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Karhu of Kyoto : Clifton Karhu, a Former American Missionary, Has Become One of Japan's Most Famous Artists--to Some, 'More Japanese Than a Japanese'

August 24, 1986|ANDREW HORVAT | Andrew Horvat is a Times staff writer based in Tokyo

Japan's most popular practitioner of the 700-year-old craft of woodblock printing sweeps the wide sleeves of his kimono to one side and gently pushes the blade of a curved chisel into a slab of linden. With the tool, which he made by hand, the artist slowly begins carving the mirror image of an old gate in Kyoto, Japan's former capital.

A 25-year resident of the ancient city, he is renowned for his defense of Japanese traditions. He has spoken out publicly against the destruction of Kyoto's wooden architecture--the subject of his acclaimed prints--and he continues to argue the superiority of thongs over shoes, sake over whiskey, and raw fish over cooked meat. He is proud to own not a single item of Western-style clothing.

Yet, this acknowledged master of a most thoroughly Japanese art form is not himself Japanese. He is Clifton Karhu, a blond American of Scandinavian descent, formerly of Duluth, Minn., who came to Japan 31 years ago as a Protestant missionary hoping to introduce the values of an alien religion.

Today he is described in the Japanese news media as "more Japanese than a Japanese" and, in a curious twist, has become perhaps the best-known defender of tradition in an artistic culture busily trying to keep up with Western innovation. He is criticized as an artistic throwback but has been credited with redefining and reinvigorating an ancient printing technique. He is sometimes dismissed as a mere postcard painter, popular only with Western tourists; yet his prints are widely purchased by ordinary Japanese, who find his style easy to understand.

Since his transformation from missionary to artist a quarter-century ago, Karhu (his last name is Finnish, although it is sometimes mistaken for Japanese) has made 700 prints in issues of about 100 each. He has taken part in more than 200 exhibitions and has accepted well over 250 commissions for works. Matsushita Electric, manufacturer of Quasar television sets and Panasonic appliances, is but one of dozens of major Japanese corporations to have used Karhu prints on their calendars. Demand for Karhu's works is so high that he even has to contend with a Japanese imitator who sells Karhu look-alikes in Kyoto's cheaper galleries.

Yasuhiko Okamoto, scion of a family that has been in the restaurant business in Kyoto for four generations, says he and his father chose 28 Karhus to hang on the walls of their Yagenbori (Spice Grinder) restaurants because "we were looking for something traditional."

"There is not a day that some customer does not ask about Mr. Karhu's pictures," Okamoto says. "Of course, they are shocked to hear that the artist is not Japanese. We explain to our customers that Mr. Karhu comes here to eat and drink, and that he knows Japanese food as well as any of us."

Eating at the restaurant recently, Karhu enjoyed a meal of one small river fish, sliced live and eaten while still quivering; raw horse meat, and plenty of sake.

The mirror image of the wooden gate is nearly finished. It started as a rough sketch of the gate outside Karhu's studio, turned into a neat drawing with the heavy black lines that characterize a Karhu print, and then, pasted on a slab of linden, formed the first plate of the print--the so-called skeleton block.

Carving away everything except the lines on the skeleton block, Karhu will print six identical black-and-white preliminary images. Those he will paste on six other blocks, one for each color. As colors often overlap or just barely border on one another, chiseling is exacting work. The process involves about 30 steps, from initial sketch to the final tense moment when the artist rubs the back of the moistened mulberry paper and lifts it to see whether all the colors fit.

For his print of the gate, Karhu has decided to use only blue--six shades of it: "It's summer. Blue is nice and cool." But there is another reason. Karhu, an expert on the history of woodblocks, explains that in the late 17th Century, authorities cracked down on what they perceived to be luxurious living by townspeople and banned the use of all colors but blue. Karhu is harking back to that period.

While other Japanese printmakers adopted such Western techniques as lithography, copper engraving and silk-screen printing and have turned to abstract subjects, Karhu is more closely rooted in the now-defunct but long-popular tradition of ukiyo-e , or "floating world," prints. The ukiyo-e derived their name from their subjects: scenes of entertainment districts, and the generally short lives and fleeting pleasures found there.

"There have been others before him who have done pictures of famous temples and palaces," says Tokio Miyashita, a fellow printmaker, "but Karhu is basically alone in concentrating on the buildings where ordinary Japanese spend their lives."

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