Carefully considered, well-balanced biography of the controversial Japanese artist who created a stir in modernist Paris and was later vilified for his pro-fascist war paintings.
On the one hand, Foujita Tsuguharu (1886–1968) had fabulous success as a painter of cats and nudes in France from the early 1900s until World War II; on the other, he zealously led the group of artists hired by Japan’s war ministry in the late ’30s to sell Japanese aggression into China and beyond. Birnbaum (Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo, 1999) clearly prefers to emphasize the first half of Foujita’s life: The son of a high-ranking military doctor in Tokyo, he learned Western-style painting in art school and, like many of his peers, yearned to escape “from the traditional Japanese terrors of earthquakes, thunder, fire, and fathers.” He immigrated to Paris in 1913, mixing freely with a bohemian crowd that included Bonnard and Modigliani with the help of some exotic, self-sewn Greek costumes and a series of useful French lady friends who didn’t know or didn’t care about his wife back in Japan. (The author admits she often finds the women in Foujita’s life more compelling than her subject.) Second wife Fernande Barrey helped secure his first show, and wealthy customers were quite taken by his unique line (gleaned from the ukiyo-e tradition) and incomparable white paint. Foujita’s eventual return to Japanese ways complicated his reputation. He exhorted Japanese artists to resist Western imitation and be true to their culture, yet was castigated by his compatriots as an insincere opportunist. By the late ’30s, married to the Japanese Kimiyo, he “transformed himself into an earnest representative of the state just as easily as he had changed coffee shops.” Birnbaum offers fascinating testimony by those who knew Foujita, both fans and adversaries, and she sifts through the evidence to depict a conflicted artist proud of Japanese culture and stung by Western racism who ended up mistrusted by all sides.
Readers can make up their own minds with the help of this evenhanded portrait.