Léonard Foujita Nu au chat
Tsuguharu Foujita arrived in Paris on the eve of World War I in 1913. However, avant-garde art did not wither on the vine during the war; it picked up where it had left off once the war came to an end. The foreign artists who had gathered in Paris lent an endless vitality to the city during the 1910s and 1920s. Among the artist who constituted the so-called École de Paris (School of Paris) were Amedeo Modigliani, who arrived in the city in 1906, and Chaïm Soutine, who, like Foujita, arrived in 1913. Foujita was the most important and most successful Japanese artist of the group. In terms of style, the École de Paris artists learned from each other as different cultures were dashed together in the flourishing city and each artist had the freedom to develop his or her own distinctive approach. It was in these circumstances that Foujita was able to personally participate in the most important chapter of early twentieth century art history. Foujita developed his own unique style and achieved an unprecedented, ground-breaking freedom by painting reclining nudes that diverged from the limitations of the salon and academic styles. In the history of twentieth century art, Foujita's nudes breached the traditions of Japanese painting, and it was through this breach that Western audiences were able to glimpse a daring new style of erotic expression, all through the familiar idiom of reclining nudes.
Following the end of the war, the Paris Salon d'Automne reconvened in 1919. It was that year that Tsuguharu Foujita made his first contributions: four watercolours and two oil paintings. All six paintings were elected for exhibition alongside works by Matisse and Bonnard. However, it was not until the decade of 1921-1931 that Foujita truly established his own style in Paris with his large-scale nudes. This evening sale presents Foujita's classic 1930 painting Nude with Cat (Lot 1035). The languid sweetness, refined colours, and delicate lustre of the painting are all representative of the golden years of 1930s Paris, and it is a sublime example of the nude subject genre. Foujita produced three paintings featuring nudes in similar postures during this decade of creative excellence, which coincided with Paris's Golden Age. The original draft was completed in 1924; the other two paintings are Nude with Cat, completed in 1930 and featured in this auction, and Supine Nude, completed in 1931. The two paintings other than Nude with Cat are both in the permanent collection of the Fukuoka Art Museum. Virtually all of the rest of Foujita's large-scale nudes from that time period have been collected by major art museums around the world, including the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes, the Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, the Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and the Hiroshima Museum of Art.
Dulcinea del Toboso, a character in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, is described in Umberto Eco's History of Beauty as a representation of "superhuman beauty". Aside from fiction, the twentieth century Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujia also sought to portray such indescribable beauty in his seminal nude paintings. In the 1920s, Foujita's appreciation of female beauty was fuelled by two models who profoundly influenced him: Kiki de Montparnasse and Youki. In 1921 and 1922, Foujita, who had already been absent from Japan for many years, harboured a profound desire to achieve success in Parisian painting circles. At the time, the most famous model in Montparnasse was Kiki, the muse of many Parisian avant-garde artists, and had also modelled for Sanyu. Kiki had a bold and unrestrained personality, and she became the protagonist of Foujita's first nudes. Then, in 1922, one of his paintings of Kiki, Nude with Print, was elected for exhibition by the Salon d'Automne; the day after the exhibition, the painting was featured in a Parisian newspaper. All at once, Foujita had made his name in Parisian painting circles.
If Kiki represented a free and uninhibited beauty, then Youki stood for grace and perception, and it was Youki who would become Foujita's most important model during the 1920s. It was in 1923 that Foujita met Lucie Badoud, the woman he would nickname Youki (“small snow”) for her snow-like, flawless skin. Their courtship, marriage, and eventual separation coincide precisely with the period of Foujita's wholehearted development of his nude painting style, and in particular, the sleeping nude. Foujita poured his passion for Youki into his nude paintings. In 1924, Youki, Goddess of Snow, a painting he made for his paramour, was exhibited in the Salon d'Automne. We can also deduce that Youki was the model for Nude with Cat, completed in 1930, based on the face of the woman in the painting and the year of its completion.
The Beauty of Yūgen
In terms of creative concept, Nude with Cat could be described as Yūgen, a Japanese literary concept from the Middle Ages that is used to describe beauty with profound and mysterious appeal. Foujita lived in Paris when he painted Nude with Cat, but he had not forgotten the aesthetic and stylistic traditions of Japan. Born in late nineteenth century Japan, Foujita grew up in a period of reform in Nihonga (the Japanese painting tradition). During the Meiji Restoration, Nihonga artists strived to retain expressive lines will incorporating Western light and shade techniques. Foujita had been a disciple of Kuroda Seiki, and he upheld the Nihonga traditions in his own way. In Nude with Cat, he applied the expressive techniques of Japanese aesthetics, as demonstrated by the painting's simplified colours and exquisitely expressive lines, which bring to mind the Yamato-e style. The lines of the painting, which seem to possess their own vital force, are not limited by the techniques of Western Modernism; rather, they retain the unique originality of Nihonga.
The Sleeping Nude
Reclining nudes of the deity Venus are a canonical tradition in Western painting that began in the Renaissance period. The posture of the nude figure in Nude with Cat is in fact derived from The Nightmare, a 1781 painting of a slumbering nude by Henry Fuseli. For Nude with Cat, Foujita transforms the nightgown-clad figure from The Nightmare into the nude Youki. This is one more way in which Nude with Cat superseded a classical model. The nude figure, her eyes closed, forms a sharp contrast in both posture and expression with the cat and its intense gaze. In the history of painting, reclining nudes have appeared in a variety of settings, and the nude figure represents an object of desire. However, if there is no subject to enjoy the view, then her desirable appearance is not established. The nude figure in Nude with Cat constitutes a static object of appreciation. In terms of composition, Foujita diligently placed the nude figure in the upper half of the canvas so that she is passively positioned upon a pedestal of silk fabric. The monochromatic grey background serves as a foil for her voluptuous white skin, which possesses a kind of visceral, tactile beauty: that is to say, a sensuous beauty. However, the woman’s eyes are closed, rejecting the eyes of the observer and the possibility of interaction; a clever twist on the notion of gaze, a subject of continuous debate throughout art history. The protagonist of the painting is fully immersed in herself, and she manifests an innate joy that approaches divinity.
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