The two most famous exponents of the art of the Japanese woodblock print in [the 20th] century are not Japanese. Clifton Karhu, whose views of Kyoto’s traditional architecture can be seen on the walls of European galleries and American museums, was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1927. Paul Jacoulet, creator of a gold and platinum Asia that existed mostly in the artist’s fantasy-filled imagination, came to Japan at an early age from France.At first glance, other than being foreign woodblock print artists, these two men would seem to have little in common. Karhu carves his own blocks and adheres to the relatively new Sosaku Hanga (Creative Print) school. Jacoulet, on the other hand, adopted the style of the Shin Hanga (New Print) movement, whose members followed in the footsteps of such ukiyo-e (floating world picture) masters as Utamaro and Hiroshige, who designed and directed the production of their prints, leaving the carving of blocks and pulling of paper to master craftsmen.
For me, Jacoulet the Liar is the more interesting, for the following reason.
Jacoulet earned himself a place in history not just as an artist but as a source of information on Micronesia under Japanese rule. He was one of very few foreigners trusted enough by Japanese officials to be allowed to travel through a vast area of mandated territory in the Western Pacific which the Japanese military was fortifying illegally in preparation for war. Jacoulet’s disdain for the real world of political and economic forces seems to have been well known. As Yun Hwa Rah put it, “The sensei [master] made a point of not reading any newspapers. He said they were full of lies.” In contrast to his postwar prints, which are almost entirely the product of fantasy, his pre-World War II work is grounded in real experiences. In his 1928 watercolor, Talaos Boy, Jacoulet meticulously records his young fisherman subject’s sunken chest and distended belly, signs that life in the South Seas fell far short of the paradise depicted by Gaugin and other European painters.
These quotes are from an article by Andrew Horvat entitled Karhu and Jacoulet: Western Artists Working in an Eastern Medium, a revised version of an article that appeared in the 40th anniversary issue (October-December 1994) of The Japan Quarterly, published by Asahi Shimbun. Jacoulet’s depictions of Yapese will illustrate his blend of accuracy, especially in props, and fantasy, especially in colors and faces.
- Belle de Yap et orchidees, Ouest Carolines (1934) accurately depicts a traditional woman’s hairdo, tattoos, betelnut-stained lips, grass skirt, and neckcord indicating a woman who has passed puberty, but goes a bit overboard on the decorative cloth strips.
- Un homme de Yap, Ouest Carolines (1935) accurately depicts a traditional Yapese man’s hairdo, three-pronged comb (or pick), pierced and distended earlobe, betelnut-stained lips, and starfruit hanging in the background, but goes overboard in the necklace decorations.
- Femme tatouee de Falalap, Ouest Carolines (1935) accurately depicts tattoos, shells, Ulithian lavalava patterns, and even windswept hair, but the face is right off the kabuki stage.
- Fleurs violettes, Tomil, Yap (1937) accurately depicts a woman’s hairdo, neckcord, betelnut-stained lips and teeth, and hanging flowers. (This is my personal favorite. Tomil is where I first learned to chew betel nut.)
- Sur le sable, Rhull, Yap (1937) accurately depicts a married woman’s sitting posture, neckcord, and possibly even bracelet, but makes the woven frond basket look too much like canvas, and the grass skirt look too much like vinyl.
- Yagourouh et Mio, Yap, Ouest Carolines (1938) accurately depicts the grass skits, lack of neckcord, and perhaps unruly hair of two pubescent girls, but makes the faces look too much like the Japanese moga (‘modern girl’)
- Le betel, Yap (1940) accurately depicts a man’s loincloth, decorative comb, leaf armband, bamboo betel lime dispenser, and pepper betel leaf, but makes the hair look too much like a Japanese moga.
After the war Jacoulet progressively loses touch with reality. It’s not just that memories of Micronesia fade, because certain aspects remain remarkably accurate.
- La jeune chef Saragan et son esclave Forum, Tomil, Yap (1948) accurately recognizes the caste system of Yap, but fakes the colors and the decorative carvings.
- La tresseuse de paniers, Remoue, Yap (1948) fairly accurately depicts a woman weaving basketlike objects, but fakes both the color and the weave, so she looks like she’s weaving giant peapods.
- Le fille du chef, Mogomog [Ulithi] (1953) is almost as much pure fantasy as his mermaid (1951).