Jacoulet, Paul – French Artist – Japanese Style

Edme Marie Eduard Paul Jacoulet (1902*-1960)

Born on January 23, 1902* in Paris to a French family who moved to Japan in 1906 where Jacoulet pere taught French at the Imperial University. Paul was a self-taught artist, and, in 1929, went on a long trip to the islands of the South Pacific. Jacoulet made many sketches and photographs of local natives, dressed and posed elegantly. It was this work that he first translated into woodblock prints. He felt the contrasts between the aristocracy and ordinary people could take traditional Japanese art into the 20th century.

Over the course of his life Jacoulet was able to claim many “firsts”. “He was the first foreigner to become a master of the ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world of pleasure) art, being worthy to rank with the Japanese masters. He was the first ukiyo-e artist to use more than fifty blocks for a print; he frequently used from 200 to 300. He was the first artist to record the vanishing nobility of Mongolia. He was the first print artist to extend the application of ukiyo-e beyond the borders of Japan, for he also recorded the “floating world” of the South Seas and mainland Asia. In true ukiyo-e fashion, Jacoulet portrayed vanishing customs almost as if he foresaw that these modes of living would float away.”

Jacoulet further broke from tradition by publishing his own work to ensure its high quality. “(His) prints were not on sale in shops. He evolved a system of obtaining monthly subscribers who received a copy of the ‘print of the month’. (These were) published in series, each distinguished by a seal of his design which incorporated the stylized Japanese characters for his name in a design of some conventional object.” In subsequent decades Jacoulet produced 166 completed woodblock prints, including as subjects South Sea Islanders, Mongolians, Manchurians, Koreans, Ainu, and Japanese.

As an artist, Jacoulet’s technique was exceptional. “From his many years of training in calligraphy, (he) acquired a subtle feeling for brush stroke and the nuances of meaning given to different thicknesses’ of the ‘living line’. He transfered his skill with a brush into skill with a pencil, and thus became the only artist to attempt and to master the ability to draw the ‘living line’ with this instrument. This makes his prints unique. No Japanese brush artist can produce this original touch; nor can a western artist, lacking years of calligraphic training.” In addition, few other artists used so many precious metals or innovative techniques (embossing, colored micas, waxes, lacquers, powdered semi-precious stones) in their artistic works. Using special watermarked paper, each of Jacoulet’s prints was the result of as many as 300 pressings.

As World War II loomed on the horizon, Jacoulet’s living circumstances became difficult as a foreigner in an economically depressed Japan preparing for war. Artistic materials became scarce, his foreign clientele returned home and he himself spent the war years in the Japanese rural resort of Karuizawa raising vegetables and chickens and selling them on the black market.

Following the war art materials were still scarce, making it impossible to reprint his earlier works in any quantity, so Jacoulet began to design directly for the key block. Plagued by continuing ill health from birth, Jacoulet’s work consumed all his energy as he also tested new pigments and dealt with his increasing popularity. In his mid-fifties Jacoulet’s health seriously deteriorated and, on March 9, 1960, he died of diabetic shock at the age of fifty-eight.

In his lifetime, Jacoulet produced some thirty thousand woodblock prints and several hundred watercolors, most of which were lost.

p4A.com acknowledges the scholarship of Eldred’s cataloger Susan M. Craig-Schofield, whose coments are quoted in this note.

* there is substantial evidence that Jacoulet was actually born in 1896 and fabricated the later date to avoid being drafted into the French Army.

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