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Clifton Karhu has been one of the most successful (and most expensive) Japanese printmakers during the second half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Japanese printmaker? Not really. He was an American from Duluth, Minnesota. What made his woodblock prints so successful?
First Publication: July 2009
Latest Update: April 2013
Clifton Karhu first came to Japan as a soldier of the American Forces. When he returned to Japan for the second time, he came as a missionary of the Lutheran Church but soon stopped selling Bibles and returned to fine arts, his original roots in the U.S.A. where he had graduated in 1952 from the Minneapolis School of Art.
After some tough beginnings he finally became successful as a woodblock printmaker. He settled in Kyoto where he spent most of his life and where he passed away in 2007 of cancer.
What made Karhu's woodblock prints so successful? Some say that he beat the Japanese in their own field because he was more Japanese than the Japanese themselves.
I don't think that this is the full story. Although many Japanese artists adopted Western printmaking techniques after 1945, the Japanese woodblock print remained the dominant medium for most of the younger generation up to our days.
So what is Karhu's formula of success?
I think it is the desire of the art audience for simplicity and romanticism combined with the esteem of quality and Karhu's strive for perfection. It is basically the same drive that makes today's art collectors spend thousands on a rare woodblock print from the shin hanga period.
Karhu hardly changed his style and his motifs over the years and decades. His subjects were romantic town views from the old Gion district in Kyoto and elsewhere.
Clifton Karhu mastered the whole process of woodblock printmaking himself including the carving and printing.
The mastering of the media allowed him to explore new grounds with unusual formats. Therefore you will find a lot of print formats seldom used by woodblock printmakers like roundels, diamond formats or long vertical but narrow "windows"
Nearly all of Karhu's woodblock prints were created as limited editions, signed, numbered and dated - just the usual way modern printmakers handle this. These woodblock prints are the "real Karhu prints", and collectors must pay $ 1,000 or more to get such a work of art on paper.
Here are a few examples of Karhu's hand-signed, limited edition prints that we offered in our auction # 790 in July of 2009.
Art firends not familiar with the work of Karhu are sometimes confused by seeing cheap woodblock prints by the artist. These were published by Unsodo in Kyoto.
They were planned as an unlimited edition and are printed from the original blocks on demand. They are not hand-signed. The name "C.Karhu" is printed from the plate.
Over the years we have seen a few more cheap, unsigned Karhu prints with his name printed (not hand-signed) on the margin. Please see our archive of sold Japanese prints for your research.
Below are the more frequent designs that we know from the Unsodo publication.
"Inner Harbor" is produced as a shikishiban; i.e it is printed on a decorative cardboard. This format is popular in Japan as a present.
106 sold object(s) by Clifton Karhu born 1927 in our Art Archive
2 signature(s) by Clifton Karhu in our Signature Database
Author: Dieter Wanczura
.. more about Dieter Wanczura
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