Lost Art

The strange life of Tsuguharu Foujita, the toast of 1920's Montparnasse, more successful than Picasso at his peak, and now forgotten (except by connoisseurs of line drawings).

His name in Japanese means "field of wisteria, heir to peace." He was the son of a general, a black belt at judo. And in the 1920s—known as Fou-Fou or Mad-Mad—he was the most famous and the most eccentric artist in Montparnasse. He had a haircut modeled on an Egyptian statue and a wristwatch tattoo around his wrist. He wore earrings, a Greek-style tunic, a "Babylonian" necklace, and on occasion a lampshade instead of a hat. (He claimed it was his national headdress.)

Yet at his second Paris show his paintings were compared to Ingres', described as "noble . . . and pure beauty." Gertrude Stein sat for him, and he passed on to his Italian studio-mate Amedeo Modigliani something of his own sinuousness of line. In 1925, a dozen years after he'd arrived in Paris, he received the Legion of Honor, as well as the Belgian Order of Léopold I. The following year his work was bought by the French state—almost a quarter of a century before it bought anything by his friend Picasso. Tsuguharu Foujita (1886—1968), like Fernand Léger, designed sets and costumes for the Ballets Suédois. He went for walks with Georges Braque, holidayed with Chaim Soutine, and partied with everyone from Bonnard to Vlaminck and Satie. When he died in 1968 he was described, quite simply, as "one of the most important painters of our time." Now, of course, he's almost completely forgotten.

I first discovered Foujita on a Sunday evening in 1998, while desultorily watching the Antiques Roadshow, a television program to which members of the public bring their possessions for appraisal by experts. (It's watched assiduously, they say, by every criminal in the country.) I looked up just in time to see a middle-aged couple anxiously awaiting judgment on a small oil. "This is extremely exciting," said the suave art expert, "because it's by Foujita, the most important Japanese artist to have worked in the West this century. Do you have any idea what it's worth?" The couple blinked out mute nos. "Up to $85,000!"

Now this seemed like a lot of money for a small painting (of cats no less) by someone I'd never heard of. So the next day I looked up the sales record for Foujitas. In recent years they'd been thin on the ground—and what had been offered were mostly prints and drawings. French sales predominated—although there were also records of auctions in London, New York, Tokyo, and Berlin. Foujita drawings had fetched between $2,500 and $40,000; some prints had reached as high as $60,000; and his paintings had hovered between $70,000 and $90,000. (Antiques Roadshow had been right on the money.)

However, the extraordinary thing was that the further back I leafed in the record, the more Foujita's prices soared. In 1992, for instance, a Foujita print was sold in Berlin for more than $167,000; and in '91 his painting Virgin and Child fetched over $800,000 in New York. The year before, when 154 pieces had been put up for sale, the prices were even higher. A 1928 drawing was knocked down in Paris for almost $400,000; a painting, Young Girl in the Park, fetched $5.5 million at Christie's in New York.

"Oh, but he was very famous," said my friend Bernard Giquel, the Paris Match correspondent in New York in the '60s and early '70s. "A great celebrity, one of the last survivors of the School of Paris. When I first lived in Montparnasse in the late fifties I used to see him all the time at La Coupole and the Closerie des Lilas—him and Kiki [the model and mistress of Man Ray], who by that time was very old and very drunk, of course. Foujita had painted Kiki," he went on, "way back in the twenties. He'd written the introduction to her memoirs; they were extremely old friends. But then he had been friends with everyone—with Picasso, the Surrealists, people like Cocteau and Gris and the Russian painter Marie Vassilieff, who kept a canteen in her studio where all the artists ate, and where there was a famous dinner for Braque after he came back from World War I."

One thing that Bernard said, though, stuck in my mind: "He was a particular friend of Modigliani." So the next time I was in a library I hauled down all the books on Modigliani I could find—and there, sure enough, in every index, was Foujita, T. He'd arrived in Paris from Tokyo in 1913 and had soon rented a studio in the Cité Falguière, where Modigliani and the Lithuanian-born painter Chaim Soutine were already working. Foujita was a good cook, I read; he was meticulously clean—he tried to teach Soutine to brush his teeth and to use a knife and a fork. Foujita had frequented Isadora and Raymond Duncan's school of movement and dance (hence the Greek-style tunics). He'd favored the Café La Rotonde, where Trotsky used to play chess, over the Dôme, the favorite haunt of the Fauvists. He was apparently an adept dressmaker, courting his future wife, the painter Fernande Barrey, by making her a blouse. (He stayed up all night to do it.) He talked endlessly to Modigliani, the books said, about the traditions of Japanese painting; and it was partly through the influence of Foujita's background and methods—he'd found a way of painting in black on a porcelain-white oil background—that Modigliani became (like Foujita himself) one of the few Montparnasse artists to favor line over color.

There was one episode—dwelt on at length in all the books—in which Foujita had played a key role. This was a trip to the south of France organized in 1918 by the Polish poet Léopold Zborowski, who had the idea that his artist-friends could sell pictures there to rich holiday-makers. Foujita and his wife went along; so did Soutine, Modigliani, and Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani's lover. The trip was not, however, a success. Modigliani did sell a few pictures (at 25 francs each). But mostly the group had to survive on the advances that Foujita (the most successful among them) had secured from his Paris dealer. By the time the final reckoning arrived even these had run out, and their landlord confiscated all their baggage in lieu of payment. (Within a year and a half Modigliani was dead; Jeanne Hébuterne committed suicide two days after the death of her lover.) Foujita afterwards noted dryly that had the south-of-France landlord confiscated their paintings instead of their baggage he'd have become a multimillionaire a few years later.

The story of Foujita was also woven like a glittering thread through another book I soon found, Kiki's Paris: Artists and Lovers,1900—1930. The book was the story, told almost entirely in captioned photographs, of Montparnasse between the turn of the century and the Great Depression. There was a photograph of him with the wife he'd left behind in Japan; of him in Paris in his Duncan-inspired Greek tunic; and of the painting Diego Rivera was making of him when they were summoned to visit Picasso. (Foujita, the text said, was more impressed by "the Douanier" Rousseau canvases Picasso owned than by any of the Spanish artist's own paintings. Picasso, on the other hand, spent three hours, the book said later, at Foujita's first exhibition of watercolors). Here was Foujita with his third wife, Youki (Japanese for snow); Foujita at balls; at La Coupole with Alexander Calder; at parties; with his custom-made car; and on the beach at Deauville. Foujita, it became clear, had been not only one of Montparnasse's most antic spirits (when he received his Legion of Honor medal he had to be dissuaded from using it as an ornament for his costume as a circus strongman for a Montparnasse ball), he had also been one of its greatest success stories. He himself wrote of his Reclining Nude with Toile de Jouy, a portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse lying naked against an ivory-white background, and a sensation at the Salon d'Automne in 1922: "In the morning all the newspapers talked of it; at noon, the Minister congratulated me; that night a leading collector paid 8,000 francs for it." With his 1918 exhibition, "the golden age of Montparnasse," said the book, "had begun." After the breakup of his third marriage, and his flight to Brazil in 1931 (with his new love, Mady), it more or less ended.

And, indeed, 1931 represents the great divide in Foujita's life. For his work up to that point is extraordinary. There are early Paris cityscapes, influenced by the Douanier; delicate, minutely observed drawings; nudes painted on white backgrounds like various versions of a great silence in which the smallest sound of his black-charged brush can be heard; and two remarkable portraits, one of the aristocratic poetess Anna de Noailles, and the other of an American heiress, Emily Crane Chadbourne (now in the Art Institute of Chicago).

In 1931 Foujita traveled and painted all over Latin America, giving hugely successful exhibitions along the way. Two years later he was welcomed back as a star to Japan; and he stayed there—through Mady's death in 1935 (probably from drugs)—till 1939, when he returned once more to Paris. He didn't stay in France long, however. The threat of German invasion forced him back to Japan, where he was enlisted as a war artist, first for the conflict between Japan and China and then, after Pearl Harbor, for the war against the Allies. He was only able to return to his beloved France in 1950.

He came back a much-changed man. He still mounted exhibitions (very successful ones) in Paris, Spain, and Algeria. In 1954 he married Kimiyo Horiuchi, his longtime companion, and the next year became a naturalized Frenchman. He gradually garnered more honors. But although he still produced an extraordinary amount of work, he created few self-portraits, still-lifes, or nudes, the genres in which he'd made his reputation. Instead he turned out an almost endless series of cats, young women, and girls—pictures that made my heart sink when I saw them in the enormous Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita, the definitive catalog. They stare out one after the other from the pages like dolls, with more or less identical expressions. Singly they might have been bearable, but en masse—without light or shadow—they were like some cross between Kandinsky's endless late-career repetitiveness and Renoir's vulgar sentimentality in old age. The overdetailed, cloying quality of these works had leaked, too, into most of Foujita's late religious paintings—Foujita was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1959 and thereafter turned more and more to religious subjects—making them seem like illustrations for a book of fairy tales. (His last major work, reminiscent of Matisse's in Vence, was the decoration of a chapel in Rheims, which he completed in 1966, shortly before his death from cancer at age 82.) And yet these were precisely the works that had fetched such huge prices at auction.

What had happened? It wasn't easy to find out. The biggest collection of Foujitas in France—at Paris' Municipal Museum of Modern Art—was "unavailable. All the pictures are on reserve and cannot be viewed," a museum official told me. Of the Foujitas at the Petit Palais in Geneva: "I'm sorry, there's not a single one here. They're all on loan to exhibitions abroad." Where? I asked the voice on the other end on the phone. "Some have gone to a Kiki exhibition in Tokyo, and the rest are at a Japanese-painters' show in Paris, at the Museum of Montparnasse."

The year-old Museum of Montparnasse lies in the shadow of the hideous Montparnasse Tower, in a cul-de-sac of rickety, creeper-covered artists' studios dating from the turn of the century—the sort of alley that was once all over the quarter. When I telephoned the director, Krystel Boula, and explained my mission she said, "Come right over." It was inevitable, after hearing in her office the story of her battle to save the old buildings, that we should start talking nostalgically about Montparnasse's past: about the Rotonde and the old Dôme. Then I mentioned the place where Foujita had eaten 50-centime meals with Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Soutine, and Léger.

"You mean Marie Vassilieff's canteen?" said Ms. Boula. "But this is where it was! The museum is in Marie Vassilieff's old studio!" She led me back down to the alley and unlocked a door off to the right. We passed through a lower room, hung with paintings, and then walked upstairs to a big second-floor space. Here, bare-boned but saved from the wrecker's ball was a place of legend: This was where Modigliani had broken into the Braque banquet (and was threatened with a pistol), where Lenin and Trotsky had once eaten.

Here, too, were Foujita's pictures—not very many, but virtually all from the early Paris period. There was a beautiful yellow-grounded japonais watercolor, Couple Stretched out with Doves (1917), which may have been part of the first exhibition that Picasso visited, and an early oil, Two Children (1918), which had a grave, silent presence—and none of the later work's sentimentality. There was the meltingly white Youki, Goddess of the Snow (1924), which I'd seen in Kiki's Paris; and the florid, almost Surrealist The Lion Tamer (1930), the last portrait of Youki (done just before he fled to Brazil with Mady), both from the Petit Palais Museum. There was an etching of Foujita himself staring out into the room over his desk, a cat parading on a blue-and-gold tile, and two pictures that I hadn't found in the massive catalog: Young Boy with Violin (1923), a self-contained figure standing against a background painted to resemble layers of whorled and laminated wood; and a drawing of Kiki (1928), in which her head and shoulders seemed to emerge out of the surface through the tiniest, and the most delicate, suggestions of tone and line.

The two last pictures were from private collections, Boula said to me, adding that "they have never before been seen in public." And it was with this remark that I finally began to understand what had happened to Foujita—and his reputation. He had been too great a success. Early pictures like these, with their meticulous eye for detail and their strange magisterial calm, had been bought up quickly by private collectors, so that no single gallery or museum in the West had acquired enough of them to create a critical mass.

Added to this was the decline in Foujita's oeuvre after 1931. Yes, 60,000 people attended his Buenos Aires exhibition, and more than 10,000 queued up for his autograph. But his fame came to rest more and more on the fact that he had made it in Paris when it was the art center of the world; and even before the trauma of the wartime years he had begun to repeat his Paris pictures. By the time he returned to the city he was too late: The art capital, the center of experimentation, had moved to New York. Foujita became frozen in a dream of his youth. (The pictures resembled more and more his lost French love, Mady.) The meticulous detail deteriorated into fussiness; the air of detachment was debased into vapidity. Only the fame and the high prices—paid mostly by Japanese collectors—remained.

It is sad to say that Foujita was too successful and that he lived too long a life for his own good—that if he had died young, like Modigliani, he might now be as celebrated as the Italian. But it's sad, too, that the antic, eccentric, hugely talented Foujita should now be reduced in the West to a footnote. In Japan he is famous. There are Foujitas in the Bridgestone Museum of Art and in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, and more than 100 in the Hirano Masakichi Art Museum in Akita. But here he remains hidden in the vaults and the drawing collections of museums or in private hands, hitting the limelight only for a few moments at auction. "Oh, no, monsieur, Foujitas are now quite rare," a Paris gallery owner told me. "The drawings, particularly, are in very great demand: Most important collections have at least one or two. So if they come on the market, well, they soon disappear."

Before I left Paris, I went to La Coupole, one of the few places in Montparnasse that still enshrines, however faintly, something of the quarter's old spirit. For it was to La Coupole that Foujita had led his fellow artists on the night of its opening; and it was at La Coupole that both the party for Kiki's memoirs was held and a lunch given for the mourners on the day of Foujita's funeral. (As it happened, I was seated next to a middle-aged Japanese couple, smartly dressed, who told me, "Oh, yes, Foujita is very famous in Japan, the most famous Japanese painter of this century.") There were no epiphanies, no revelations there—La Coupole's huge dining room was full of tourists. But before I paid the bill I looked up at the pillar decorations, which had been designed by Foujita's friends, among them Marie Vassilieff. And I raised a glass to the School of Paris and to the one who got away—its madcap, merry Zelig.

Where To See Foujita

Art Institute Of Chicago
Tuesday free. 111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60603; 312-443-3600.

Bridgestone Museum Of Art
Closed Monday. 1-10-1 Kyobashi, 1-Chome, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0031; 81-03-3563-0241.

Hirano Masakichi Art Museum
Closed Monday. 3-7 Akita-ken, Akita-shi, Sen-shu Meitoku, Japan; 81-188-33-5809.

Museum Of Contemporary Art Tokyo
Closed Monday. Metropolitan Kiba Park, 4-1-1 Miyoshi Koto-ku, Tokyo 135-0022; 81-03-5245-4111.

Museum Of Montparnasse
Closed Monday—Tuesday. 21 Avenue du Maine, 75015 Paris; 33-13-42-22-91-96.

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about Rome and the Vatican Museums for the May/June issue of Departures.