Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita - 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Thursday, December 3, 2020 | Phillips

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  • "I set out to create a type of canvas that could evoke the texture of soft, supple skin … I am the very first artist who was able to realise the nature of human skin..." — Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita

    In the early 20th century, Paris served as the unrivaled centre of arts and culture. The city's artistic and cultural prosperity drew artists from all over the world, including Pablo Picasso from Spain, Amedeo Modigliani from Italy, and Marc Chagall from Russia, eventually forming the "École de Paris” (the School of Paris) as a collective. Among these artists, carrying an enigmatic vibe from the East, was Japan-born painter Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita who was to become the most renowned Asian artist of the era.


    Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918. Collection of Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

    Long before setting foot in Paris, Foujita laid the foundation for his Western painting skills in Kuroda Seiki’s classroom at the Tokyo Fine Arts School. As Western culture gradually influenced the East, from the Meiji Restoration to the Showa period, forays into Western-style painting blossomed in Japan. The conflict between traditional Japanese art and Western art sparked several waves of artistic movements. 


    In addition to the delicate, meandering lines derived from traditional Japanese painting and the Oriental principle of preserving empty compositional space, Foujita deployed the sfumato technique in ukiyo-e to create subtle light and shadows, lending a soft gracefulness and three-dimensional structure to the human skin. His unique artistic style contributed to the huge success of his exhibition, despite having just arrived in Paris. His works garnered high praises, winning even the admiration of Picasso, who bought as many paintings by Foujita as he could.


    Kitagawa Utamaro, Azumaya no Hana, ca, 1790, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

    Painted in 1925, the subject of Portrait de Kiki was known as the “Queen of Montparnasse”. One of the most sought-after models and muse of the “École de Paris” artists, Kiki de Montparnasse was considered a symbol of that era. In Foujita’s painting, Kiki’s porcelain, milky-white skin was created from a mixture of linseed oil, crushed chalk, lead white and talc. Foujita even invented a pure white glaze by grinding oyster shells into powder, which he called the “grand fond blanc” (the ultimate white). The creamy texture of skin conveyed warmth like jade, emanating a shimmering halo in Foujita’s painting. Perfectly plump, the soft Western female figure nonetheless reveals a uniquely Eastern allure.


    Foujita and Kiki de Montparnasse, Paris, 1926

    In the Book of Songs, the poem “Shuo Ren” described “hands soft as spring sprouts of cogon grass, with creamy white skin”. Hands have been an important symbol of feminine beauty for years. Resting together gently on the back of a chair, the hands of Kiki are outlined with thin black lines. The clear eyes gazing directly at the viewer betray no trace of fear, instead revealing a strong sense of confidence tempered with womanly tenderness. Foujita once said, “I never look at men, only at women – they have, each one such marvellous possibilities of beauty.” i Kiki was perhaps the most well-known female subject to feature in Foujita’s works, allowing us to capture a delicate glimpse of that golden era nearly a century later. Representing Eastern aesthetics in the romantic atmosphere of Paris, under dim lights after an extravagant and boisterous party at midnight Foujita stripped away noisy and exaggerated exterior adornments to return to the original colours of an artist, allowing only a sense of gentle tranquility to remain on the canvas.


    i Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita, quoted in interview with Milwaukee Journal, 1935.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection (acquired circa 1975)
      Sotheby's, London, 23 June 2010, lot 362
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Tokyo, Galerie Sun Motoyama, Chefs-d'oeuvre de la peinture moderne française, 5 - 16 June 1972

    • Literature

      Sylvie and Dominique Buisson, Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita: Volume 1, Paris, 1987, no. 26.40, p. 384 (illustrated) (incorrectly dated 1926)
      Sylvie and Dominique Buisson, Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita: Volume 2, Paris, 2001, no. 26.135, p. 226 (illustrated)


Portrait de Kiki

signed and dated 'Tsuguharu [in Kanji] Foujita 1925' centre right
oil on canvas
32.5 x 23.7 cm. (12 3/4 x 9 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1925, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Sylvie Buisson.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for HK$1,512,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Associate Specialist, Head of Day Sale

20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 4 December 2020