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Noël Nouët (ノエル・ヌエット Noeru Nuetto)


Noël Nouët (1885-1969, ノエル・ヌエット Noeru Nuetto) was born Frédéric Anges Nouët in Locmine, Brittany. His interest in Japanese prints began early in life when his mother inherited woodcuts by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川廣重 1797-1858) from the Duchesne de Bellecourt, the first French accredited diplomat in Japan. However, he was an unusual figure in the history of twentieth-century printmaking in Japan, as he was primarily a poet and writer. From the age of twelve, Nouët had dreamed of becoming a poet and, at Lycée Saint-Grégoire in Pithiviers, he regularly composed verses. After high school, he continued his literary studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. By 1910, he was living in Montmartre, working at the publishing house Renaissance du Livre, and composing a poem a day, some of which appeared in the revue L'hermitage under his newly-adopted pen name "Noël Nouët." His first collection of poems was published that year under the title Les Étoiles entre les feuilles (The Stars between the Leaves), for which he won the inaugural Prix de littérature spiritualiste. Two more poetry collections followed in 1912 and 1913.

Noel Nouet 1936 Akasaka Mitsuke
Noël Nouët (Nuetto saku, "Work by Nouët," ヌエット作)
Akasaka Mitsuke (Akasaka Pond: 赤坂見附), 1936
Series: Tokyo fûkei zen nijûyo mai (Scenes of Tokyo, twenty-four views: 東京風景[...] 二十四枚)
Publisher: Hanmoto Doi (版元土井); Carver: Ikeda (⼑池田); Printer: suri Yokoi (摺横井)
Woodblock print, large ôban (398 x 265 mm)

After the First World War, Nouët frequented Parisian literary salons where he befriended French and Japanese artists, writers, and poets. Relocating to Japan in January 1926, he began a three-year position as a French teacher at Shizuoka High School near Mount Fuji. Returning to France in March 1929, he resumed his poetry career, supporting himself by teaching French to Japanese living in Paris. In 1930, Nouët's fourth collection of poems was published, many of which describe the Japanese landscape. That same year, the Japanese ambassador in Paris offered him a three-year renewable position as a professor of French at the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages (later the National University of Foreign Languages) in Hitotsubashi. In 1947, the French government awarded him the Légion d'honneur, its highest national order of merit for military and civil service.

While in Tokyo during the 1930s, Nouët made pen-and-ink sketches of the city's sights, including Kanda and Ginza. In 1934, the Japan Times and Mail published a collection of fifty such sketches in a bilingual book entitled Tokyo As Seen By A Foreigner (Vue par un étranger). A second volume of an additional fifty sketches was published the following year, and in 1937, a third collection entitled Tokyo: Old City, Modern Capital, Fifty Sketches (Tokyo: Ville Ancienne Capitale Moderne Cinquante Croquis) was published by La Maison Franco-Japonaise. Other publications followed, including Tokyo (東京) in 1946 documenting the post-war ruin of the city. In 1951, he taught French for a year to the future Emperor Akihito.

Noel Nouet 1936 Shinobazu-ike drawing Noel Nouet 1936 Shinobazu-ike print
Noël Nouët: Shinobazu Pond (不忍池), c. 1936
Ink drawing
Noël Nouët: Shinobazu Ike (不忍池), 1936
Series: Tokyo fûkei zen nijûyo mai 
Woodblock print, large ôban (400 X 265 cm)
Published by Doi Eiichi (土井英一)

The first exhibition of Nouët's works took place in December 1950 at the Mannendo Gallery in Ginza. It received favorable notices, including one from his friend, the novelist Nagai Kafû (永井荷風 1879-1959, pseudonym for Nagai Sôkichi 永井壮吉). In 1936, one of Nouët's former foreign-language students, the son of the Tokyo woodblock print publisher Doi Sadaichi (土井貞一) and older brother to Sadaichi's successor, Doi Eiichi (土井英一), offered to have his family turn one of Nouët's ink sketches into a woodblock print, a rather challenging project given the fine lines in the originals made by a fountain pen. Their success prompted Doi Sadaichi to publish in 1937 a series of full color prints designed by Nouët called Tokyo fûkei zen nijûyo mai (Scenes of Tokyo, twenty-four views: 東京風景[...] 二十四枚). Over the years, certain critics have suggested that given the Western-style linear (non-brushed) quality of Nouët's sketches, relief-etched zinc plates (mounted to woodblocks) must have been used for the keyblocks to capture the quality of the thin lines. However, the contemporary block carver and printer David Bull confirmed in 2017 that the present-day Doi Hangaten inventory of original blocks for Nouët's prints confirms that the designs were made entirely from solid cherry wood and that no metal plates were involved. Actually, this should not be surprising, as Japanese carvers were fully capable of cutting the thinnest lines for a person's hair, so why not the "etched" lines needed to reproduce pen-and-ink drawings?

One example from Tokyo fûkei zen nijûyo mai is shown at the top of this page. Akasaka Mitsuke (赤坂見附) in today's Minato Ward (港区), Tokyo, depicts a section of what was once a gate and moat at the outer wall of Edo Castle ("mitsuke" 見附 means "approach to the castle gate" or "guard post"). Remnants of the the wall and moat can still be seen today. During the Edo Period, the area immediately outside the Akasaka Gate was occupied by low-ranking samurai retainers, warriors, and servants. As Tokyo modernized during the Meiji Restoration and government buildings were established in nearby Nagatachô (永田町 formerly inside the old castle walls), the area, by the 1930s, became a pleasure quarter, with numerous geisha houses in the Tameike-sanno (溜池山王) area and restaurants and bars closer to Akasaka-mitsuke subway station, which opened in 1938, just two years after Nouët designed his print. A nearby river had had been fashioned into a moat around Edo Castle, with some of it channeled into a pond used as a reservoir in present-day Tameike-sanno, "tameike" 溜池 meaning "dammed pond"). Nouët's view of this area from 1936 is bucolic, verdant, and evocative of a rainy spring day near the riverbank.

Another of the many designs by Nouët from 1936 is shown immediately above. Shinobazu Ike (Shinobazu Pond: (不忍池) is located within Ueno Park, Tokyo. The site has been the subject of various fûkeiga (landscapes: 風景画), including designs in Utagawa Hiroshige's Koto meisho (Famous places in Edo: 江都名所) circa 1832-34; Tôto meisho (Famous places in the eastern capital: 東都名所) circa 1840; and Ueno Kiyomizudô Shinobazu no ike (Kiyomizu Hall and Shinobazu Pond at Ueno: 上野清水堂不忍ノ池) in Meisho Edo hyakkei (100 famous views of Edo: 名所江戸百景) in 1856. Nouët's woodcut for Shinobazu Pond was adapted from a pen and ink drawing done in 1936 (see image above left; reproduced in Tokyo: Old City, Modern Capital, Fifty Sketches (1937). In this instance, the overall linearity of the drawing was attenuated in the final woodcut, with the exception of numerous vertical lines in the shadowy water below the houses.

Noël Nouët: Nihonbashi (日本橋), c. 1936
Ink drawing
Noël Nouët: Nihonbashi (日本橋), 1936
Series: Tokyo fûkei zen nijûyo mai 
Woodblock print, large ôban (400 X 265 cm)
Published by Doi Eiichi (土井英一)

One of the most famous of the many bridges in Edo (now Tokyo) was the Nihonbashi ("Japan Bridge": 日本橋), the starting point of the celebrated Tôkaidô highway and a bridge often depicted in ukiyo-e prints. The pronunciation was "Nihinbashi" in Edo and "Nipponbashi" in Osaka. The first wooden bridge was completed in 1603. The current bridge, designed by Tsumaki Yorinaka (妻木頼黄 1859-1916) and constructed of stone on a steel frame, dates from 1911. Although much of Nihonbashi district was destroyed by the Great Kantô Earthquake of 1923, this modern bridge survived. The published print (see above right) is close to Nouët's sketch (see above left), although there was an obvious change in the position of the skiff and posture of the figure poling the small boat.

In 1962, Nouët decided to leave Japan after spending nearly thirty-five years of his life there. During his lifetime, Nouët received awards and recognition for his contributions to art, literature, and society. In 1947, the French government awarded him the Légion d'honneur, its highest national order of merit for military and civil service. In 1956, the Japanese government decorated Nouët with the Zuihosho Medal, the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Fourth Class, for his contribution in the field of education and his efforts to introduce Japan history and culture abroad. In 1965, the city of Tokyo bestowed upon him the rare honorific title of "Citizen of Tokyo." © 2021 by John Fiorillo


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