Entranced by Milky White Skin: Foujita’s Muse
In the 1920s, Foujita was fascinated by the representation of the human body and skin, and two muses largely inspired his admiration of the female form. One was the famed model Kiki de Montparnasse due to her full, seductive figure and her unrestrained personality, both of which were celebrated by everyone in the Paris art world. She was also the muse of many other artists and had numerous classic works of art named after her. Foujita depicted Kiki in a large painting from 1922, Nu couché à la toile de Jouy, a piece which made him famous overnight. The composition of this work is very similar to that of Jeune Femme au Petit Chien, demonstrating the artist’s determination to refine similar configurations. Set against an almost abstract background, the woman casually reclines silky white sheets. Whether the figure is nude or not, both paintings have a mysterious, sexy quality. When we examine many other works named after Youki from this period, the figure in those paintings and the young woman in Jeune Femme au Petit Chien have the same short, wavy blonde hair, the identical high, straight nose, and a pair of matching grey eyes. From the facial features, we can surmise that the same model is depicted in these paintings—Youki, Foujita’s wife and muse.
In 1923, Foujita met Youki, originally known as Lucie Badoud. Youki (literally meaning ‘snow’) was the Japanese name that Foujita gave her because of the snow-whiteness of her skin. The two met and fell in love and the eight to nine years that they were together largely coincided with the heyday of Foujita’s obsession with paintings of beautiful women—especially nudes. Foujita adored Youki’s milky-white skin, which likely stemmed from the association between pale skin and beauty in the Eastern aesthetic tradition. He based countless sketches, watercolours, and oil paintings on her pure features and unrivalled charm. She appeared many times in Foujita’s work, which made her famous. The two of them occasionally invited their friends to sumptuous parties, attended dances and other social events, becoming the talk of Paris artistic circles. In contrast to other fully nude works, this piece features Youki heavily adorned, wearing a gorgeous dress, glittering jewellery, immaculate makeup, and high heels. This could lead the viewer to believe that it was painted after a party when the two returned home to enjoy a more relaxing ambience.
The ‘goddess’ in the painting has a tender gaze, allowing the viewers to imagine the painter gazing affectionately at Youki outside the frame. It was the nature of their loving relationship which allowed Foujita to easily capture her essence. As Foujita was solely focused on the person before him, he deliberately blurred the background, covering it in a large swathe of sweet, pleasant pink., which not only showcases the model’s luminous white skin but also exudes dreamlike surrealism. In examining Foujita’s paintings of beautiful women from this period, almost all of them use cautious black, grey, and white to depict abbreviated cold environments. The charming pink tone in this work has the warmth of rosy clouds, which is both romantic and rare for Foujita.
The Tenderness of a Man-About-Town: Representing Venus
Depictions of beautiful nude women are not usually the traditional Japanese aesthetic; even the beauties of Japanese woodcut masters such as Kitagawa Utamaro or Suzuki Harunobu would only reveal a kneecap or a neck to give a tactile impression of the figure’s skin. The female nude is a reoccurring theme in Western art history, especially in the Renaissance period, where painters would often paint recumbent goddesses. Foujita often went to the Louvre to browse and learn, he also visited Italy to fully assimilate classical art. As he discovered the sources of European civilization, he was deeply inspired by the meticulous attention paid to the perfect female form in Western art. He used these Western paintings as footholds to incorporate infuse Western artistic elements into his rather traditional Eastern artworks. In the current work, Youki leans back, with the upper half of her body supported by one arm, highlighting the demure of her body language. This posture is seductive, reminiscent of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a painting which Edouard Manet borrowed the same composition for his Olympia.
The little dog next to the goddess in Titian’s Venus of Urbino is a symbol of eternal fidelity, while Manet places a black cat next to the ordinary woman in Olympia, which represents sexual desire and debauchery, highlighting the conflict between Western tradition and society’s morals. Foujita had always loved cats, but here he chose to paint a cute, docile puppy. This, combined with the rare inclusion of clothing and shoes, reflects his respect for his model. Foujita was a socialite in Paris; he was witty and uninhibited, using smooth and graceful brushwork to create a blissful and tranquil habitat for a woman with skin the colour of snow.
Rosy Clouds Setting Off the Snow: Eastern Chromatics
When Foujita was in Paris, he was not afraid to embrace Western culture with open arms. He was particularly inspired by Western classical painting but had not forgotten his refined technique of Japanese painting. When existing materials could not support Foujita’s boundless creative passions, he actively researched new painting pigments. Supposedly, he ground oyster shells into powder and mixed it with oil paint to achieve a translucent ivory tone in his portraits, as well as a smooth, lustrous, porcelain finish of the pale skin in his paintings. After rubbing painted areas with sandpaper, Foujita used fine, sinuous lines to outline Youki’s contours. He also adopted the iridescent technique from Japanese woodcuts, wiping away pale grey shadows from their skin to create a sense of volume and a gentle Eastern sensibility. The smoothness and softness of Youki’s skin contrast with the waves in her skirt, the natural creases in the sheets, and the swirling tufts of the dog’s fur.
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