name in the papers. He became so well-known in Paris that a mannequin of his likeness (complete with bangs, hoop earrings, and round eyeglasses) was used to sell clothes in department store windows. Since Foujita personified Japan for Europeans then, Japanese tourists in Paris were often stopped on the streets and asked if they knew him.
Although some of his Japanese contemporaries considered Foujita's antics an embarrassment, a backward look makes it seem churlish to deny him these pleasures. After all, only he, among the Japanese artists who went to Paris in the early part of the twentieth century, achieved such immense success among Westerners. Along the way, Foujita conquered the language problems and the diffidence that afflicted many of his compatriots. He was the sole Japanese artist to be considered part of the international group known as the School of Paris (Écolede Paris), which, in addition to Modigliani and Chagall, included other important figures in twentieth-century art.
No less remarkably, Foujita avoided succumbing to the illnesses, the loneliness, and the despair that ruined many other Japanese artists in Paris. Most of these others had, sooner or later, seen the impossibility of establishing reputations in the world of Western art. When Foujita was starting out, Europeans believed that Japanese artists were best suited to creating woodblock prints of old Tokyo (preferably with Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms in the background) or screens decorated with wading cranes. French critics scoffed at the notion that any Japanese could possibly master the Western techniques of oil painting. "This was considered as bizarre as a Frenchman taking up sumo wrestling or opening a sushi shop," Hayashi likes to say. Daunted by the scorn, many Japanese artists packed up their canvases and headed back home. Foujita, in contrast to other Japanese who set up their easels in studios near the Seine, remained abroad for much of his life, making friends with the likes of the Lithuanian artist Chaim Soutine and the American Alexander Calder.
 
 
There are many wonderful photographs that tell the story of Foujita's flair and brazenness. In a playful mood, he grinned for the camera by the beach at Deauville as he cruised down the boardwalk on a child's bicycle. Again, hugging music hall star Mistinguett, he sat beneath an orange tree in a loud outfit he had sewn himself. Another photo, taken at the height of his fame, had him standing in the sitting room of his luxurious Paris house. On this occasion, he was dressed in a long woven jacket and seemed very much the lord of costly furnishings.
But Foujita's exultation did not last forever, and other, later photographs recorded grim times. His talents and ambitions brought him bitterness at the end. By 1953, he had traveled throughout the world on numerous occasions and exhibited in many capitals. He had lived in Paris for years, then gone home to Tokyo for a sojourn, then back to Paris, and so on. He had also been through scathing experiences, especially in Japan. During the Second World War, he had painted many works for the Japanese militarist government, and after the war,a number of Japanese reviled him for his contributions to the war effort. This time, the French art critics did not rise in his defense. Eventually, Foujita left Japan and never returned.
Some 1953 photographs caught him back in Paris, the last stop in his wanderings. Despite the bad times, his fame had not deserted him, and his paintings still commanded high prices. By then, he had married again, this time a Japanese woman named Kimiyo, who became his fifth wife. They had tried to settle down in a new apartment, but Japan was very much on Foujita's mind. He and his wife scoured Paris for Japanese foodstuffs, which were not easy to find. He kissed her in joy when he obtained azuki beans, to make oshiruko, a sweet soup.
The photographs taken for the Japanese magazine Mizue showed Foujita at sixty-six, in his crammed Paris studio with his paintbrush in hand, about to draw one of the lines that his rivals could never duplicate. Even in Paris he was unable to escape from gossip about him in Japan, and he responded to reports of his having turned away Japanese visitors:
I have never driven a guest away. But even so, all sorts of things are being said about me. I don't let it worry me. The more I help people, the more they criticize me. When people who work for me say such things, that's one thing, but when ugly rumors about me are spread by people I've taught to paint, it makes you think a little ... As for my work, these days it has become more detailed. That's because I am trying to turn the problem of my nearsightedness into a special feature of my painting ... The other day, when I met Matisse, he said to me, "It's wonderful that you can draw such a fine line." And I told him, "I'm young, so I can do it. When I grow old like you, I will draw a different kind of line." Speaking of getting old, I've come to believe that you can't do good work until you grow old.
Copyright © 2006 by Phyllis Birnbaum

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