Tsuguharu Foujita – Self-Portrait (1936)

As a Japanese artist arriving in Paris in 1913, Tsuguharu Foujita quickly befriended and got acquainted with all the great painters, including Modigliani and Picasso, as well with socialites and celebrities like Josephine Baker. The Japanese embodied the exoticism that Europeans were longing for and he was quick to profit from it. With his bowl haircut, short mustache and round glasses, he was a walking caricature, a stereotype to which he played. He cultivated this image conscientiously, through photography, film and, most of all, through self-portraits.

Women and cats fascinated Foujita, as he remarked that women also had a feline nature. While in Paris, he started taking in a lot of stray cats, which made their way into his paintings. He also did a lot of female nudes, again a reflection of his interest in women – he married five times and took on numerous mistresses– as well as in a genre that he viewed as quintessentially Western. By blending in Western art subjects with Japanese techniques, Foujita became an instant success. His art, devoid of color and with a milky haziness, was in direct opposition with the effervescence and vibrancy of Post-impressionism.

Tsuguharu Foujita - Self portrait (1936)
Tsuguharu Foujita – Self-Portrait (1936), oil on canvas

And yet, it wasn’t until the artist moved back to Japan in the 1930s, following two years spent in the US and Latin America that his style dramatically changed and he produced his best works.  Take for instance Self-Portrait.  Completed when Foujita was 50 years old, this painting is wonderfully colored and detailed, in stark contrast with his earlier works. It shows the artist sitting casually on the floor in a Japanese setting, surrounded, in no particular order or hierarchy, by all the things he treasures. Smoking contemplatively, he is gazing rather sternly and he’d appear completely detached if it wasn’t for the cat tucked away in the folds of his kimono.

Around Foujita we can see the small joys that bring him comfort and catch a glimpse of their ritualistic nature: the teapot and cup, the blue ashtray, the pack of cigarettes and the box of matches, the bowls of soup, the small plates with food items like fish and edamame and, of course, two chopsticks. There are also art utensils like rulers, suggesting some order in this crowded setup.

The perspective is warped, as if reflected on a convex lens or a crystal ball, and it reinforces the idea that we’re witnessing Foujita’s intimate universe. The composition is also carefully thought out, the artist sitting between pieces of traditional Japanese furniture that balance and mirror each other. The blue, brown and earthy tones he uses convey a lot of calm and the feeling of being grounded.

Although Foujita looks perfectly integrated in his environment, there is something slightly unnerving about his wrinkled and worn out kimono – resembling a crumpled piece of paper – that stands out amidst all these geometrical lines. Perhaps that’s a meditation on his aging body or a way for him to reject the orderly Japanese lifestyle, after being seduced by bohemian France. The artist eventually returned to Paris in the 1950s and spent the rest of his life there, converting to Catholicism and even taking the Western name of Léonard, as homage to Leonardo da Vinci.

13 thoughts on “Tsuguharu Foujita – Self-Portrait (1936)

    1. There are so many self-portraits with him and cats, including photographs. What boggles my mind is that Foujita was in the right place at the right time, commercially successful – even had Picasso buy his works – but he’s largely forgotten today.

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      1. He could have a comeback. Cat paintings are always in. Of course, figurative painting is a non-no in the official art world, and one must make conceptual works about political topics in league with identity politics (see the Turner prize winners for 2018. I think a political activist group won for their ancillary graphics. Politics is art is politics (but it’s NOT propaganda).

        Only way Foujita is coming back is via cats or some way to spin him as a POC of significance. Perhaps he was part of a leftist movement? Hopefully he supported communism? If not. well, there are much more important people /politics to help the revolution. I hope I’m being sarcastic.

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        1. Well, I think he might have a way in simply for being non-Western. The tide seems to be already changing – there’s currently an exhibition in Paris dedicated to his 1913-1931 period. But anything goes – he might be discarded for all his nudes, if the trend continues. We’re living in scary times.

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            1. Eric, I don’t suppose you’ve heard of David Ligare, but I’ve been preparing a post about him and he echoes so many of your beliefs and thoughts. This is what he wrote on December 28th, 2016 on his Facebook page:

              “Ultimately, however, critics pointedly refused to write about the exhibition, and the entire art faculty and student body of the University of Georgia boycotted the exhibition and my lecture in their own museum.

              Obviously, my central idea based on using history and the Greek concept of Arête – the potential for excellence found in all peoples – is unacceptable. Critics prefer to promote works that are, as Susan Sontag wrote, “Against Interpretation” or that promote victimhood.

              While it is true that we have many societal issues that need resolving such as income inequality, racism, sexism, etc., we also have the need for a renewed belief in rational thought and action.”

              Heartbreaking.

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              1. I never heard of David Ligare. I can’t figure out why they boycotted him. I think there’s a missing piece in the puzzle somewhere. I tried to research it and found an interview and it didn’t really help. I can see why it wouldn’t really interest a contemporary crowd who are primarily interested in conceptual art about identity politics, but what the hell is there to get upset about?

                Maybe because he does such classical art they think it must represent an antiquated world view, which is necessarily patriarchal and all that. But even that is grasping at straws to be offended by something, anything. I’d like to know what THEIR arguments were, and not just his summation of the event. I doubt they boycotted it because it was too positive and not about victims.

                I think artists have to be better at fighting back and not just apologizing, cowering, and hiding away. However, even I have received a threat, so, that’s probably the problem. Once you are labeled an enemy of the revolution, you can become a target, and who wants to have to fight all the time or worry about ones safety just to be able to make art? One is up against people who are fond to labeling, and who support using any and all means necessary to eliminate their enemies. Fun! I can definitely see why people would NOT want to engage with people looking for a fight.

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                1. I can’t find more information about the boycott either, which makes me think it was the art itself that upset them, not his character. Like you put it, they probably saw it as a nostalgia for the past (aka patriarchal society) which they couldn’t tolerate. I mean, if you think about it, they used to have slaves in Ancient Greece… Siiiigh. On those grounds they could easily ban Plato too.

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                  1. Also Hiter’s model for ideal art, as compared to “degenerate art”, was classical Greek and Roman art. So, one could willfully milk the guilty-by-association angle, while only stressing the negatives and ignoring the possibility of only stressing the positives, which is quite probably what the artist was doing. So, if one wants to SHUT DOWN an artist because of his style or DNA at birth, one can make tenuous connections and end up smearing someone with supporting genocide when what they support is the idea that each individual can aspire to excellence.

                    I’m not sure what the problem is with arete. It also contains a notion of “moral virtue”, and perhaps it is the specific definitions of moral virtue that bother people. I’m wondering if the artist had said anything disparaging about other art or lack of moral virtue or not being excellent, or something that could be twisted to seem to be that.

                    Though it is possible that people just wanted to SHUT IT DOWN, SHUT IT DOWN like Bernie Sanders because, well, DNA at birth.

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  1. The artist had a better affinity for cats than people. His drawings of cats are very expressive and in my estimation head and furry shoulders over his depiction of women. His nudes are somewhat mannered and border on the cheesy. That could account for his being almost forgotten today.

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    1. You’re raising very good points. I’m certainly not a fan of his nudes, but I’d need to see more of his works – especially the later ones – to really form an opinion. I also understand that he’s still known in Japan.

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