The artist known as Foujita moved from Tokyo to Paris 100 years ago. And while the Impressionists might have absorbed influences from Japanese art, an actual Japanese person was very much a novelty in early 20th century France. Nor was Foujita inclined to blend in with the crowd, particularly early in his European adventure, when he hung out with dancer Isadora Duncan. As Dan Franck explains in The Bohemians, the artist had been known to sport “a band around his forehead, a cape hanging from his shoulder, a necklace of large stones, a woman’s bag, and sandals,” further noting that “This attire had not kept women from throwing themselves at him.”
Ordinarily – and it is an adverb to be used around Foujita with caution – the artist alternated between elegant suiting, bohemian work clothes and Japanese robes. It was in this latter mode that he appeared in 1917 when suspicious police officers on the lookout for wartime irregularities raided his Paris regular, the Rotonde, as Franck relates:
The officers surrounded a little Japanese man dressed in a maroon robe. A chain sparkled around his neck, and his earrings gave him a strange appearance.
‘Are you a woman?’
‘A man,’ replied the Japanese person.
‘I was married once, and am soon to marry again,’ answered the Japanese fellow with a delighted smile. He gestured towards a young girl sitting a little further on and speaking with her neighbour, paying no attention to the man looking at her.
‘Love at first sight, gentlemen.’
‘Let’s have your papers.’
He handed them over. The policemen bent over to read: Fujita Tsuguharu, known as Foujita, born in 1885 in Tokyo, Japan.
‘General in the imperial army.’
‘How long have you been in France?’
‘Since 1913…But I went to London for a while.’
‘To do what?’
Foujita glanced questioningly at the young lady who still hadn’t noticed him. He returned his attention to the agents.
‘I was working for a painter. We concocted paintings together. He signed them, sold them, and didn’t pay me.’
‘So why did you stay?’
‘I had to earn a living.’
The police agents frowned.
‘I was cheated, if that’s what you want to know…’
‘We want to know everything, and in detail.’
‘This painter had an estate and a stable of horses,’ Foujita explained carefully. ‘The problem is that he knew how to paint everything except horses. I did them myself, and he did the rest, the grass, the rising or setting sun, the little country fences, the charming bucolic atmosphere. And of course the signature. One day, he went off to sell our joint work. I never saw him again.’
‘And that’s when you came to France?’
‘After having been a designer in London, for Sir Gordon Selfridge. They’re still selling the blazers there that I cut.’
The agents stared at the maroon-coloured robe. ‘Is that your work?’
‘Hand sewn…Would a little skirt in the same colour tempt one of you?’
Foujita won over the girl, Fernande Barrey, with a blue blouse of his own devising, and they were married 13 days later. The marriage – unlike Foujita’s imperturbable chic – didn’t last.