‘I believe that the first, honest line that appears from the clear mind is the absolute truth’
Executed in 1930 with exquisite finesse and clarity, Nu au chat
possesses the painterly qualities for which Tsuguharu Foujita is best known. The artist, known as ‘Léonard’ in his adopted country of France, was born in Tokyo and took his initial instruction as a painter at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1905. It was not until 1913 that Foujita first travelled to Paris and became acquainted with many of the foremost painters of the 20th Century, including Picasso, Modigliani and Soutine. These key figures impressed upon the artist the expressive possibilities of the human form, and alongside them he swiftly became a leading member of the Ecole de Paris. Foujita also threw himself enthusiastically into the hedonistic lifestyle of Montmartre and it was not before long that he met and married his second wife, Fernande Barrey. However, by 1921 he had fallen in love with Lucie Badoul, whom he nicknamed Youki (meaning ‘snow’ in his native tongue), and which aptly described her flawlessly white skin. Youki would become his most important model for the next decade, and posed for numerous monumental canvases.
During the 1920s and 1930s Foujita created a highly original style which quickly brought him to public attention. In particular the luminous, sensuous textures and surfaces of his canvases enraptured his fellow artists and admirers (fig. 1). Foujita himself stated: ‘I set out to create a type of canvas that could evoke the feeling of soft, supple skin, so that the nature of the canvas itself could give the real sense of skin. […] I was the very first one who was able to realise the human skin and its very nature and this is what completely differentiated my nude paintings from other nude paintings, which captured the attention of the public’ (quoted in ‘E no Hanarewaza’, in Bra Ippon
, 1984, pp. 115-116; translated from Japanese).
Discussing Foujita’s initial successes Masaaki Ozaki states: ‘It was at the Salon d’Automne held in 1921 that Foujita established himself significantly in the Parisian art world. The three works he submitted were acclaimed as the highlight of the exhibition and proved extremely popular. In particular, the beautiful white ground supporting the overall image was an expression only Foujita could accomplish employing a technique of his own. […] Foujita acknowledges that he was inspired by ukiyo-e in portraying his nudes. He says he tried to depict the human skin in the way Utamaro Kitagawa [fig. 2] and Harunobu Suzuki had done’ (M. Ozaki, Leonard Foujita (exhibition catalogue), The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 2006, pp. 188-189). Foujita’s idiosyncratic blend of the western and far-eastern styles of painting are rarely so sublimely mixed as in Nu au chat.