Elevate Difference

Glory in a Line: A Life of Foujita

Readers interested in art, Paris, Tokyo, or multiculturalism in the first half of the twentieth century will enjoy Phyllis Birnbaum’s carefully documented biography of Foujita’s tumultuous life as an aristocratic playboy and fiercely dedicated artist, both acclaimed and vilified for his controversial works. She chronicles Foujita’s five marriages, repeated moves to France from Japan and back again, travels in Latin America and the United States, whimsical moods, political shifts, and mastery of a unique style fusing Western oil painting techniques with Japanese brushwork.

In 1920s France, Foujita painted elegant nudes, scandalizing his Japanese compatriots, and during WWII, in Japan, he created propagandistic war paintings that got him in trouble with almost everybody after the Allied victory -- Japanese, Europeans, and Americans. Even today opinions are divided about works such as Last Stand at Attu, 1943. Sasaki Shigeo compares these paintings unfavorably with Picasso’s Guernica, while the artist’s nephew, Ashihara Eiryo, defends him: “In the same way that Foujita believed that women were merely ‘flesh,’ so a gun or a flower was all the same to Foujita.”

Indeed, even though Foujita’s favorite painting subjects were women and cats, singly or together, his affectionate appreciation for them did not make him respect them. Birnbaum quotes without comment his oft-repeated statement to interviewers: “… women and cats are absolutely the same. If you treat them nicely, they are submissive, but if you don’t, they will turn on you. Just think about it – isn’t a woman just like a cat if you put on some whiskers and a tail?” A feminist analysis of the artist’s complicated ambivalence toward women would have strengthened this biography, but Birnbaum, while a noted biographer of Japanese women and their works, reminds us that she is “not writing the woman’s story this time around.” Her duty to Foujita, she believes, makes it necessary for her to take his point of view in everything.

Still, Birnbaum does an outstanding job of presenting her main thesis, exploring in intriguing detail the artist’s dilemma as a man between two countries and two cultures, and in the process she gives a vivid picture of the international art scene during the World Wars, background vital for understanding many of today’s cultural clashes, misunderstandings, and surprising fusions.

Written by: Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring, February 20th 2007