The Forgotten Japanese Artist Who Ruled The Parisian Bohemian Circle Of The 20s

It takes decades of brushstrokes to build a reputation, but with a single illustration, this artist lost his credibility and his place in history.

The roaring twenties were awe inspiring, but as we see the Gatsby style parties and the absinthe fueled bacchanalia, we realize that probably less than 20 percent of the population lived through it. For such a glimmering short space of time entire continents were awash with artistic, literary, and visual movements that delighted the senses. La Vie Bohême was the lifestyle all creatives aspired to have and for many artistically minded people in today's age, it is a nostalgic dream.

Mother and Two Children (1917)

Young Couple and Animals (1917)

We have personalities like Picasso, Modigliani, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Dalí, Matisse, Cole Porter, and Man Ray coloring our dreams with endless possibilities. These luminaries became characters we admire and they shaped our intellectual and cultural history. It is surprising that in this shining era, some figures would fall through the cracks and into oblivion, one in particular was the toast of the city, and now he remains largely forgotten.

Tsuguharu Foujita was born in Japan in 1886 in a relatively accommodated family. His father was a medical officer, and based on the advice from one of his father's superiors, he decided to enroll into Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Even before venturing into the art world, he already dreamt of moving to Paris, which was the Mecca for artists wishing to pursue a successful career. Once he completed his studies at the age of 26, he packed his bags and moved to Paris in 1913.

Youki and Cat (1923)

The Lion Tamer (1930)

Self-portrait (1932)

Foujita sported a unique look, he had a bowl style haircut, round glasses, and a tiny mustache, and it wasn't long before he carved his space in the most exclusive artistic circles.

Besides his personality, his art was also exceptionally unique. He created interesting artworks, which merged traditional Japanese aesthetics with western, avant-garde styles such as impressionism and other major movements. At his peak, he was fully enmeshed in the Bohemian lifestyle, attending elite parties and hanging out with the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century. It’s even said that he took personal dance lessons with Isadora Duncan and shared a passion for cats with the one and only Jacques Cousteau with whom he would attend several Cat shows.

His last name was actually Fujita, but in one of his attempts to blend with others, he added an "o" to make it sound more French and reflect the cultural blend he wished to explore. He made great advances in his art and became one of the most profitable artists, earning huge amounts of money. Today, Picasso sells for millions, but at the time, it was Foujita who was seen as the highest grossing artist. In his circle of friends, he was known to be one of the few artists who could afford to have hot water in his rooms.

Paysage d'Akita sous la neige (1937)

La sirene (1940)

Foujita was the first Japanese artist to enter the prestigious School of Paris and he was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government and the Order of Leopold by the Belgian government for his services in art. So why did he fall from grace? The answer is simple, war. After a long trip across South America during the early thirties, in 1933, he decided to return to Japan where he was received as a national hero. While people believed he had been westernized and did not represent Japanese culture, he was still asked to work for the Imperial government as an official artist, an offer he didn't refuse.

By the time the Second Sino-Japanese war was underway, he was chosen to create military propaganda. While Foujita was not in favor of the war, he still wanted to understand the nationalistic spirit his countrymen fervently believed in. This decision would cost him dearly, since that moment forward he would be pegged as a war collaborator. When Japan was defeated in WWII, the reputation Foujita had built in Europe was torn asunder, and when he left Japanese shores, he was pegged a fascist and imperialist, two images he would never be able to scrub off his artistic persona.

Battle on the Bank of the Halha (1941)

Portrait of a Young Girl with Mexican Puppet (1949)

Though he attempted to revindicate his image, he failed miserably. When he finally returned to France, he obtained the nationality in 1955 and he converted to Catholicism in 1959 (he was even baptized as Leónard Foujita). For the rest of his life he would continue to work on his art until his death in 1968 in Switzerland.

At the Café (1949)

It is interesting that even today art critics are weary of analyzing his work and most people sweep him under the carpet before delving into his controversial life. Building a reputation takes years of brushstrokes but a single drawing can tear it all down, but what is difficult to grasp is why other characters, like Salvador Dalí for instance, got away with it? Dalí, despite his obvious Hitlerian sexual fantasies, found himself on the winning side, so he got a 'get out of jail free card.' The question remains, should we judge someone's art based on their life? I believe both go hand in hand, and the mistakes Foujita made by being on the losing side of a war have been paid for with anonymity. So, it is up to people to pick up his work and see if it speaks to them, and if it does, mount it on their walls. That's what art is all about isn't it? To evoke a lingering emotion.


Here are other art stories you might like:

The Dada Artist That Depicted Female Orgasm Through A Tiny Bar Of Soap

The Eccentric Royal That Changed The Turn Of The Century's Art World

The Dark Story Behind Goya’s Bleak “Black Paintings”


Cover image: Self-portrait in the Studio (1926)