For less than the cost of a Gauguin…

Jacques Boullaire, wood engraver, etcher and illustrator

Vintage and original wood engraving, by Jacques Boullaire, 1940’s, ” Vahinés ”

Size: 3″½ x 3″½

At last, an engraver, after all these colorists! An artist needed a considerable nerve, self-confidence and had to feel a strong attachment towards Tahiti in order to dare to try to render by the sole virtuosity of an engraving tool on a brass plate what many others tried to do before him using a palette containing all the colors of the rainbow, mixed and combined in every conceivable manner. Jacques Boullaire had this nerve as well as a love for and mastery of such a difficult profession.

He had been a sergeant in the Air Force during the First World War and once he had put his decorations away in the bottom of a drawer, he had let himself be drawn into the advertising department of a large French car company. He soon tired of catalogues and posters, and went into original engraving: woodcarving, lithography, graving tool and etching needle work. He had well-established contacts with the “Crapouillot”. He seemed to be cut out for illustration work. He started in 1928 by illustrating “Frederic and Bergerette”, a charming tale by Alfred de Musset. In the following years, he worked on two very fine books : “Cesar Birotteau” and “Mrs Bovary” which came out at Mornay’s. This was the beginning of his career!

He was drawn to the Pacific Islands as a result of his marriage to Anne Hervé, a Breton, the daughter of a French resident in the Tuamotu Islands, raised in the rough and austere solitude of a Polynesian atoll where she, too, delighted in drawing and painting.

Jacques Boullaire then traveled in the Pacific Ocean and around Polynesia; he was both curious and marveled by the sights, his approaches were methodical. His profession as an illustrator had already put him in a position as an observer of different particular or characteristic things. With a meticulous and endless passion, he took down rapid graphic notes, sketches or more detailed drawings. In a matter of a few seconds, using his pencil in a confident manner and raising his glasses above his forehead so as to see an entire scene much better, he would grasp an air or an appearance, a facial expression or a movement, or even a typically Tahitian way of being : furtive movements or more stable postures. There is a Tahitian Way of saying “goodbye” or “yes”, to call or to fear.Book

The “vahine” were soon no longer a secret to him. Their gait and posture, their corporal attitudes, the hair they are so proud of : he has observed all this including their arms tucked behind their backs as if “broken”, their robust body and their feet “gripping” the ground thus giving them a stable position which is heavily accentuated by the solidness of their lower limbs. He especially details their faces, with crowns of flowers or shadowed by blue-black manes and spectacular headdresses, whose mysteries he is perpetually trying to discover. He also studies candid faces which have already taken on an expression of worried seriousness and false melancholy; the faces of young girls, cheerful dancing companions and expert revelers whose eyes are sometimes blank or filled with a strange sort of emptiness, more balanced and mature faces of married “matrons”, rather plump due to several pregnancies; old women’s faces which are long and thin with deep wrinkles engraved by the hand of time.

Nothing escapes his investigations and quests. He has depicted in every type of light the large mounds of the Windward Islands of the Society Group and the horizon on the sea of the low lying islands, including all types of landscapes. His sketch-books sometimes turn into herbariums ,flowers, fruit or foliage, where he notes down with great precision similar to that of a botanist, his observations, occasionally matching on the same page, the massive and outlined leaf of a bread fruit tree and a sketch a large tree-bracken. Any centipede going past would also appear in a documentary small sketch.

At the end of his first stay, he exhibited a few drawings. He also carved two or three things on wood. I have heard him say that the woodcarving entitled “Eia taoe manao” which is in the catalogue of his works had been carved on miro, a local type of rosewood and was drawn by the printer juventin.

Under fairly similar conditions, Boullaire spent three years in the Pacific Ocean, after the war. “I have not been disappointed. Papeete has hardly changed. In spite of what people may say, the small town has remained one of the most charming places in the world. Tahiti’s flora, its hills, its red earth and its lagoons have nothing to equal them. Tiares, hibiscuses, frangipani and flowered buraos smile to those who return and are not the least bit surprised by their faithfulness. Nightmarish Europe is far from our mind.

He modestly added: “I get the impression that I did not seen many of the amazing things in this strange land known as Polynesia in 1937 – or that several things escaped my notice when first stayed there. In order to understand these impressions, you have to see, smell and breathe in deeply and many times the essence of nature there.”

Once he had gathered this gigantic oceanic harvest and had carefully put it away in a certain order, in stacks of portfolios put away in his studio, Avenue Foch, Boullaire published prints and books to Tahiti’s glory.

When this work was being carried out, Boullaire “re-lived” his Oceania, when in front of these drawings and sketches. He once admitted to me “When I see these cursory notes, I can visualize the landscapes and the places. I remember what the weather was like and what type of light there was. The noises of the surroundings, the scents and the wind come back to mind. My drawings enable me to rebuild my frame of mind and to bring to the fore my impressions as an artist. It is like magic, I feel as if I am there. Nature and the people are present. And I work as if by nature”.

This confession helps us to understand why these prints seem so evocative. They combine two usually incompatible qualities, what is finished and what has been taken. They bring us both the spontaneous gushing of what has been lived and the long meditated trait of what has been chosen. They contain both the serenity and the rigor of compositions realized in studios and the freshness, the direct and spontaneous aspect of sketches.

One of the advantages of engraving over painting is that you can afford, without going mad, to hang an original Boullaire in your house  reproduction. Long lives engraving!

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