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.
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.