On Thursday 18th August, I arrived at my second stop of the Foujita trail: the Musee D'Art Moderne De Paris, which is interestingly located within the Palace de Tokio (Tokyo Palace...). Here is perhaps Foujita's first masterpiece; the painting that established his fame in 1922.
Paintings of cats had made Foujita popular, but it was his nudes of beautiful women that established his name as a serious artist. And it was his portrait of Kiki in particular - the Queen of Montparnasse - the same model for Soutine, Kisling, Man Ray etc, that really made him the equal to Western artists in Paris against the bias and racist idea that an Asian artist - although talented and exotic - could never quite understand the principles of Western art, oil painting and nudes.
The Portrait of Kiki that made her Queen of Montparnasse
The portrait above is in fact of Alice Prin (1901-1953) better known as Kiki of Montparnasse. Even if you haven't heard of this Parisian celebrity of the 20's, you probably will know this photo of her by American artist Man Ray (1890-1976)
A singer, model and minor actress, and artist, she was a conspicuous figure of the Montparnasse area that enjoyed the company of artists and became many of their models. But it it clear from a poster in 1922, that it was Foujita's portrait of her that coincided with her being announced the unofficial 'Queen of Montparnasse'. It is important to note, that at this stage still, Foujita's name was bigger than Kiki's and it was Foujita's portrait of her that was the main centrepiece of the event.
Kiki later wrote a book about her experiences and she mentions Foujita. Her language is simple but it is worth quoting her at length as it captures the intimate friendship they had, as well as Foujita's cleanliness. Kiki wrote:
I also posed for Foujita. The thing that astonished him about me was the lack of hair on my sexual parts. He often used to come over and put his nose above the spot to see if the hair hadn't started to sprout while I'd been posing. Then, he'd pipe up with that thin little voice of his :
"That's ve' funny--no hairs! Why your feet so dirty ?"
I had a mania for going around in my bare feet, and he'd forgotten to lay down any rugs!
When he'd sold a picture for which I'd posed, he would give me two or three hundred francs.
Other times, he liked to roll a forty-sou piece as far as he could and you should have seen me fly after it! But I was simply crazy about him! He was charming. I often used to drop in and watch him work. He'd ask me to sing Louise, and then, I'd give an imitation of an orchestra; there was one little air on the flute that went over big. He would burst out laughing, and say again :
"That's ve' funny!"
Another good kid, simple and nice.
Foujita was known for having the cleanest studio of any artist in Montparnasse, and he was unusual too in installing his own bathtub when he became a bit wealthier. This made him popular with models as they could bathe in his studio (free of charge).
A Closer Look at the Painting
Nude with a Jouy Fabric (1922) shows Kiki framed by the well-known, complexly patterned French fabric. Again, this cloth definitely stands out here, with its details reproduced by Foujita, in a zealous drive for accuracy, down to the navel on a cherub. In this painting, Kiki is certainly meant to recalls Manets Olympia and other reclining nudes. None of those older nudes, however, could boast of Foujita's particular shade of white and black contrast, which at the time was deemed to be like 'Oriental' black and white ink paintings.
The white is stunning in the painting of Kiki, for the colour, while not quite human, has the moist softness of human flesh. She looks directly at us with her flat, resolute face. Foujita's artistic achievement can be best appreciated if you view his works in a room filled with the colourful oil paintings of his contemporaries. See Foujita's work among Picasso's loudly dressed harlequins, the deep red and blue of a Modigliani portrait, and a bloody beef carcass by Soutine. Beside these blasts of colour, Foujita's stark paintings stand out as acts of courage. For his nudes, still lifes, self-portraits, depended upon large swaths of white, created with his special paint (the mixture of which he kept secret), and upon this surface, he often added colour in thin washes and his very fine, supple lines in the black that looked like Japanese sumi ink.
If one looks closely at the white however, one can see it is beginning to crack. This is what happens when binding crushed white clam shells with animal glue, if the animal glue is too thick. In 1922, when Foujita was beginning to experiment with Japanese techniques, he had not yet quite mastered it. I have written about Foujita's white colour in another blog.
However, having now seen the painting up close, it is clear how he was not afraid to experiment with different pigments and materials. It is clear that at the early stage, he was not really a 'nihonga' or traditional Japanese artist, but rather he was experimenting with it for the first time, hence the crackles, which an experienced nihonga artist usually avoids. While Westerners were impressed by his paintings, most Japanese didn't consider him to be anything special. This can also be seen in his use of gold leaf which often has white gaps and is flaking. Again, from a European perspective, this didn't really matter or takeaway from the creativity of his art, but from the traditional Japanese perspective, it showed him to be somewhat amateurish with these traditional nihonga techniques. Then again, the same might be said of Da Vinci, whose experimentation with different materials and bases led to many of his paintings disintegrating over time. The effects of time on a artwork cannot be foreseen by the artist.