Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita, the Artist Caught Between East and West
by Phyllis Birnbaum
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 331 pp., $27.50
At the height of his fame, in 1920s Paris, the Japanese painter Foujita, or Fou Fou to his friends, would draw up at the café Le Dôme in a canary-yellow chauffeur-driven Ballot touring car with a little bronze Rodin bust on the hood. The limo was a birthday gift from Foujita to his then-twenty-one-year-old mistress and later wife, “Youki” Badoud, who, dressed to the nines, would sweep into the café with her husband, as both acknowledged the waves of his adoring fans. Fou Fou, with his large gold earrings, his fringed haircut, his tattooed wristwatch, his round spectacles, and his outlandish dress, was so famous in Paris that department stores displayed mannequins of the painter in their windows. Society ladies lined up to be portrayed by Foujita. He partied with Picasso, Alexander Calder, and Kees van Dongen. His were the most talked about, most outrageously imaginative costumes worn at the legendary arts balls. Foujita even did judo demonstrations at the Paris Opéra.
This is the way Foujita is still remembered in France, as one of the most colorful figures of the Roaring Twenties, one whose art may not, in retrospect, be of the first rank, but still retains an aura of exotic, Oriental modernism. Foujita died in his adopted country in 1968, after becoming a French citizen and converting to Christianity, as Léonard Foujita—a homage to Leonardo da Vinci.
In his native Japan, Fujita Tsuguharu has a more complicated reputation. Even though his many pictures of cats, nudes, and bug-eyed children have been exhibited regularly and still fetch high prices, he is best known for his stint during World War II as Japan’s most prolific, and to some most scandalous, propagandist for imperial militarism. There is a photograph, reprinted in Phyllis Birnbaum’s engaging and occasionally irritating book, of Fujita (no longer Foujita, let alone Fou Fou) in Tokyo around 1942, minus the large earrings and famous fringe, reading Signal, the Nazi propaganda magazine.
Seen side by side, it is hard to imagine that Last Stand at Attu (1943), depicting a Japanese suicide charge on the Aleutians, was done by the same man who painted the Nude with a Jouy Fabric in Paris (1922). One is full of violence, painted with a density to suggest an enraged horror vacui; the other is stark and sensuous. Foujita, the flaneur who went about Montparnasse in Greek tunics or outfits cut out of floral curtains, had become Fujita, cutting a dashing figure in wartime Singapore in a mock general’s uniform. What remained constant in these transformations was his dandyism. His paintings, like his clothes, were often contrived for public effect, to make a splash, to strike a pose. Birnbaum relates how the artist would stand beside his Last Stand at Attu in a Tokyo museum, dressed in combat boots and a helmet, bowing each time a visitor dropped money for the war effort into a collection box.
Foujita always was keen on dressing up, with a particular fondness for cross-dressing …