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Foujita's Feline Friends

Foujita drawing a cat, circa 1920s

Foujita is most famous for his paintings of nudes and cats. Indeed, it's his paintings of cats that drew me to him the most. My other artistic hero, Hokusai, complained once that he couldn't draw a single cat (and I am inclined to agree...sorry Hokusai), but this was certainly not Foujita's problem. There is no other artist, I believe, who depicted the cat so wonderfully. Foujita captured the felines' furry warmth, haughtiness, and playfulness endowing them with true emotion. As such, I have studied Foujita's pictures of cats intensely. This blog post is about some observations I've had of his cat paintings.

Foujita and cat, 1927

Firstly, after you've seen a lot of artworks by Foujita, you begin to realise his cats tend to follow a repertoire: they all adhere to a certain pose or expression. Indeed, you can often recognise them by name. In this way, he would be able to insert a cat in a painting like a jigsaw-puzzle piece. Compare for example, the etching of the cat Aholibah, done in 1929 and then published by Covici Friede in New York, 1930, in A Book of Cats, with a mural in Paris below:

Aholibah, 'A Book of Cats', 1929, published in 1930.

The head and pose of the front paws were used in his mural, 'The Arrival of Westerners in Japan', a large painting now in the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, also completed in 1929.

Detail of a cat from 'The Arrival of Westerners in Japan', 1929

The Book of Cats is a useful tool for identifying the various cats in Foujita's repertoire. The book has 20 etched plate drawings of cats, each with a name and is accompanied by a poem. Published in 1930, illustrations from the first edition are some of the most expensive and desirable among book collectors.

To drive the point home about repetition of his cats in paintings, see his self-portrait below with a cat (Aholibah), with the same expression and profile, but mirrored.

Foujita, 'Self portrait with cat' 1928

Secondly, if you look at Foujita's eyes in the above self portrait, you may notice a similarity with some of the eyes he paints on his cats: one eye slightly un-focused, gazes higher than the other.

Alaciel, from 'The Book of Cats', 1930

The above cat is named Alaciel, according to The Book of Cats, but has similar unfocused eyes as in Foujita's self portrait. Either Foujita was injecting a bit of cat into his own self portrait, or he was endowing his cat with a more human expression. Whichever you think, the technique is good for creating eyes that follow you wherever you are in the room viewing the picture. In other words, it makes the picture a bit more interesting and dynamic, not just dead and straight. He was perhaps trying to capture a sense of the cat's double-nature of wildness and domesticity:

The reason why I so much enjoy being friends with cats is that they have two different characters: a wild side and a domestic side. This is what makes them interesting. If you keep a young lion, or a young tiger, in your house, it’s fine as long as they’re small, but after a while you don’t know what to do with them. A cat’s a wild animal, and I like that.

– Foujita in Nager sur la Terre, 1926.

Foujita was a successful cat artist, but he knew he had to do other things to make it big in 1920s Paris and compete with the Picassos and the Matisses in the market. He achieved this with nudes of women. Nevertheless, the cat became a signature of his, and they creep up in his portraits of women often as well; usually acting as a symbol of feminine power.

Foujita with model and cat, circa 1920's

In an interview given to the Milwaukee Journal in 1935, Foujita revealed the links between women and cats:

Ladies who would be alluring to men should surround themselves with cats… I never look at men only at women–they have, each one such marvellous possibilities of beauty. But unfortunately most of them have not developed these possibilities because they have not learned the lessons cats can teach…

Although it is entirely impossible to tell the sex of Foujita's cats, it would be likely that in his mind artistically speaking, they were always feminine. This quality is key to understanding Foujita's paintings and drawings of cats. One cat in particular shows up in some of Foujita's paintings of nudes: Mike.

Foujita with Mike

'Mike' (pronounced Mee-keh, meaning 'Tabby cat' in Japanese), was adopted by the artist shortly after his arrival in Paris after following him home one day and refusing to leave his doorstep. Mike appears in a portrait with Youki (Lucie Badoud), who later became Foujita's third wife before later marrying the surrealist poet Robert Desnos.

Mike and Youki, 1923

Foujita is noted as saying once that cats were given to men such that they could learn from them the mysterious ways of women. After three divorces however, it seems his study of cats didn't help him.


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