LÉONARD TSUGUHARU FOUJITA (1886-1968) La fête d'anniversaire 76.5 x 101.7cm (30 1/8 x 40 1/16in); 91.6 x 116.5cm (36 1/16 x 45 7/8in) (with the artist's frame) (Painted in New York in June 1949)

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Lot 18AR
La fête d'anniversaire 76.5 x 101.7cm (30 1/8 x 40 1/16in); 91.6 x 116.5cm (36 1/16 x 45 7/8in) (with the artist's frame)

Sold for £ 7,096,250 (US$ 8,558,452) inc. premium
La fête d'anniversaire
signed, inscribed and dated 'Foujita 1949 NYC' (centre left); signed 'Tsuguharu' in Japanese and further signed, inscribed and dated 'Foujita New York June 1949 79 hours' (verso); signed and dated '1949 Foujita' (the artist's frame)
oil on canvas with the artist's frame
76.5 x 101.7cm (30 1/8 x 40 1/16in); 91.6 x 116.5cm (36 1/16 x 45 7/8in) (with the artist's frame)
Painted in New York in June 1949


  • The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by Madame Sylvie Buisson. This work will be included under no. D49.080.H in Vol. IV of the Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita catalogue raisonné, currently being prepared.

    Galerie Paul Pétrides, Paris.
    Acquired from the above by the previous owner (8 April 1950).
    Thence by descent.

    New York, Mathias Komor Gallery, Foujita, Recent Paintings and Drawings, 11 - 26 November 1949, no. 2.
    Paris, Galerie Paul Pétrides, Foujita, 24 March - 8 April 1950, no. 2.

    On March 10th, 1949, Foujita flew to New York, the first step in his return to the West before Paris, leaving Japan for good. New York would prove to be a peaceful year, an interlude of intense personal work after four years spent as the official painter to the Imperial Army of Japan, followed by another four years spent fighting accusations of being a collaborator. In short, a period so dark and disturbing that the return to the West seemed to be a jubilant rebirth of Foujita as an artist. General MacArthur, de-facto ruler of Japan during the post-war occupation, aided Foujita's departure to the States by offering him a position as chair of painting in Boston, starting a new life where he could forget the conflict and the painful aftermath he had suffered.

    'I am finally a bird that has the sky all to himself', he wrote to his friend Grosjean in a letter dated April 6th, 1949. 'You cannot imagine the trouble that I had until the last second before my departure for the United States.'

    As soon as he arrived in Central Park at the Hotel Prescot, Foujita was free once again. The taste, and very concept, of freedom were all but forgotten to him. In his tiny room, with the barest of facilities with which he was more than satisfied, he got straight to work and quickly renewed his artistic vocabulary, aiming to perfect his own technique of smoothing the grounds and delicate glazes. This technique was an ars nova, with which he went on to impress the art world of New York. His ambition intact, Foujita was now 63 years old, and yet he had retained the appearance of a young man even if his heavy brown fringe - so famous during the Roaring Twenties - had started to turn silver with age. In the end, he never arrived in Boston, the teaching post being nothing more than an excuse for the US forces to remove him from the Japanese administration.

    New York gave Foujita the artistic boost he so sorely needed. There he observed life in all its forms, absorbing both the beautiful and the avant-garde and appropriating them with frenzy. Often wearing the very American uniform of denim overalls, Foujita felt totally at ease in his new home and could memorise and recreate images of the world that surrounded him. He could sense that the nightmare of wartime Tokyo was now far behind him, and possessed by the passion to paint he recreated an image of the world he loved not just in its modernity, but also through memories and imaginary visions of the France to which he longed to return.

    Little by little Foujita began to reconnect with the fundamental freedom of spirit, expression and creativity that had first attracted him to Paris in 1913. The freedom of the French spirit, the spirit of the Enlightenment. He needed to rebuild himself before returning to France.

    During this time, he was once again greatly inspired by Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas, creating striking portraits of women such as Au Café (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris), La Belle Espagnole and La Cartomancienne that recalled the work of these masters. His other source of inspiration was the repertoire of the French fables. These tales attracted him greatly, as within these strange stories of the animal kingdom he found himself surrounded by familiar characters.

    The influence and absorption of French art and literature became the catalyst for a series of Foujita's most important works; a group of dazzling canvases, considered by Foujita to be amongst his masterpieces, of which La fête d'anniversaire is one of the most spectacular.

    The popular fables of the Middle Ages and their elaborate reimaginings by Jean La Fontaine inspired him intensely: through them, he revisited the French tradition by way of the depiction of animals that he knew and loved so much; in the current work, he explores and embodies the French spirit that he missed so acutely during the war years. And yet, he did not completely cut ties with his native Japanese culture, which continued to inform his practice until the end of his life. Indeed, the anthropomorphic animals that populate this series of works appear often throughout the myths and legends of his childhood. The prints of Utagawa Kuniyoshi demonstrate exactly this, depicting birds, cats, mice or standing dogs, dressed in kimonos, imitating men and women in domestic settings. This melding of different genres and worlds, of human and animal, East and the West, or of legend and reality, was an obsession for Foujita, whose inspiration sprung from the crossroads of these two worlds, a world of intense fascination to him.

    Foujita's work, La fête d'anniversaire, invites here both reverie and meditation. This painting is an exercise in thought; it questions both metaphysical principles and our relationship to life and living, and, without any moral point of view, leaves the beholder suspended before the beauty and the magnitude of a such a unique creation.

    The outline of the forms, made with the very tips of Foujita's fine paint brush, is at once magnificent, distinct, and unsettling, the movement swells and shimmers down to the smallest detail. As for the softly applied, cool washes of colour that enclose these fine brushstrokes, they cover the light, smooth background almost in the form of glazes with a hitherto unrivalled subtlety. Thin transparent layers, from the light to the dark, are superimposed, reflecting the light all the more intensely against the deep velvety black foreground. Foujita utilises to great effect this contrast of light and colour to reinforce the power of his subject. His technical and stylistic virtuosity, enhanced by years of intense activity in Japan, has truly reached its peak here.

    In this series of paintings Foujita also evokes the work of the great Flemish painters of the 15th century, such as Jan van Eyck,
    Frans Snyders and Rogier van der Weyden, masters of meticulous naturalism and light, lending an almost religious significance to everyday objects. But the modernity of his work lies in the transgression it introduces into the composition by modelling space according to Eastern criteria, weighting objects at a gentle curve without dismissing the vertical, horizontal and diagonal structures of a classical composition; indeed, the distinct lines and forms of the doorway and the dresser give structure to the background of the birthday party. A certain French classicism balances harmoniously with the curved forms of the Japanese floating world: in the foreground, the table dances and the various diners swirl, entangled with one another around the oval of the table. Foujita expresses himself freely in this circle of suspended movement, a synthesis of his two cultures.

    He is also the master of the trompe l'oeil. From the representation of the interior to the minute depiction of fabrics, clothing, reflections, lustre, ceramics, woodwork and metallic objects, he excels at making objects appear real, and displays this realism with finesse. However, there is in fact a rustic counterpoint to this finesse: the naïve decorations on the plates placed on the dresser are an example of this contrast. These subtleties demonstrate how his immense creativity and technical mastery culminated in such an important series of works while Foujita was living in New York. Foujita was so proud to have finished this painting in so short a time that he laconically mentioned his feat on the back of the canvas in the inscription '79 hours', a fascinating insight into this period of intense creativity.

    Only eight months passed between Foujita's arrival in New York and his first solo-exhibition. The Mathias Komor Gallery, in the heart of Manhattan, put on a show of around forty paintings and drawings to which Foujita had devoted himself day and night, from the Spring until the Autumn assisted by his devoted Japanese wife, Kimiyo. Amongst these works he exhibited, La fête d'anniversaire is one of the masterpieces. Upon opening the New York Times hailed Foujita's return and declared the exhibition 'one of the brightest of the year.' The show was an unmitigated success, and was the talk of New York City. 'No living artist can depict cats in action whilst capturing such variety of expression,' reads the New York paper.

    Foujita wrote: 'It's amazing the effect that my exhibition has had. I have heard from so many people that I knew from Paris or South America, from Mexico City in particular... Today I have a newspaper article dedicated to me, three columns with a photo, in the New York Times; the New Yorker will be next on Thursday. Life has become beautiful again.'

    The New York Times, just like the many visitors to the exhibition, was fascinated by the staging, representations, colours, expressions and anatomy of the animals, presented like lords and courtesans. The visitors were captivated by this room filled with foxes and greedy pigs, receiving a wolf, a monkey, a dog, cats, hens and turtledoves, by this Rabelaisian party table, an art collector among them pinning on the wall a charcoal drawing of a long and lascivious sleeping nude, signed 'Foujita'.

    The abundance of detail, whilst maintaining a sense of harmony throughout the composition, captivated viewers in a way that Foujita had seldom achieved before this series of works. The characters of La fête d'anniversaire, lively and iconic, are timeless. Hailing from a repertoire originating in the 17th century, revisited in the 20th, they personify the French inspiration utilised by a Japanese artist working in New York. The precision of line and the curvaceous composition bring together the great tradition of Asian painting with a profound collective and popular Western subconscious.

    To enshrine this cherished work - crowning it almost - Foujita created an elaborate frame in wood that he sculpted and decorated with gold leaf. On occasion Foujita turned his hand to sculpture in this manner, framing his best paintings. There are perhaps more examples of this from the Komor Gallery group than one would normally expect, perhaps hinting at how pleased he was with this group of works. Unusual, sober and striking, the frame highlights the work magnificently and creates a dialogue between the two facets, the sophistication of the painting and the raw, power of the frame on which Foujita displays the kitchen implements – cutlery, glass, cup, nutcracker, bottle, corkscrew. These everyday implements are exaggerated and trivial, forming a naïve decoration surrounding the canvas.

    In this painting, which embodies at once the French spirit of the Enlightenment and the Japanese tradition, Foujita again demonstrates the unique nature of his work as a synthesis of East and West. Fusing and melding these two cultures in his work. In completing La fête d'anniversaire he imbues his art with a particular new dimension, that of a timeless aesthetic and a moving mastery of technique.

    Text by Sylvie Buisson, Specialist on the works of Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita and member of the Union française des experts.
LÉONARD TSUGUHARU FOUJITA (1886-1968) La fête d'anniversaire 76.5 x 101.7cm (30 1/8 x 40 1/16in); 91.6 x 116.5cm (36 1/16 x 45 7/8in) (with the artist's frame) (Painted in New York in June 1949)
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