PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE ASIAN COLLECTION
Tsuguharu Foujita began his rare and valuable series of gold leaf paintings during the late 1910s and early 1920s, and these works were the first to win him critical attention. After Foujita earned acclaim in painting circles in 1925 for his “nudes with milk-white skin”, he took an abrupt break from gold leaf painting that lasted more than twenty years. Then, during the artist's second sojourn in Paris from 1950 to 1968, the gorgeous and resplendent gold paint reappeared in his artwork. Gold leaf oil paintings by Foujita are extremely rare, and in the past twenty years, fewer than ten such canvas have appeared on the international auction market. For this evening auction, Sotheby's is fortunate to present two gold leaf oil paintings by Foujita, Madonne à la Grotte (Lot 1021) and Le chapeau de sa maman (Lot 1022), offering a rare opportunity for collectors.
Foujita's gold leaf oil paintings are closely related to his religious works in their unity of form and subject material. In the 1920s, the renowned critic André Warnod—the same critic who coined the term School of Paris—had this to say: "Who could have anticipated Tsuguharu Foujita's Catholic paintings? Most extraordinary of all are the intense feelings of faith that his paintings express." He specifically mentions the "fiery golden background", indicating the Biblical themes of the gold leaf paintings, and in this way, he helped establish the artist’s reputation in painting circles. In the 1950s, Foujita returned to Paris. Due in part to the ravages of war and in part to his advancing age, Foujita returned his creative focus to religious themes; such was the personal and epochal context of the creation of Madonne à la Grotte.
The subject of Madonne à la Grotte comes from a famous by the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. Foujita bore a lifelong veneration for da Vinci, to the extent that he chose Léonard as his Christian name when he was baptized as a Catholic. Madonne à la Grotte can be seen as Foujita's homage to his predecessor. Adopting the same subject material, Foujita strove to demonstrate his personal style in spirit and in form in order to match the brilliance of da Vinci's classic work. His portrayal of the grotto diverges from da Vinci's quiet and gloomy cave, presenting instead an elegant arch structure. Blocks of layered gold leaf paint fill the interior of the archway, evoking a golden brick wall, bright and impressive. This background serves as a foil that increases the brilliance of the realistically portrayed holy figures in the foreground, conforming to the emphasis in twentieth century Christianity on a closer relationship between man and God. The Virgin Mary gently holds the infant Jesus, and John the Baptist leans against her leg, forming an intimate body language. The expressions of the three persons are quite natural, richly portraying an authentic mother-child relationship.
Paintings from the Middle Ages originally inspired Foujita to paint with gold leaf. Foujita also held a high regard for the traditions of his own home country. The Kanō School, which originated in the fifteenth century and was continued by successive imperial painters in the employ of the shogun, influenced the seminal father-and-son Chinese painters, Li Sixun and Li Zhaodao, of the Tang Dynasty. That tradition featured the brilliant use of gold leaf paint for more than four centuries, giving the medium a deep-rooted heritage in both Eastern and Western cultures. Early in the twentieth century, the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt helped bring this ancient style of painting back into fashion. Klimt succumbed to illness in 1918, just one year after Foujita began to use gold leaf paint. He combined the brilliant effects of this medium with the precision of his calligraphy-like lines to outline human forms and enhance the textures of fabrics. In this way, he naturally and exquisitely incorporated Eastern elements into this painting of profoundly Western themes and forms, resulting in an exemplary harmony of Eastern and Western aesthetics.
In addition to religious themes, Foujita also liked to apply gold colour to works with pure and upright subjects. In the 1950s, he began drawing inspiration from everyday life, and his paintings increasingly featured children and young girls. The theme of Le chapeau de sa maman is the familial love of the mother-daughter relationship. At first glance, the painting seems to be a dual portrait of a girl and her mother wearing the same style of hat and dress. A closer look reveals that the young girl is actually standing in front of a portrait of her mother. In the painting within the painting, the mother's hands protect her enlarged abdomen: she is pregnant. That is to say, the girl in the painting is pictured not only with her mother, but also with her unborn self. Foujita subtly applied gold colour to the ornate frame of the painting within the painting. The canvas also exemplifies Foujita's characteristically bold use of colour during this period of his career. After leaving France in 1930, Foujita continued to refine his style in South America. Influenced by Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, he began to paint with more vibrant colours and to explore the use of colour in Renaissance painting and Japanese ukiyo-e. Gradually, he developed the warm, pleasant, and joyous pastel hues of Le chapeau de sa maman.
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