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Newly discovered masterpiece by Foujita offered at Bonhams Impressionist and Modern Art Sale
La fête d’anniversaire by Léonard Foujita. Estimate: £900,000-1,300,000. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- La fête d’anniversaire, a highly important masterpiece by the Japanese-French artist Léonard Foujita leads Bonhams Impressionist and Modern Art sale in London on Wednesday 11 October. Unseen in public since 1950, and never before offered at auction, it is estimated at £900,000-1,300,000.

The work was painted in New York in 1949. Foujita, who travelled extensively, had been living in Japan since the early 1930s working as an official war artist. He longed, however, to return to Paris where he had lived in the 1920s and where he had spent his formative years as an artist. While waiting for the issue of his French visa, he moved to New York, famously and symbolically throwing all his possessions into the Hudson river on his arrival.

La fête d’anniversaire is one in a series of works Foujita painted there in homage to the French 17th century writer, Jean de la Fontaine. His best known work – Fables – drew on Western and Eastern stories, and therefore perfectly suited Foujita’s very similar blend of influences. He was also attracted to the air of innocence and joy in the tales, later saying, “as a reaction to the violent times, I conjured the sweetest of subjects, even childish subjects.”

Depicting a birthday party, complete with cake and candles, where the family members have been replaced by various expressive animals, La fête d'anniversaire is a wonderful example of the high-style that Foujita developed upon his arrival in New York. In the background Foujita references his own work, hanging a charcoal study for one of his celebrated Nu on the wall behind the patriarchal and matriarchal figures of the dog and chicken.

Bonhams Global Director of Impressionist and Modern Art, India Phillips, “This is a wonderful painting. The extremely complex composition has been created using very fine layers of glaze, applied on a typically fine canvas reminiscent of the Japanese porcelain and lacquer that had inspired him for so long. The result is one of Foujita’s most important paintings, a strange and powerful work placed at the very moment of the artist’s rebirth, displaying perfectly the explosion of creativity and technical mastery the artist was enjoying at this time.”

It seems that Foujita held this work in great esteem, creating for it its own hand-carved frame – something he did for only a select few works. The frame includes images from the birthday party table, such as the serving spoons and bottle opener. The work was selected that year for his solo exhibition at the Mathias Komor Gallery and then travelled to Paris for his important solo exhibition at the Galerie Paul Pétrides in 1950 where it was purchased by a private French collector on the final day of the exhibition. It has remained in private hands since then, and has been hidden from view for almost 70 years.

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