Fifty years ago, while French youth were simmering with anger and dreaming big, one of the greatest artists of Montparnasse discreetly passed away. The painter, who died as a French Catholic named Léonard Foujita, had been born 81 years earlier as Tsuguharu Foujita, the son of a general in Japan’s imperial army.

This year, celebrations marking the anniversary of his death, organised in Paris, Reims, Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, hope to bring him back from obscurity. For Foujita was one of the most successful artists of the 1920s, worshipped by the critics and art lovers who paid a fortune for his drawings, watercolours and oil paintings. As Paris’s shining art star, he was more successful than Picasso and more acclaimed than Matisse. Now he is the subject of a major exhibition at the Maillol Museum which focuses on the artist’s most prolific period, between 1913 and 1931.

Brought up in a family open to western culture, Foujita was given French lessons from an early age. After studying western art at Tokyo’s fine arts school, he completed his training with a trip to Paris. Arriving on 6 August 1913, he knew immediately that he wouldn’t be returning home any time soon. That day, the Chilean painter Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, intrigued by Foujita’s distinctive and elegant look, introduced himself and the two became friends.

The following day, Zárate took him to Picasso’s studio. There, in front of Picasso’s paintings and his collection of Le Douanier, Henri Rousseau, Foujita felt electrified. Read more