Covers by Foujita

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Reclining nude by Foujita, 1922

During the Twenties Foujita earned a lot more as a painter than his friends Picasso and Matisse but unlike them, he is now almost completely forgotten. His paintings are easily recognisable by the use of a self-mixed and pearlescent white paint (blanc de lait) and subtle contours in black ink. He bridged the gap between Eastern and Western art in his narrative works executed in a clear, pen-like flowing line.

In our collection we have two covers illustrated by Foujita: Sept Haï-kaïs and Moria-blues.

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Sept Haï-kaïs, illustrated by Foujita

The Japanese Foujita was an obvious choice to illustrate the seven haiku poems set to music by Maurice Delage in 1924. Delage, who spoke fluent Japanese, translated the haikus himself in French and captured the mood of the poems with impressionistic and exotic-colored music. Foujita’s illustration for the piano and voice version of the Sept Haï-Kaïs, teases our brain with an optical illusion of sumo wrestlers.

Moria-Blues, illustrated by Foujita
Moria-Blues, illustrated by Foujita

Moria Blues is from the ballet Le Tournoi Singulier (1924). Apart from the drawing of Cupid, Foujita also realised the stage sets and costumes. The Ballets Suédois, an avant-garde company for which also Nerman had created designs, performed Le Tournoi Singulier in Paris. Roland-Manuel composed the music. The story is kind of absurd: while reading a Parisian newspaper, the mythological Eros (Cupid) daydreams of lady-golfers in boxer shorts. La Folie (Folly) hits Eros in the eye with a golf ball and blinds him. But Venus comes to the rescue and punishes La Folie. The mixture of sport and mythology was used to juxtapose classical and modern styles. La Folie was musically composed with a fashionable jazzy blues rhythm and performed with a jazzy dance while Eros was represented as a Greek athlete.
The critics prefered the music that was, according to them, a pleasant composition influenced by Debussy, to the decorations and costumes that suffered from dada-ized japonism.

De Valerio and Foujita

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A Montparnasse! A Montparno!, illustrated by Roger de Valerio, 1929

For this song about Montparnasse the French illustrator Roger de Valerio sketched a portrait of the person who was the quintessence of Montparnassian nightlife in the Twenties: the Japanese painter Foujita. He was a hipster avant la lettre, tatooed, with earrings and easily recognisable by his tortoiseshell glasses and straight fringe. Foufou, as he was referred to, was an eccentric who made his own clothes and sometimes adorned his haircut with a lampshade claiming it was his national headdress.

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Tsuguharu Foujita, 1886-1968

Foujita was a womanizer and according to the song performed by Marie Dubas and Pizella, women flocked to the Montparnasse bars (La Rotonde, Le Dôme, La Coupole) to admire Foufou’s two rings and his brush stroke.

A Montparnasse! A Montparno!
Tout’s les femm’s ont l’coeur qui bat
Pour l’étrange Foujita
A Montparnasse! A Montparno!
Ell’s admir’nt sa tignasse
Ses deux p’tits anneaux
Ell’s veul’nt tout’s, c’est rigolo
Connaître son coup d’pinceau
A Montparnasse! A Montparno!

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A. Harlingue – Foujita and Youki, 3 square Montsouris, Paris, 1926

The smoking woman on the sheet music cover next to Foujita, is probably Youki (Lucie Badoud) with whom Foujita was married at that time (1929). But Youki already had a love interest in the poet Robert Desnos, her later husband. Foujita, who was broadminded and aware of his wife’s relationship with Desnos, tattooed a mermaid on Youki’s thigh and a bear on Desnos’ arm to strengthen their connection. Roger De Valerio, being a good friend of Robert Desnos, must have frequented the same crowd and probably knew Foujita. De Valerio was the most prolific illustrator of sheet music in France, but still nothing can be found about his life. We intend to make amends to this scandalous lack in our following posts…

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Robert Doisneau, Youki Desnos showing off the siren tatooed on her leg by Foujita, around 1950 © Atelier Robert Doisneau

Montparnasse was the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s. If Kiki de Montparnasse was the queen, Foujita was the king amidst the countless writers, artists and personalities frequenting the bohemian Left Bank. I scanned the net for contemporary documentary films of Montparnasse. I found two and of course Foujita makes his cameo appearance in both.

The first is an experimental short film by Eugene Deslaw dated 1929. At around 12:30 you get a glimpse of the car (a Ballot) that was a birthday present to Foufou’s 21-year-old bride Youki. The camera zooms in on the bronze miniature of Rodin’s Man with a Broken Nose, fixed on the hood. Then appears Foujita smoking a cigarette.

The second film is a short documentary. At around 0:54 Foujita is announced as a ‘well-known painter of women‘. We see him walking down a Montparnasse street in kimono, and later at work: smoking while he draws a portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse.

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Man with a broken nose by Rodin