Glory in a Line A Life of Foujita--the Artist Caught Between East and West

Phyllis Birnbaum

Faber & Faber



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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When we think of expatriates in Paris during the early decades of the twentieth century, certain names come to mind: Hemingway, Picasso, Modigliani—and Foujita, the Japanese artist whose distinctive works, bringing elements of Japanese art to Western oil painting, made him a major cultural figure in 1920s Montparnasse. Foujita was the only Japanese artist to be considered part of the "School of Paris," which also counted among its members such prominent artists as Picasso and Modigliani. Noteworthy, too, was Foujita's personal style, flamboyant even for those flamboyant times. He was best known for his drawings of female nudes and cats, and for his special white color upon which he could draw a masterful line—one that seemed to outline a woman's whole body in a single unbroken stroke. With the advent of the Second World War, Foujita returned to Japan, where he allied himself with the ruling Japanese militarists and painted canvases in support of the war effort. After Japan's defeat, he was scorned for his devotion to the military cause and returned to France, where he remained until his death in 1968. Acclaimed writer and translator Phyllis Birnbaum not only explores Foujita's fascinating, tumultuous life but also assesses the appeal of his paintings, which, in their mixture of Eastern and Western traditions, are memorable for their vibrancy of form and purity of line.


Praise for Glory in a Line

"As an artist who has received relatively scant attention from biographers outside Japan and France, Foujita presents Ms. Birnbaum with an uncommonly rich opportunity. His story is colorful, dramatic, controversial and even mysterious . . . An intriguing book on the basis of its odd story, its resurrection of Foujita's reputation and its exploration of the many contradictions he embodied."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Engaging . . . Phyllis Birnbaum shows convincingly that Foujita could be a serious artist."—Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books
"[Foujita is] fortunate that, in this first full-length biography, he has found a chronicler of the caliber of Birnbaum . . . His whole wonderful, terrible, happy and sad saga [is] now perfectly preserved for us."—Donald Richie, The Japan Times
"Brisk and stylishly written . . . [an] engaging portrait of the artist as cultural chameleon."—Christopher Benfey, The New York Times Book Review
"Informed by Birnbaum's wry affection for her subject, [Glory in a Line] offers 'a complicated kind of sympathy' for the plight of an artist who kept navigating, with varying results, between cultures that are still deeply fascinated and puzzled by each other."—Carolyn Burke, San Francisco Chronicle
"Phyllis Birnbaum uses wide-ranging research and access to both French and Japanese sources to bring to life an intriguing, enigmatic artist who lived and worked in two worlds, balancing between the art world of Paris and the demands of his Japanese heritage . . . Birnbaum has created a multi-faceted portrait of a 20th century artist whose life and work continue to fascinate us today."—Julie Martin, co-author (with Billy Klüver) of Kiki's Paris
"So distinctive was his appearance, so flamboyant his pranks, and so popular his paintings of women and cats, Foujita was a Jazz Age superstar. Born in Tokyo in 1886, Foujita arrived in Paris in 1913 and soon forged an alluring style that combined Western settings with Japanese traditions to create, as Birnbaum so vividly attests, works distinguished by extraordinarily nuanced whites and breathtakingly supple and precise lines. Yet for all his success, the fastidious, disciplined Foujita was destined to arouse controversy. Birnbaum, whose earlier works focus on Japanese women, judiciously teases apart the many contradictions and mysteries enfolded in Foujita's dramatic life, chronicling his rise to fame, five marriages, return to Japan in the 1930s, and surprising metamorphosis into his at-war homeland's foremost military artist. With access to newly available materials and expertise in all things Japanese, Birnbaum tracks Foujita's ups and downs with compassion, humor, and discernment, exhibiting particular sensitivity in her analysis of the strange exhilaration Foujita experienced while making official war paintings so overwhelming people prayed before them and his despair at being viewed as a war criminal. Birnbaum's compelling biography reveals the shadow side of artistic compulsion."—Booklist
"Carefully considered, well-balanced biography of the controversial Japanese artist who created a stir in modernist Paris and was later vilified for his pro-fascist war paintings. On the one hand, Foujita Tsuguharu had fabulous success as a painter of cats and nudes in France from the early 1900s until World War II; on the other, he zealously led the group of artists hired by Japan's war ministry in the late '30s to sell Japanese aggression into China and beyond. Birnbaum clearly prefers to emphasize the first half of Foujita's life: The son of a high-ranking military doctor in Tokyo, he learned Western-style painting in art school and, like many of his peers, yearned to escape 'from the traditional Japanese terrors of earthquakes, thunder, fire, and fathers.' He immigrated to Paris in 1913, mixing freely with a bohemian crowd that included Bonnard and Modigliani with the help of some exotic, self-sewn Greek costumes and a series of useful French lady friends who didn't know or didn't care about his wife back in Japan . . . Second wife Fernande Barrey helped secure his first show, and wealthy customers were quite taken by his unique line (gleaned from the ukiyo-e tradition) and incomparable white paint. Foujita's eventual return to Japanese ways complicated his reputation. He exhorted Japanese artists to resist Western imitation and be true to their culture, yet was castigated by his compatriots as an insincere opportunist. By the late '30s, married to the Japanese Kimiyo, he 'transformed himself into an earnest representative of the state just as easily as he had changed coffee shops.' Birnbaum offers fascinating testimony by those who knew Foujita, both fans and adversaries, and she sifts through the evidence to depict a conflicted artist proud of Japanese culture and stung by Western racism who ended up mistrusted by all sides. Readers can make up their own minds with the help of this evenhanded portrait."—Kirkus Reviews
"Birnbaum tackles the perplexing story of Fujita Tsuguharu, known as Foujita, the eccentric and controversial Japanese painter who achieved success in the West during the early decades of the 20th century. Born in 1886, Foujita studied art in Japan, but at the age of 27 moved to Paris, where he gained fame for his paintings—especially exotic cats and female nudes rendered in exquisite black lines against white backgrounds—combining Eastern and Western artistic traditions. He was equally well known for his wild behavior and flamboyant dress. But in 1940, inexplicably, he moved back to Japan and produced art works promoting its military ambitions, for which he was reviled after the war by his countrymen. Claiming he was being persecuted by the Japanese, he returned to the West in 1949 and managed to salvage his reputation before he died in France in 1968. Basing her biography on letters, archival material and interviews with people who knew Foujita, Birnbaum presents an engrossing account of his life."—Publishers Weekly

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Glory in a Line
I love Tokyo very much, but being a foreigner in Paris provides me with the distance I require to understand myself--FoujitaIt 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 haunt
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  • Phyllis Birnbaum

  • Phyllis Birnbaum is a novelist, biographer, journalist, and translator. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: Five Japanese Women is a collection of her biographical essays. She lives near Boston.
  • Phyllis Birnbaum Sheila Mabry