School of Paris

Tuesday, January 16, 2007 - 11:57am
This review ran in the New York Times Sunday Book Review on January 14, 2007.

By Christopher Benfey

It must have been unnerving to encounter the Japanese artist known as Foujita. Arriving in Marseilles in 1913, at the age of 26, he posed for a photographer wearing "a mauve frock coat and a white solar topee"--the proper headgear for "British colonialists in tropical lands," as Phyllis Birnbaum writes in "Glory in a Line," her engaging portrait of the artist as cultural chameleon. During the 1920s, at the height of his popularity in Paris, "Fou-Fou," as he was nicknamed by his French friends, attended a costume ball dressed only in a loincloth and carrying a cage on his back with a naked woman inside. The woman was his trash-talking second wife, Fernande. When asked by a polite reporter about her early life as an artist's model, she replied: "Model? I was a streetwalker!"

With his trademark bangs, gold earrings and tortoiseshell glasses, Foujita cultivated his celebrity status. He compared his own self-marketing to a Citroën campaign: "There's nothing that beats the combination of ability and publicity." Born in Tokyo in 1886, Foujita was 13 when he told his father, a high-ranking military doctor, that he wanted to be an artist. The following year, one of his watercolors was chosen for a student exhibition at the World's Fair in Paris, "the beginning of everything," according to Foujita. In 1905, the year of Japan's victory in its war with Russia, he entered the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, but he knew that international reputations were made in France.

Foujita's Paris, with its grinding poverty and appalling sanitation, was more like Henry Miller's city of sex and squalor than Hemingway's more decorous moveable feast. Foujita joined the community of struggling émigré artists in Montparnasse, making close friends with the School of Paris painters Soutine and Modigliani, with whom he traveled to the South of France during the spring of 1918. Foujita was "the only clean, sober and financially secure member" of the party. He showed judo moves to Modigliani and taught Soutine to use a toothbrush. "This increased Soutine's popularity at the local whorehouse," Birnbaum observes.

For all his flamboyant behavior, Foujita kept long hours in his studio. He developed a characteristic style by combining liberal use of his own white paint (he refused to divulge the secret recipe) and the "sumi" ink of traditional Japanese brush painting. He found a market for his pictures of white nudes accompanied by cats, a winning combination at least as old as Manet's "Olympia," and his hard work paid off in the "spectacular year" of 1921, when he was invited to join the jury of the annual salon and painted "My Room, Still Life With Alarm Clock," perhaps his most affecting work.

An arrestingly white-on-white composition, "My Room" depicts a wooden table with a white doll, a basket of eggs and an alarm clock lying on a red-and-white-checked tablecloth. Three ceramic plates hang from the wall, and two wooden shoes, reminiscent of Van Gogh, lie on the floor. In front of the white clock face, with hands frowning at 3:40, are Foujita's tortoiseshell glasses. Birnbaum believes that Foujita "claims the French way of life for himself" in this painting, but it's also a moving self-portrait, conveying both domestic comfort and an air of isolation.

Foujita's life in Paris collapsed abruptly: a tax scandal threatened his savings and the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos took his third wife, Youki. After a nomadic decade--with stops in Brazil, Mexico and Cuba--Foujita returned to Japan, where his resentment at perceived slights in the West metastasized into rabid nationalism. He raved against "Jewish gallery owners" and "strange international perverts" back in France.

Foujita's penchant for flamboyant costumes and hard work served him well during the war years, when he gave his "right arm" to the emperor in a notorious series of theatrical paintings meant to inspire Japanese resolve. Was Foujita a war criminal or a closet pacifist? Did his pictures portray the glory or the horror of war? Birnbaum weighs the evidence on both sides, interviewing his surviving friends and enemies. Maybe Foujita, with his equivocal English, summed it up best: "I am not Tojo--yes? I am Foujita--no?"

Foujita spent his final years holed up with his fifth wife in a village in rural France. He converted to Roman Catholicism and, immodest to the end, took as his baptismal name "Léonard," as in da Vinci. He died in 1968, when his work was again popular with collectors, although his reputation diminished sharply thereafter. The details of Foujita's fascinating life left me wishing for more: more on his summer with Modigliani, more on his friendship with Desnos, more on his sojourn in Cuba. "His life story will always be a riddle," Birnbaum writes in this brisk and stylishly written book, but she has only begun the process of solving it.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and writes about art for Slate.