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, which Birnbaum duly notes without making much of it. Perhaps she should have at least made a stab. Dressing up as a courtesan at Tokyo art school parties is one thing, but turning up in front of his classmates in red underwear, claiming to be a female prisoner just escaped from a local jail, and being paraded around town with his hands tied is more intriguing. When an elderly Frenchwoman in Paris once spotted Fou Fou in his floral curtain costume and inquired whether he was a man or a woman, he replied: “Unfortunately, I am a man.” And what are we to make of his habit of walking hand in hand with Kawashima, his male Japanese friend in Paris, both dressed à la Grecque?

Perhaps Birnbaum is right to avoid psychological speculation. But if psychologizing is a temptation she manages to dodge, certain postmodern stylistic tics mar what is otherwise a well-told story. Birnbaum mentions Foujita’s first wife, Tomi, and the negative comments made about her in Japan. “If I were her biographer,” she writes, “I would mull over their comments…. But I’m not writing the woman’s story this time around.” Why not? If it adds to our understanding of Foujita’s life, the story of his first wife is surely worth mulling.

Still, Birnbaum does dwell, quite rightly, on the practical side of Foujita’s grandstanding. He was a kind of performance artist, anticipating Andy Warhol. “When I look back on those days,” he said later, “I feel that my clothing was very crazy. But at the time, I thought it was extremely artistic. I thought that I myself had to become a work of art in every way.” On another occasion he came closer to the point:

Those who think I became famous because of my kappa hairstyle and my earrings should compare me to the automobile company Citroën, which spent a fortune to advertise on the Eiffel Tower with the biggest electronic device in the world. Can’t you say that my way gives me clever publicity for free?

As a social and artistic climber, if nothing else, Foujita was an astounding success. Conquering Paris had been the dream of most Japanese artists who painted in the European style ever since Impressionism conquered Japan (a victory that is still evident in the work of many Japanese painters today). It could be a highly destructive dream. Birnbaum mentions the story of Saeki Yuzo (1898– 1928), one of the most revered Japanese painters, whose short life illustrates the tragic misunderstandings that marked Japan’s artistic confrontation with the West.


Obsessed by Van Gogh and Maurice de Vlaminck, Saeki moved to Paris in 1924 in a rush of romantic passion to be a modern painter. De Vlaminck, however, took one look at one of Saeki’s paintings and dismissed it as derivative, academic, and dull. A Japanese artist, in his view—one echoed by most Europeans enchanted by Japanese woodblock prints—should paint in the Oriental tradition. Attempts by Japanese artists to work in the Western style were regarded as inauthentic and thus doomed to failure. Saeki, driven mad by frustrated ambition, died four years later in a mental hospital. Obscure in the West to this day, his reputation in Japan is that of a genius who paid for his art with his life.

The idea that Asians cannot enter into the traditions of Western art is a form of blinkered Orientalism. It would disqualify many of the greatest classical musicians of our time. But it must be said that the work of most Japanese painters in the Western style was, and often still is, derivative and academic. The modernist idea of expressing oneself in a totally new way, inventing styles, and struggling with one’s predecessors, as Picasso did with Velázquez, say, was unfamiliar to artists of Foujita’s generation, born in a culture where masters were to be emulated and schools to be joined. This did not inhibit photographers, filmmakers, playwrights, or novelists nearly as much, since they were less fixated on foreign masters. But Japanese painters, no matter how hard they tried, rarely managed to get away from their European models.

Except Foujita. His art may not have been as good as some of his contemporaries thought, but it was distinctive. Unlike most Japanese in Paris, Foujita escaped from cultural isolation by learning to speak French, however badly, and cultivating European contacts. Not only did he make a well-received spectacle out of himself at a party thrown by Kees van Dongen by dancing in a loincloth and singing Japanese folk songs, but he was introduced to Picasso by Diego Rivera, and was much impressed by Henri Rousseau’s The Poet and His Muse hanging in Picasso’s studio. “Tiens,” Picasso is supposed to have said, “you are the first painter to have noticed this work.” Quite what Picasso made of Foujita’s own art is not recorded. When he saw Foujita’s nude painting of Youki at the Salon d’Automne, he took a long look at the model herself and remarked: “So that’s Youki. She is even more beautiful than in your painting.”1 Youki was delighted. Whether Foujita should have taken it as a compliment is less obvious.

Foujita’s encounters with European modernism quickly made him realize that he had to ditch all he had learned at his art school in Tokyo and start again:

I, who did not even know the names of Cézanne and van Gogh, now opened my eyes to look out in a radically different direction…. Suddenly, I understood that paintings were free creations…. I suddenly realized that I should forge ahead, with a completely free spirit, to break new ground with my ideas.

Phyllis Birnbaum shows convincingly that Foujita could be a serious artist as well as a self-promoting party animal. He spent hours studying paintings in the Louvre, as well as experimenting in his studio. Unafflicted by the diffidence often attributed to Japanese abroad, Foujita also picked up fashionable models. Kiki de Montparnasse, who posed for everyone from Soutine to Man Ray, described her first encounter with Foujita in her memoir, whose candor was deemed so shocking in the US that it was banned here for many years:

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.”2

Foujita was a stickler for hygiene in an environment where cleanliness was in short supply. His friend Modigliani rarely changed his clothes and shoved his excretions under the bed. Soutine’s room was so infested by bedbugs that one of them got into his ear and had to be extricated in a painful operation. And there, in the midst of this bohemian squalor, was Foujita, carving out a space for himself in the Paris School. He never gave in to the French demand for Japanese exotica—pictures of carp or temple roofs—that provided some of his compatriots with a living. Instead, he did something much cleverer, which at its best was startlingly original. Beginning with a base of white paint, he drew his subjects in black lines with fine Japanese brushes, merging the techniques of Asian ink painting with Western oil painting, mixing the practiced spontaneity of the former with the careful layering of the latter.


Birnbaum, with good reason, places the pinnacle of Foujita’s artistic achievements in the early 1920s, with such paintings as My Room, shown at the 1921 Salon d’Automne, Reclining Nude with a Cat, and Nude with a Jouy Fabric (of Kiki). She writes that Foujita’s achievement is easiest to appreciate in the company of more colorful works by his European contemporaries: “For maximum effect, hang a Foujita 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 color, Foujita’s stark paintings stand out as acts of courage.”

The French certainly thought so at the time, unlike many Japanese critics, who resented Foujita’s self-publicizing, which they regarded as showy and undignified (and maddeningly successful), and they dismissed his Japanese touches as cheap Japonaiserie. This was too harsh. Foujita was one of the very few painters who fused East and West in a plausible manner. But I’m not sure that even his best oil paintings have quite stood the test of time. They are decorative, skillful, and certainly original, but shallow. I prefer his ink-and-watercolor drawings, the delicate self-portraits and portraits of women, and his woodcut illustrations for books.3 Foujita, in these pictures, was influenced by Western art, while working in a Japanese tradition without indulging in pastiche or repeating old formulas.

Foujita’s remarkable success in France soon spread to other parts of the West. Among other places, he had shows in London, Amsterdam, and New York. This makes his turn, in the 1930s, toward belligerent Japanese chauvinism all the more surprising. Among his less successful expatriate colleagues it was a common volte-face. Many Japanese artists, frustrated in their attempts to impress the West, turned from disdain for Japan and its artistic traditions to a vengeful loathing of the West. One famous example, mentioned in Birnbaum’s book, was the poet and sculptor Takamura Kotaro. In the 1910s and 1920s, he wrote odes to his beloved Paris and expressed his “respect and love” for “the Anglo-Saxon race.” A few decades later he celebrated the war on Britain and America: “America and England have been rejected by the Heaven and Earth of East Asia. Their allies will be crushed.”4

But Foujita had little reason for such bitterness. Perhaps, however, artistic and social success were not enough to compensate for the strains of cultural assimilation. The novelist Natsume Soseki warned his countrymen long before World War II that Japan’s wholesale adoption of Western culture would lead to a severe case of indigestion. Extraordinary things came from the Japanese confrontation with the West, but often at a high personal price. Like Takamura and many others, Foujita began by rejecting Japan, which he described in letters to his first wife, Tomi, as “not a country for artists.” The disapproval from other Japanese in Paris can only have added to his disgust. But he also remained the proud son of a military doctor, who craved recognition in his native country. It is the common fate of Japanese who have made it abroad to be accused of pandering to foreigners, of “reeking of butter.” Even the great filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who never lived outside Japan, came in for this envious treatment.

Foujita first went back to Japan in 1929, accompanied by Youki, partly to escape the French tax authorities. He was not universally welcomed. Critics accused him of caring only about money and fame. In return, perhaps out of pique, Foujita lectured Japanese artists on their provincial ways. Youki recalls in her memoir how he would make special trips from Tokyo to Yokohama to buy Gauloise cigarettes from French sailors. This was not such unusual behavior for Japanese artists returning from Paris; even today you will still find painters in Tokyo sporting long hair and French berets, even if they have never set foot in the French capital.

Foujita’s second homecoming in 1933, accompanied by yet another wife, a French show dancer this time, named Madeleine Lequeux, was more successful, although still with ups and downs. He had a successful show in Tokyo. But in 1936, Madeleine, after a stormy few years, died in circumstances that were never fully cleared up. Foujita found new inspiration with a Japanese woman named Kimiyo, who became his last wife. And soon, newly enchanted by the sights and sounds of his native country, the rhythms of Kabuki music, the horns of the tofu vendors, Foujita was ready for a break with Europe: “Every day I wake up with the realization, ‘Oh, I’m in Japan,’ and a smile, full of fondness for the land of my birth, spreads over my face.”

His new enchantment with Japan produced some remarkably bad art. Japanese critics were right to dismiss his touristy pictures of sumo wrestlers and geishas as dilettantism. Stung by such criticisms, Foujita did what he had always been good at: he figured out his market. Soon this led to even worse kitsch, but it proved to be popular kitsch. He promised a wealthy collector that he would paint in record time “the world’s number one painting.” The result, completed in 174 hours, according to the collector who timed it, was a huge painting, sixty-seven feet long, of country life in northeastern Japan: village festivals, rice harvests, and so on. The painting is dense, colorful, and skillfully done, but, as Birnbaum says, devoid of emotional content.

The same techniques, the density of detail, the pictorial realism, would be applied a few years later to Foujita’s war paintings, celebrating Japanese victories in Southeast Asia or the self-sacrificing heroism of Japanese soldiers in China. They were what finally made his name in Japan. People were moved to tears by the sight of Foujita’s pictures of carnage. Some fell on their hands and knees. “I was surprised,” recalled Foujita, “because this was the first time in my life that one of my works had affected people so much that they worshiped before it.” But even worship, though doubtless gratifying, doesn’t quite explain why the erstwhile companion of Picasso and Modigliani became such a zealous painter of war propaganda. Birnbaum quotes the American connoisseur of Japan Donald Richie:

[Foujita] came back to Japan more Japanese than the Japanese…. It is a known cultural pattern. He reveled in the freedom abroad. That’s a pattern—to revel in the freedom and at the same time to resent all those things.

This is probably true. But there was also an element of playacting about Foujita’s militarism, in line with his love of dressing up. Nomiyama Gyoji was an art student when he met Foujita during the war. In an interview with Birnbaum, he recalled his astonishment at the variety of clothes he found in Foujita’s wartime studio, outfits the artist had designed himself: jackets for fire fighting, and various quasi-military uniforms with red boots and green double-vests. Nomiyama remembers thinking that Foujita was “just amusing himself with this war. War for him is only a source of entertainment.”

On the other hand, as Birnbaum says, the wartime paintings express visions of darkness and cruelty that are unusual in propaganda. Actually, this was less unusual in Japanese wartime movies, novels, and art works than in similar fare in Europe or the US. The more horrific the scenes of battle looked, the more people could admire the hardships and sacrifices of the Japanese troops. But Nomiyama pointed out something else about Foujita’s paintings that was unusual. “In Foujita’s paintings,” he said, “you don’t feel that there is any difference between the enemy dying and Japanese dying. Everyone looks so sad.”

Perhaps the most revealing comments came from the artist himself, when he declared in 1942, with evident satisfaction, that “all ties with the French art world have been severed.” It would no longer be necessary to imitate foreigners:

It is not necessary for Paris to be Japan’s teacher…. As for modern French painting: the artists who drew works inspired by French liberalism and individualism linked up with Jewish gallery owners. Then strange international perverts from all over the world got together and created modern art there.

This sounds like the kind of lacerating confessions made under Stalinism, especially when he talks about the necessity to make popular art “correct in the details” and “without mistakes in the realistic effects.”

The perverse thing about all this is not just the almost masochistic repudiation of everything Foujita himself had believed in, but also the sense of liberation. His reputation in the West had declined considerably since the heady 1920s. But from now on he no longer had to live up to the standards of Paris, or anywhere else in the West; the common Japanese people, and not the critics or those liberal Jewish gallery owners, would henceforth be his judges. The style of the wartime paintings, however, was more derivative from Western art than his work in Paris.

As is so often the case, not just in Japan, commercial instincts proved remarkably flexible when circumstances shifted. As soon as the Americans set foot on Japanese soil, Foujita burned incriminating documents in his garden, doctored his wartime paintings, and offered to work for the occupation authorities. He even produced Christmas cards for occupation officials, which were sent to General MacArthur and President Truman. Perhaps because of his unusual degree of opportunism, other Japanese artists began to treat Foujita as a pariah. The newly formed Japanese Art Association put him on the list of culprits who should bear responsibility for their wartime activities. Not surprisingly, Foujita quickly reverted to his pre-war disdain for Japan and infatuation with the West.

France was his preferred destination, but the French were reluctant to give the ex-propagandist a visa. Through his connections in MacArthur’s administration, Foujita managed to land some teaching jobs in New York, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art school and the New School. He left Japan in 1949, and by way of a permanent farewell he prayed that the Japanese art world would one day come up to world standards. In New York, he had a show at the Mathias Komor gallery. Time magazine praised his pictures of animals in human clothes but a petition signed by fifty American artists protested against the exhibition by “the fascist artist who lent himself to lying and distortion….” When a French visa was granted after all, Foujita quickly decided to move back to France.

He shunned Paris, the city of his early triumphs, and secluded himself in an eighteenth-century farmhouse with his wife Kimiyo, renamed Marie-Ange-Claire after their baptism into the Catholic Church. They became French citizens in 1955. Foujita still produced a great deal of art, notably many pictures of cats and rather vapid-looking children. In the mid-1960s, with money from René Lalou, president of Mumm Champagne, he constructed a chapel in the Romanesque style. He claimed that this was “to atone for eighty years of sins.” The frescoes, painted by Foujita, which include the artist and his wife as witnesses to the crucifixion of Christ, and the stained glass windows are decorative in a conventional way, and full of detail, rather like his wartime propaganda paintings.

Foujita died of cancer in 1968. Birnbaum describes his last days in a Swiss hospital. Instead of the more usual hospital robes worn by other patients, Foujita posed for his visitors in a Japanese fisherman’s coat, covered in images of fish and the sea.

This Issue

March 15, 2007