Foujita - Superstar!

photo: entry 21 avenue du maine
The entry to Marie Vassilieff's 'cantine'
for distressed artists.

Rich and Famous in Montparnasse

Paris:- Wednesday, 13. January 1999:- I am not back in Montparnasse after last week's visit, trying to prove I'm not sick of the place - but because I got lazy a week ago.

If you read the article, it was a 'sunny, un-winter-like day in January' and I spent a good part of the afternoon idly chewing the fat with Tony in the Rue d'Odessa. If it hadn't been so warm, so sun-on-the-terraces perfect, I would have crossed the Place Raoul Dautry from the Rue du Départ to the Rue de l'Arrivée, to check out the Musée du Montparnasse.

As it is today, we had the first blizzard of the year last night and now it is ordinary January, with temperatures slightly above normal. It is not brightly sunny, but it is not darkly overcast either.

The Musée du Montparnasse opened its doors on Thursday, 28. May 1998 without me noticing at the time. It was written up twice in Le Parisien and I didn't notice it; and I didn't notice any of its other write-ups either.

A lot of people put Montparnasse down. Some rich and rude Americans got drunk here for a time in the '20's - so what? There is no 'Mont' in Montparnasse, so there's no view - so what? Maurice Utrillo didn't live in Montparnasse; it must have been an uncharming dump. It was full of Surrealists and Dadaists; who cares? They were all crazy people.

All true. Still, I don't know how I missed this museum's opening. Montparnasse was the 'centre of the world' for a while, after all.

Although operating with a tiny city grant, the Musée du Montparnasse is a non-profit operation, pulled together by local Montparnasse fans and 'friends of art.' Besides memory, these people are taking care of a huge hole in Paris' glorious past, especially its arty part.

Look at it! Twenty-one Avenue du Maine, about 30 paces from the Rue de l'Arrivée, is an alley between a studio making film posters and a gas station. It looks pretty muchphoto: entry of musee montparnasse like it looked when I arrived and stayed in a falling- down walk-up dump across the street, 23 years ago. Since then that dump has been face-lifted, but this alley hasn't.

Fugitive from devoloper's bulldozers, Marie's cantine nearly like it was.

The Gare du Montparnasse, opened in 1840, two years after Saint-Lazare; it was replaced in 1852, rebuilt again from 1925 to 1930, rebuilt again after the war; has been yet-again face-lifted almost out of recognition since the time I used to go through it daily; and just about everything else in Montparnasse has been demolished, renovated, re-built or recycled.

Since the war this has happened every 20 years, so there is not much original 20's-era Montparnasse left, except for the cemetery.

And 21. Avenue du Maine. 'Impasse,' it should be, but it is not marked on the map as such; it is not marked at all. The avenue was laid out by Auguste de Bourbon, a son of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. It was a short-cut between his townhouse in the Rue de Varenne and his fun and games weekend palace at Sceaux. He wanted to avoid going all the way over to the Port Saint-Michel, and out the Rue d'Enfer to Sceaux.

My historic 'dictionary' of streets mentions that the painter known as the 'Douanier' Rousseau lived at 44. Avenue du Maine before moving to the Rue Perrel, but has nothing to say about 21. Avenue du Maine. However, the Douanier Rousseau is known to the museum as a Montparnasse character, even if he died in 1910.

Five years before this, Marie Vassilieff, who was born in Smolensk, came to Paris. In 1907 she was enrolled at the Academy Matisse in the Boulevard des Invalides. Most of the students at the time were Scandinavians, among them Einar John and Per Krohg.

She helped to open the Académie Russe at 54. Avenue du Maine in 1910 and left it in 1912 to open her own atelier right here, in this alley; right in this place now called the Musée du Montparnasse.

Modigliani, Soutine and Zadkine came around to draw in the evenings and Fernand Léger gave two 'conferences' here - in May of 1913 and June of 1914 - explaining what 'modern art' was for the first time.

So, it is possible to say that 'modern art' was defined for the first time in Marie Vassilieff's atelier in Montparnasse, just before World War One. Yes, right here in this Musée du Montparnasse.

What many historians remember, is Marie Vassilieff's cantine. She was distressed by the sorry plight of foreign artists cut off from their pensions because of the war, so she turned her atelier into a nearly free lunch.

Dinner was 65 centimes - and it was a popular dining place during the war because wine was served - 10 centimes extra; and unlike a regular restaurant it was classed by the police as a private club and not subject to the curfew.

The walls were decorated with paintings by Chagall and Modigliani, drawings by Picasso and Léger, and there was a sculpture by Zadkine in a corner. The Scandinavians played music and Van Hoorn sang old French songs and Marie did Cossack dances while Zadkine did the Camel Tango.

In January 1917, Marie and Max Jacob organized a banquet for Braque, who had been wounded and demobilized. Modigliani was not invited but showed up anyway with a band of artists and models to pick a fight with Beatrice Hastings' new boyfriend, Alfredo Pina. Pina pulled out a gun and Marie pushed Modigliani out of the door.

Picasso and Manuel Ortiz de Zarate locked the door, but Matisse got the key back; the turkey was served and everybody drank to the health of Braque and his wife, Marcelle. Marie made a drawing of the scene of Modigliani's entry, which contains the entire events of the evening.

Tsuguharu Foujita was born in Toyko in 1886. His father was a doctor in the Imperial Army, with the rank of general. Foujita started drawing early and at the end of his studies of western painting at the Beaux-Arts of Toyko, he married Tomiko, a fellow student.

In 1913, Foujita got his father's permission and the promise of a small pension, and left for Paris. Not able to support Tomiko, they were divorced after he was in Paris.

The voyage took 45 days to reach Marseille; and on arrival in Paris Foujita rented a room in the Hotel d'Odessa. Manuelphoto: stairs to 2nd floor Ortiz de Zarate and Oscar Miestchaninoff took him to the Salon d'Automne and Foujita was flattened by the 3,000 paintings and sculptures on display.

With Kawshima, Foujita walked around Montparnasse dressed as an ancient Greek, in a dress and sandals, which was a big success with the ladies. Diego Rivera put a stop to this by painting the two of them dressed as Spartans.

The interior stairway to the museum's second floor.

One day, Ortiz de Zarate showed up at Rivera's Rue du Départ atelier and said, "If you won't go to see Picasso, he'll come to see you."

So Rivera went with Ortiz de Zarate and took along Kawshima and Foujita. Foujita was more struck with the paintings by the Douanier Rousseau at Picasso's than by Picasso's cubist works. Thus Foujita began by painting Paris views, inspired by the manner of the Douanier Rousseau.

On a snowy night in March 1917 in the Rotonde, Foujita was hit by lightning in the form of Fernande Barrey. A Parisienne, she spoke crude argot with the accent of a herring, and totally ignored Foujita's efforts to engage her in conversation.

Early the next morning, Foujita showed up at Fernande's place at 5. Rue Delambre with a blue corsage he'd made overnight; she offered him a pot of tea and they were married 13 days later.

Foujita paid for printing the bans with six francs advanced to him by a waiter in the Rotonde; for a portrait of Fernande. Foujita moved into Fernande's and installed his atelier in a stable in the courtyard. Thanks to his wife, Foujita met the dealer, Georges Chéron, and had his first exhibition that year.

After the war, the cafés of Montparnasse began showing off the painters' works - starting with the Café du Parnasse, next to the Rotonde. The art market took off, and the artists of Montparnasse profited from it - and Foujita's stock exploded at the Galeria Devambez on 25. November 1918 - "Foujita is strong! This Japanese Parisian!" said one critic.

Thus began Montpanasse's golden age. 'Le Carrefour du Montparnasse Est le Centre du Monde' was written on the back of the Café du Parnasse's second exhibition catalogue in June 1921

Lucie Badoul, a timid orphan living off an inheritance of Russian and Turkish bonds, read Apollnaire's novel 'La Femme Assise.' Electrified, she put on some makeup and gathered up her cat and set off for the Rotonde. The first evening she shared a table with some Spanish students.

The second evening, she saw Foujita with his friends. Lightning struck Lucie. Foujita didn't noticephoto: interior, photo gallery and left. Lucie drank a couple of stiff ones, then stood up in the middle of the café and asked, 'Who knows this Asian with the glasses and the fringe in front?'

A photo gallery is adjacent to the museum's entry.

A waiter, Oecomomou, who knew Foujita because he'd been a witness at Foujita's wedding, gave Lucie a cartoon he'd made of the artist. He told her to go to Foujita's but she didn't dare. Instead she gave Oecomomou her address and asked him to get Foujita to contact her.

Lucie waited in vain for a week. Finally, with the aid of some medicine students, a date was fixed for 19:00 in the Rotonde. Lightning then struck Foujita too; both were silent. Finally Lucie got up the nerve to ask, "Why didn't you write me?"

Foujita replied that Oecomomou had told him she was a crazy Russian. Foujita didn't like Russian women if they were crazy. After that they didn't stop talking, which they continued for three days while Fernande Barrey toured hospitals and the morgue looking for her husband.

By the mid-1920's the question was, where has Foujita not had an exhibition? Right Bank, Left Bank, Salon d'Automne, Berlin, London, New York and Chicago. He was everywhere.

His production habits were odd. For months he did only landscapes. Then only still lifes. Then only nudes. Followed by women with short hair only. Estimated annual production: two hundred paintings, designs, countless aquarelles, a dozen lithographs, and forty orders for portraits.

Anna de Noailles couldn't stand or sit still, so Foujita posed her in bed. She said, "You've painted my eyes too small! They are immense, like lakes!" Foujita didn't answer.

She said, "The painting must represent the poetess as she is - when I am dead, this image will be all that's left of me. Because I'm going to die some day; me!" Furious, Foujita replied, "Yes!" - and the painting was never finished.

For Lucie, who he had been renamed, Youki - Rose Snow - for her 21st birthday in 1924, Foujita gave her a big, yellow Ballot with a Basque chauffeur. The car's body was by Saoutchik and the radiator was capped with a bronze by Rodin, called 'The Man With a Broken Nose.'

The French state awarded Foujita the Legion d'Honneur in 1925 and Youki had to talk him out of wearing it to a costume ball. He bought a big house at 3. Square Montsouris, near Braque and Derain, and had a complete bar he got from Georges Simenon installed; but drank only water.

Foujita, superstar! A free summer at the Hotel Normandy at Deauville in 1927. Another 'free' summer in 1929, when he did not lose a fortune playing baccarat - but he did get a bill from the tax people for 100,000 francs, to be paid within eight days.

Foujita immediately decided to mount a big exhibition in Toyko and he and Youki left for there in mid-August. The two exhibitions in October were a big success and they returned to Paris the following February; and took care of the tax debt.

But it was over between Foujita and Youki. He disappeared from where they were staying in Saint-Tropez in 1931. She sold the house in Paris, and he had an exhibition in the United States in November. At year's end he wrote to her to say he was going to Brazil.

Meanwhile, Youki had already met Robert Desnos in the Coupole.

More or less, Foujita was a major personage in Montparnasse for 18 years. From 1913 to about 1920, if he was not exactly famous, at least he was well-known. There is hardly a photograph of any sizeable gathering from the period that Foujita is not in.

That is how it was. Foujita, like so many others, worked non-stop as an artist half of every day and for the other half worked at making life an art form. It is not recorded if he actually ever slept.

For so many of the time, it all came to a quick or slow end at the beginning of the 1930's. But the number who carried on, some for decades, give an idea of how tough they were. What is hard to imagine today, is how many of them there were in Montparnasse's heyday. It would be a bookshelf of stories.

What is even odder, is that there is so little memory here of the place where it happened. For roughly ten years in this century, Montparnasse was the centre of the modern art world. No other decade, anywhere, comes close to it.

At the new and modest museum today, I do not ask for details about Aki Kuroda, who shares the present exhibition with Foujita, because I expect them to be in my books at home. There are none. He is not in my books.

I was asked not to photographdrawing: foujita by ric the paintings so I did not tour the whole museum, and thus do not know Kuroda's work. Truth is, I don't even know much about Foujita's. I don't know if he ever went to Brazil.

He is certainly still in Paris though, and not just temporarily in this museum.

Musée du Montparnasse
21. Avenue du Maine, Paris 15. Métro: Montparnasse. 'De Foujita à Kuroda,' exhibition until Sunday, 21. February. Open Wednesday to Sunday from 13:00 to 19:00. Entry: 20 francs. Info. Tel.: 01 42 22 91 96. Starting in March: 'The Russian Painters of Montparnasse.'

From a photo of Foujita at Deauville: Erickson©1999
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