On a grey but muggy morning of Friday 19th August, I walked from my hotel in the Latin quarter to the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris in the south of the city. It was a long walk of about 60 minutes but I was excited and felt the breeze push me forward to my goal. I knew I was going to see a real Foujita treasure, and I was not to be disappointed.
Foujita Murals at Maison du Japon
The Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, is a formidable creation of the 1920s that brings together 40 student residences and welcomes students of no fewer than 140 different nationalities. But few have ever had the chance to go inside any of the houses. These private residences are almost impossible to visit and their hidden treasures remain for the most part the exclusive benefit of the students and scholars who live there.
The Japan House (Maison du Japon) is an exception to this rule, and as long as you drop by during the building manager's hours with €2 (Monday to Friday 8:30am - 1pm and 2pm - 4:30pm), he or she will open the doors and pull back the protective curtains from the wall at the end of the Great Hall, revealing two murals by Foujita, completed soon after the opening of the residence in 1929.
I waited impatiently once I reached the entrance and pressed the doorbell. Nobody came for a long while: were they closed for the Summer? I began to feel nervous that I had made a wasted journey. I rang the bell again. Finally after about ten minutes looking through the windows, a young lady came and let me in. I paid my €2 and could enjoy the murals alone. This was better than any museum. These works are not well known, but they are sure to impress.
The two murals, 'The Horses' and 'The Arrival of the Occidentals in Japan', are a reflection of this period of his work, where he combines strong Western influences with traditional Japanese references in the hope of pleasing his fellow countrymen. These murals were painted while Foujita was in the grips of a great financial distress due to the tax authorities (how does an artist know how much he/she should pay tax?). Foujita, in need of cash, accepted the commission from Satsuma, patron of the Japan House to paint the murals. Foujita however, still had to flee France briefly to Japan to avoid the tax authorities.
It was refreshing to me was that the artworks were still in the location they were created for, and not in another museum or gallery. Here one could see the context and space Foujita was working within. The murals are still very much part of a living and working space. A piano stands right in front of one mural.
The Arrival of Occidentals in Japan, is a more modern version of a traditional Nanban screen from the 16th century. Traditional Nanban screens showed the Portuguese with Indonesian and Indian servants from Malacca and Goa respectively. Foujita does that in a sense too by depicting this South Asian woman, but all the people are dressed in the clothes (if they have any at all) and hairstyles of the 1920s.
For me, it was a great honour to be able to greedily enjoy the murals myself. Totally alone, I could get out my sketchbook and draw some of the cats in the mural without fear of blocking anyone else's view or being harassed by someone or other. I could also notice details that I wouldn't be able to see in small photos of catalogues: humorous things such as the dog chasing a mouse, while the cat sleeps. In the quiet stillness of the student dorm, I could have a direct communion of sorts with Foujita's spirit through his art work.
I believe that only by sketching, does one truly etch an image into one's mind: seeing carefully how he did the fur, the slope of the nose and eyes, and the paws.
I could have gladly spent two whole days just copying and learning from these two murals, but I had to continue my journey to the next stop.
Foujita's House at square de Montsourris No.3
Several minutes walk from the university campus is square de Montsouris, a small and beautiful street perpendicular to the west side of the eponymous park, which is one of the most bucolic in Paris. Foujita owned a house there at number 3. On sadly cannot enter the house, but the street is with cobblestones and charming.
There is no plaque outside number 3, and perhaps this house doesn't fit with our idea of the Bohemian Foujita. One cannot help but think that Foujita by the late 1920's was no longer a starving artist of Montparnasse, but moving into more comfortable quarters.
Diverting a bit from the Foujita trail, I also happen to be a fan of Henry Miller's novel 'Tropic of Cancer'. Miller stayed at Villa Seurat, also not from here, so while in the area, I walked to take a look. There is no plaque and it is a quaint but ordinary street.