Paul Jacoulet was born in Paris, but from 1899 he was raised and educated in Tokyo. His art blends techniques and design
elements derived from traditional ukiyo-e printmaking with a unique European sensibility that sets his work apart. A Jacoulet
print could never be mistaken for the work of any other artist. He was blessed with impressive skills as a draughtsman; in
particular, his quality of line was refined and expressive. One of his highly skilled engravers, Kentarô Maeda, said
in 1987 (then ninety years old) that to carve Jacoulet's line was difficult, especially for the faces. At his best Jacoulet
attained a fluent delicacy that is surprisingly sensuous and evocative.
Jacoulet was also a superb colorist, exerting direct control over the mixing of the colors and the printing of his designs.
His prints, with many reaching technical levels unmatched in twentieth-century printmaking, were carved and printed by some of
Japan's finest master craftsmen, and Jacoulet included their names in cartouches on the margins of his prints, thus acknowledging
their significant roles. Jacoulet's most elaborate print (Les Perles Mandchuokuo, "The Pearls of Manchuria,"
published December 28, 1950) is said to have required more than 300 impressions from nearly 60 woodblocks. Technically brilliant
in its use of metallic pigments and range of colors, it also represents what some critics have claimed was a decadent tendency
in Jacoulet's art. The print was one of those Jacoulet hybrids that blended an inclination toward ukiyo-e with a cosmopolitan
sensibility to portray an exotic subject.
Nuit de Neige. Coree
Jacoulet's lyrical sense of design could be florid and eccentric, and it was that approach to composition plus his unconventional choice
and presentation of subject matter that that made it difficult for some during and after his lifetime to accept his work or recognize his
achievement. As a result, the prints of Paul Jacoulet have suffered through the vicissitudes of wavering critical judgment. Neglected and
almost relegated to obscurity by the 1960s, there was a revival of interest and a reassessment of the value of Jacoulet's work in the 1980s.
Jacoulet's vision was truly original, an exotic mixture of paradoxes: refinement and flamboyance, realism and fantasy, solitude and compassion.
All but 3 of Jacoulet's 166 prints were figure portraits. He selected unusual subjects from the South Sea Islands (Marianas, Carolines, Celebes,
Fiji, Yap, Marshall Islands), Korea, Manchuria, and Japan (Hokkaidô, Izu, Kobe, Sawara). Many of his figures were positioned in the
traditional three-quarters profile of ukiyo-e convention, but others faced the viewer directly, a confrontational approach that could be
disconcerting. He portrayed not only the beautiful but also the infirm and elderly. The common people from fast-disappearing cultures were
of special interest to Jacoulet. The artist and block cutter Kazuo Yamagishi (who carved Jacoulet's rare and most sought-after print,
Une Parisienne, in 1934) said that Jacoulet's style was so expressive that the character of the Japanese peasants in his portraits could be
understood in a single glance.
The image above is titled Nuit de Neige. Coree ("Snowy Night. Korea"), published June 3, 1939, and carved by Maeda. This
impression was printed by Shûnosuke Fujii. Here, the influence of ukiyo-e is more evident, and although a Korean subject, one can easily
imagine the scene set in a Japanese locale. There is an edition number of 326/350 on the back of the print. Jacoulet numbered his editions in
an eccentric manner, often not completing one or more editions and starting the next with numbers not used up in the first, so it is quite
difficult to be certain just how many impressions were made of a given design. The notch cut in the corner of the paper represents a registration
cut for aligning the paper during printing and should appear in the lower margins on all untrimmed Jacoulet prints. He also used decorative
artist seals. In this case it is his "boat" seal used only from 1939-40, accompanied by his elegant signature.
Le Maitre Potier. Coree
Detail: light printing
for translucent mesh
The figure immediately above illustrates how effective Jacoulet could be when approaching a subject in a simple manner without excessively
heightened visual effects. Titled Le Maitre Potier. Coree ("The Master Potter. Korea"), the print was issued on September 20, 1940.
It was carved by Maeda, and this impression was printed by Honda. Part of a small series of designs depicting Korean workers, this image is one
of the artist's most sympathetic portraits of a craftsman. The design relies on a muted palette and there are no special effects except for some
subtle embossing of the paint in the bowl at the lower left. There is a quiet restraint in Jacoulet's approach that invests this portrait with
a calm stillness, almost outside of time or place. Note the beautiful use of a light gray printing for the mesh hat.
© 1999-2020 by John Fiorillo
- Catalogue of Collections [Modern Prints]: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (Tokyo kokuritsu kindai bijutsukan shozô-hin mokuroku, 東京国立近代美術館所蔵品目録). 1993, pp. 279-280. nos. 2696-2702.
- Miles, Richard: The Prints of Paul Jacoulet. Pasadena: Pacific Asia Museum, 1982.
- Miles, Richard: Watercolors of Paul Jacoulet. Pasadena: Pacific Asia Museum, 1989.