Jacoulet: Canadian Writer Wrestles w Inspiration

I’m a Canadian novelist working as a technical writer (hi folks!), and I have been inspired recently to write about Franco-japanese woodblock printer Paul Jacoulet.

He had a fairly interesting life and some cool very unusual looking output.

I am considering spending a year + writing a novel inspired by him and his life and work.
He is not very well-known now and I am wondering why?

  • Is it because he was openly gay and French in 1920s/1930s Japan, so always an outsider?
  • Is it because of the misplaced snobbery against printers/illustrators (they’re not “artists” because they don’t paint freehand big oil canvases–not my idea but i think a trope sadly)?
  • Is it because he seems to be ripping off Gauguin and going to the south seas to start a reputation on the islanders’ backs (again: not my idea but an objection I have read)?

The work itself is stunning and unusual, as it sits halfway between ukiyoe and european illustration/subject matter.

I find that to my eye, his work reminds me of Herge (Tintin), Peter Max, Toulouse-Lautrec, Erte, Mucha, etc. A very divergent and interesting group!

I cannot decide if i find him a compelling enough subject to write/research, or if he is not around very much because history has weighed his contribution and found it wanting.

I am VERY interested to hear any thoughts you may have on any of the above, and thanks very much in advance!

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this here, but my minor in college was art history.

I don’t know much about Paul Jacoulet, but I agree he’s an interesting character. At least the potential is there for being interesting given that he was French but lived in Japan for most of his life, including during World War II.

As to why he’s not more well-known than he is, I think there are several reasons, but all those reasons revolve around him being something of an outlier in the art world.

So in no particular order…

He lived and worked in Japan, which limited his exposure in the West.

In Japan, he was something of a curiosity who, despite his obvious talent and mastery of woodblock printing, could never be considered Japanese by the Japanese. I might even argue that his work looked a bit foreign in that mixing traditional Japanese techniques and subject matter with his own personal Western style accentuated the impression of him being a foreigner who was imitating Japanese art rather than a true practitioner of it.

Lots of people have a misperception about what art history is. They’re confused over why some artists end up in the history books and why other very talented artists don’t. Many people will look at the works of, for example, de Kooning or Duchamp and comment that their 6-year-old could have created the same thing, which might very well be true. However, those kinds of naive judgments ignore the fact that the works of de Kooning and Duchamp had a huge influence on the subsequent course of art history. In other words, art history is not about who might have been the best, most-talented artists. It’s, instead, about those seminal artists and their works that either best represented or changed the course of art history. So applying this filter to Jacoulet, he doesn’t really survive as more than a footnote. Instead, he’s something of an oddity whose life and works, although interesting, didn’t represent a milestone or turning point in art and were more like a quirky dead end.

You mentioned Gaugin. There are stylistic and subject treatment similarities between Gaugin’s work and that of Jacoulet. And I’m certain Jacoulet was familiar with and influenced by Gaugin’s work. For that matter, Jacoulet might have been the more talented artist of the two. However, Gaugin’s work represented a major turning point in the Western art world — Jacoulet’s did not.

From the time Japan opened up (1850s) through the first years of the 20th Century, Western (European) art was embarking on the beginnings of an artistic revolution, which was, in part, influenced by the novel availability of commercial prints of Japanese woodblock art. Degas, Van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and the entire Impressionist movement was influenced by Japanese art. For that matter, that influence continued beyond Impressionism to Cubism and, even, Fauvism. From there, though, Western art moved beyond its fascination with Japanese art to Dada and surrealism to, by the time Jacoulet came along, the beginnings of Abstract Expressionism.

So just summing it up, as interesting and talented as Paul Jacoulet might have been, he existed outside the mainstream world of Western art. His most productive period was some 50 years past the time of Japanese prints being influential to avant garde Western artists. For that matter, his work is from a time associated with Japanese aggression and military defeat. The mainstream art world was just not interested in embracing a French-Japanese artist at a time when the center of Western artistic innovation was moving from Paris to New York and embracing the likes of Pollock and Rothko.

None of this, however, makes Paul Jacoulet a less interesting subject for a book. For that matter, the quirkiness of a Frenchman living in Japan and adopting a Japanese lifestyle while producing Japanese traditional art is pretty interesting. That such a talented and fascinating artist has remained largely ignored over the years is, in itself, compelling in much the same sad sense as Van Gogh never being recognized as a major artist until after his death.

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wow Just-B–
i am really moved and illuminated by the thoughtfulness and completeness of your reflections on this.
thank you!

as i started to research him, i became aware of the churn of reputation, etc., in art history and started to feel he was going to be left behind–this, as you say in your last paragraph, is why i started to feel a protective fondness towards him, and one of my hopes if this project advances is to have he and his work be better known.

he’s really around at all against all odds:
a sickly child who made it by chance, who grew up basically in exile
an impassioned printmaker and artist who almost got swallowed up by the workaday office world
his entire output was almost lost 2+ times, once in the Kanto earthquake and once in ww2
he’s the 2nd most famous Paul who went to the south seas, but some of these islands were already being industrialized by the time he got there (sugar cane, military installations, etc.)
his work threatened to be anthropological (disappearing tribes), overly romantic/exotic (all the tropical/asian worlds through western eyes, yet he always dialled it back)

it’s something about not only the artist biographically (who is wildly interesting, but about whom not a great deal exists), but the work which is in some places outright strange and wonderful and compelling. every time i manage to convince myself this is a worthy gorgeous and potential very touching project, i will see–for example–some of his woodblocks made into iPhone cases for sale. my first read is that this is depressing–but i should rather b eheartened by the fact that people love his work and want it around them.

thanks again for your insight and thoughts in this Just-B!

Yes, that’s very much the case.

The success of Western artists for the last couple of centuries — at least in terms of them ending up in the history books — has been very much dependent on those artists being in the right place and the right time and knowing the right people. Working one’s way up through the ranks has involved knowing the right influencers, getting into the right shows, being reviewed by the right critics, etc. Jocoulet, being in Japan, didn’t do any of these things.

Another problem with Western art is that it’s historically been very insular. That’s changing as the world becomes more interconnected, but up until recently, an artist working in Japan in a traditional Japanese medium had zero chance of becoming well-known or influential in Western art circles.

I remember Jocoulet being mentioned in a Japanese art history class I took, but it was in much the same way that Yoko Ono is always mentioned in American art history books — quirky outliers more famous as oddities than for their artistic achievements (although I would certainly place Jocoulet’s talents far above that of Yoko Ono’s :wink: ) .

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