Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Micronesia with a Twist: The Prints of Paul Jacoulet

In my endless searches for unique and fabulous printmakers, I found a person I think everyone will appreciate. In the outter reaches of the South Pacific Ocean there was an artist of French origin who lived in Japan most of his life, and he travelled to little-known islands in Micronesia, Melanesia, Indonesia and Asia. Paul Jacoulet's art is a blend of East meets West, where two great artistic cultures of Japan and France collide.   His woodcuts are widely collected and represents the the pinnacle peak in technical accomplishment. 

Jacoulet, 1896-1960, was born in Paris, and was raised in Japan from the age of six when his family moved to Tokyo. At this time, Japan was still ruled by the Emperor and the Imperial Court.  Growing up in an elite Tokyo neighborhood, he attended fine Japanese private schools, becoming fluent in Japanese, French and English. His father, Frederic, was a university professor (ambassador) hired by the Japanese government to teach French to young aristocrats. Because of his father's privilege, Jacoulet traveled a lot. His mother supported his artistic activities and  because she believed that if French Polynesia was good enough for Paul Gauguin, then her son could do the same. She sent him away from Japan several times to islands in Micronesia, Indonesia, and the Philippines to observe their indigenous culture. 

A true renaissance man, Jacoulet was also an expert in Kabuki, proficient on traditional Japanese musical instruments, a good calligrapher,  and a recognized butterfly collector. He  studied a wide range of traditional Japanese arts. In a unique twist of fate, he was the next door neighbor of Ukiyoe authority Yone Noguchi; he was taught English by Noguchi's American wife, Leonie Gilmour, and befriended their son, the young Isamu Noguchi 

Jacoulet took a short-term position as an interpreter working for Tokyo's French Embassy in 1920. In 1929, he took his first trip to the South Seas and made sketches and took photographs of his travels, and two years later he worked with Shizuya Fujikake learning the craft of woodblock printmaking. In 1933, he established the Jacoulet Institute of Prints publishing his first woodblock print in 1934. He used special watermarked papers from Kyoto  instead of the normal Japanese washi paper. He made over 160 woodblock prints and oversaw their production, and once bragged to have used as many as 300 blocks for one print, (although one of his assistants thought that number was probably closer to 60.) All but one of his prints were self-published. Jacoulet's sense of color and delicacy is impressive. For people unfamillar to South Pacific cultures, his descriptions of the exoticism, peacefulness and gentle reverence for Nature is accurate. Very few artists have explored this region of the world, and there is much still to discover.

During World War II, he moved to Karuizawa, where he survived in the countryside by growing vegetables and raising poultry. During the occupation, at the request of General Douglas MacArthur, he was recruited by Commandant Charles McDowell to work at the Tokyo Army College. He stayed in Japan until his death in 1960, although he saw a sharp decline in sales of his art. Curiously, he did manage to sell his prints through subscription to US military personnel and retired military.

Generally regarded as one of the few western artists to have mastered the art of woodblock printing sufficiently to be recognized in Japan, Jacoulet’s works are almost all of people, either portraits or full body images capturing some background details. Best known for his portraits of the natives of Asia and the South Seas, he also made a substantial number of prints with subjects from China, Korea, all areas of Japan, and Mongolia. Surprisingly, only one print depicts an American subject. 

He followed in the collaborative tradition of ukiyo-e printmaking, recruiting the most talented carvers and printers who could duplicate the delicate lines of his drawings and watercolors. Unlike many other shin hanga publishers, he gave credit to his carvers and printers by including their names in the margins of his prints. He was also known for having extremely high standards for both carving and printing and would discard any prints whose impression was not perfect. He spared no expense in using the best quality materials, papers and pigments, including silver and gold, mica and other precious elements. Thus, his prints have a unique beauty and have survived the passage of time much better than many woodblock prints due to the quality of materials used.  

Jacoulet's works also interest anthropologists because his subject matter was mostly of indigenous people in their traditional dress. Today his work is often used as a basis for reconstructing indigenous groups to their ancestral roots.  His infatuation with South Pacific islands, Manchuria and Korea turned out favorably as Jacoulet was the only chronicler of small villages, and even whole islands, which have virtually disappeared.  Art historian Richard Miles believes Paul Jacoulet considered his works “serious attempts to depict a world that was not ‘floating’ in the widely accepted sense of transitory pleasure, but an actually dying world of rather sad, imperfect people, observed with merciless clarity.” 

On a side note…Jacoulet’s flamboyant homosexuality was reflected in his work.  As a sign of how times have changed, Jacoulet was once barred from entering the US due to his “undesirability” as a gay person. Undeterred, he dressed up in a white suit with a silver headed cane and walked into the US at Niagara Falls.

the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena (1983 and 1990)
the Yokohama Art Museum (1996 and 2003)
the Riccar Museum in Tokyo (1982)
the Isla Center for the Arts on Guam (1992 and 2006)
US Fifth Air Force sponsored an exhibit (1946)

Collectors: General MacArthur, Queen Elizabeth II, Greta Garbo, Pope Pius X1, President Truman, the British Museum and the Asia Pacific Museum. As a self-promoter, Jacoulet was without shame. He often sent prints to famous people to gain their attention and thus raise up his reputation. In fact, Mrs. Douglas MaArthur received an annual Christmas gift and his work hung in the General’s headquarters in Tokyo, and later at the Waldorf-Astoria

Note to all you wannabe collectors….many of Jacoulet’s prints are very rare because all of his work prior to WWII was destroyed by fire, except for what collectors took out of Japan.

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