The art of traditional Japanese woodblock prints seems to have a magic force of attraction to Western artists. Clifton Karhu became one of the most successful contemporary Western artists working in Japanese woodblock style.
First Publication: May 2002
Latest Update: Aril 2013
Karhu lived permanently in Kyoto, Japan, where he was the head of the Kyoto branch of the renowned Japan Print Society. But he discontinued this post in some protest against the central organization in Tokyo, which in his view did not give the Kyoto artists the weight they should have.
Clifton Karhu was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1927. From 1946 to 1948 he was stationed in Sasebo, an American navy base in Japan - located between Nagasaki and Fukuoka. Back in the USA, Clifton studied at the Minneapolis Art School from 1950 to 1952.
In 1952 Karhu returned to Japan - this time not as a soldier, but as a missionary of the Lutheran Church. He made extensive travels through Japan - Kyoto, Shiga and Hiroshima prefecture - selling Bibles door-to-door.
After a while he became disillusioned and in 1958 he resigned as a missionary and returned to arts. Karhu settled in Gifu prefecture. He made oil paintings and watercolors and attracted some attention with local art exhibitions.
By and by his reputation grew. In 1961 he won the first prize of Chubu Taiheijo Bijutsu Kyokai Ten (The Middle Pacific Artgroup Exhibition). The same year he had his first single exhibition in the Shin Gifu Gallery in Gifu prefecture.
In 1963 Karhu moved to Kyoto. The old residence of the Japanese Emperor is a kind of Japanese Mecca for the arts. Here in Kyoto Clifton got interested in woodblock prints. One year later he had his first woodblocks exhibited in the Yamada Gallery. This has marked the beginning of a successful career as a woodblock print artist. Numerous exhibitions followed in Japan, the U.S.A. and in Europe.
Karhu mostly carved and printed himself. His subjects are typical Japanese scenes - often old Japanese houses or details taken from these. The source of his inspiration is the old town of Kyoto. There he is a kind of an icon - a local celebrity. Images of his prints are used on towels, calendars and t-shirts.
Clifton Karhu prints have sometimes been criticized as being too decorative - Japan as an American would like to see it. The artist simply replied:
"If you do not like my pictures, then hang them upside down."
Prints by the artist are firmly established in major art museums. Her is a small and incomplete list.
Among his collectors are Hubert Humphrey, former U.S. Vice President, Shirley MacLaine and Caspar Weinberger.
Karhu has exhibited widely in and outside Japan. It would be tedious to list all his shows. We just want to mention the annual CWAJ (College Women's Association of Japan), a non-profit event that has become a kind of institutional event for aficionados of contemporary Japanese prints.
Karhu prints are offered by major galleries for contemporary Japanese art:
Woodblock prints by Clifton Karhu were usually published as limited editions and were hand-signed by Clifton Karhu. A typical edition size for Clifton Karhu is 100. These prints are in high demand and are expensive. Expect a price of USD 1,000 and more. Some designs are also available as A.P. (artist proof). They are cheaper.
And finally there is a small number of special designs published as unlimited editions by Unsodo, Kyoto. They are not numbered and they are not hand-signed. These are distinctively cheaper and often to be found on the internet - including artelino auctions. These prints have the "C. Karhu" signature on the print image but the signature was printed from the block - not hand signed Please check our archive for these designs.
These unlimited, cheap prints are sometimes printed a bit sloppy and the size is smaller than the typical Karhu limited edition prints. But basically there is nothing wrong with them.
But collectors and art friends who are not familiar with these different "types" of prints might easily draw the wrong conclusions when they see a USD 1,000 print on a gallery web site (or in an artelino auction). Therefore we want to mention these differences.
Clifton Karhu passed away on March 24, 2007 in Kanazawa, Japan from lung cancer. The great master whom many called more Japanese than the Japanese themselves died in the country where he had found his inner peace and where he had found back to fine arts. He remained faithful towards himself and his ideals and his way of living until his last hour.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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