Archive for the ‘日本現代美術’ Category

Much thanks to my good friend Kathryn, who reminded me about the exhibit Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, which is up until Jan 2 at Asia Society (70th & Park, NYC), and who encouraged me to go.

I don’t know if this is his first solo or retrospective show, but with over 100 works from a span of more than 20 years of his career, it’s about the best showing of his oeuvre I would ever expect to see.

I have to start by admitting that I have never really cared for Yoshitomo Nara so much. He seems a bit too ubiquitous – I saw reproductions of his work at a street market in Greenwich (or was it Hereford?), England, once – and while some of his works are definitely cute, for whatever reason they just never really struck me as particularly complex, deep, or interesting.

Yet, it was *wonderful* to see his works in person; the exhibit design and installation, the space they were displayed in, combined with the experience of seeing the actual works in person, made it really a whole different experience. Once again, I regret that I was unable to take photos to share this wonderful space with you, but a brief video on the exhibition website provides something of a taste of the mood and feel of the exhibition.

The New York Times slideshow and review can help reveal more for those who are unable to make it here to New York for the exhibit.

Walking into the first room, you are confronted with white walls and bare wooden floors that look intentionally slapdash and ramshackle, like a warehouse space, or an old schoolhouse that hasn’t seen renovation in some time. Large works that would span more or less half a wall are seen only through wooden portholes in the white plaster walls. Some works, such as “I Want the Motorcycle” (above right) clearly no more than sketches in pen and colored pencil on the back of a printed page, are framed in the simplest of wooden frames, while still others – works in acrylic paints on paper such as “Midnight Vampire” (right) – are framed in elaborate frames like you see in the European paintings galleries of major museums.

White curtains separate this section from the next, soft instrumental rock music beckoning you to part the curtains and see what’s beyond.

A colorful room surrounded by white curtains, lit by light bulbs in a variety of hues covered in lampshades of the same white sheets, is filled with multi-colored circular platforms, and a small house, all together a site-specific installation created for this exhibit by the creative team “YNG”, which includes Nara. He has done things like this house before; I do not remember the when or where of that (those) previous exhibition(s), but I have seen it in art history lecture slide shows. The house, roughly, oh, I don’t know, five feet square by twelve feet tall?, is topped by a golden elephant, and filled with sketches, looking like a child’s playhouse, his own private drawing room, that is to say, room for drawing.

I was really taken in by this, and by the design and atmosphere of the whole exhibit. The space itself made just as much of an impact as the works, if not more so; had the works simply been displayed on plain white walls, as is so common in contemporary art galleries these days, it would have been a far different experience, and quite possibly a lesser one.


I always thought of Nara Yoshitomo as purely (or primarily) a 2D sort of guy – sketches, drawings, paintings – but apparently he has been dabbling in Shigaraki ware lately. The combination of this centuries-old mode of Japanese ceramics, steeped in tradition, with the imagery and compositions perfectly typical of Nara – e.g. a cartoonish little girl shouting obscenities – is a wonderful juxtaposition, and his large (two feet in diameter?) circular dishes are really beautiful works of ceramic in and of themselves, for their simplicity and smooth, clean, sleek look. His pots, on the other hand, didn’t really do it for me.

“Dogs from your Childhood”. Fiberglass, paint. 2000.

The exhibit spans two floors, and four galleries. Moving upstairs, a small gallery contained three large fiberglass statues in the form of cartoon dogs in Nara’s distinctive style, pure white, with red noses and green collars, facing inwards as though speaking with one another. The gallery label said that in Nara’s work, dogs and other animals represent children, specifically in their submissiveness, and in a sad way, reflecting the powerlessness of children and animals. A poem, written in pen on simple lined notebook paper, accompanies the piece. It is amazing how such a simple plain thing – little different from a sketch on a napkin – can be kept, preserved, conserved, framed and displayed in this manner as a priceless artwork, a priceless cultural product of a world-renowned artist.

It reads:

From the expanding watchtower
of my frontal lobe,
My thoughts race beyond the dream
mountains to the wide open wilderness
where a wafer moon gently melts.

In the midst of the milk white fog
a dog spins around and around.

Boarding a plane on the pier of my heart,
A transfusion line flies off,
Sightseeing its way towards that dog.

If the gathered past becomes the present,
Then perhaps the fragment of the imploding
now that is the dog, is me, is you, as well.

Yoshitomo Nara – Jan ’99

There Is No Place Like Home, 1984. Acrylic and crayon on paper. H. 21 1/4 x W. 28 9/16 in. (54 x 72.5 cm). Aomori Museum of Art

In the larger gallery on the third floor, arranged in plain white walls like a standard gallery, a disjunction from the environment of the first room, we are first presented with some of Nara’s earlier works, which do not yet resemble the distinctive, unique style he will later develop. They speak to me of a desire, or perhaps a felt need, a pressure, to be “artsy” for lack of a better word, to incorporate a great amount of thought and meaning, complex ideas and theoretical symbolism. His work “There is No Place Like Home” (1984; above; also, third one down on this page) is painterly, meaning the brushstrokes can be seen, can be felt, and it seems somewhat unfinished. Profound words in English emerge from a woman’s mouth, while other things happen all around her. It is busy, complicated, and dense with meaning – meaning that is completely unclear to me, the viewer.

I have rarely if ever attended a critique of the artworks of my friends in the MFA studio art program, and I do not know for sure what sort of advice or guidance they are given, but these early works of Nara’s strike me as the kind of thing one might be pressured to do in art school.

Remember Me, 2005. Acrylic on paper. H. 55 x W. 55 1/2 in. (139.7 x 141 cm). Private collection, New York.

It is ironic, therefore, I think, in a way, that he should be so successful and so popular with the far simpler, cleaner, cuter, more cartoonish works that he is indeed so popular for. In the exhibition, these early works are followed by large canvases which I have seen before as slides, but which are so much more impressive and breath-taking in person. There is something about the simple cleanliness of his solid pastel color backgrounds, and the pure size of the things, not super large, but a good four and half feet square, that I don’t quite have a word for, but which makes me just really enjoy and appreciate them. He incorporates actual sparkles as well, for the night sky in “Remember Me” (2005; above; also, second from the bottom on this page), and what is most intriguing and striking for me, the incredible use of color in his figures’ eyes. Up close, you can see that it’s just a little bit of pink and a little green, a dash of orange and a dollop of blue, but step back and I swear it’s like you can see the whole universe in her eyes.

The same goes for his works entitled “Gone with the Cloud” (2004) and “The Little Star Dweller” (2006) – these are the portraits for which he is most famous. The figure in a work titled “MJ” (2009) has his (her?) long, flowing, messy-looking hair covering one eye; s/he seems pensive, sad, emo, as though disturbed or upset or depressed. The labels say it is perhaps a portrait of Michael Jackson. This is certainly a possibility, but I sort of sense not.

Untitled (Nobody’s Fool), 1998. Watercolor on paper. H. 13 3/4 x W. 10 1/8 in. (34.9 x 25.7 cm).

The titular piece of the exhibition, “Nobody’s Fool” (1998), is easily among my favorites. It is quite clearly painted over an ukiyo-e bijinga print by Utamaro, whose signature is still quite visible on the right side, right under the hair pins. The black oiled coif and golden hairpins of Utamaro’s courtesan are likewise perfectly visible in the top half of the composition, though Nara has painted over the bottom half, appropriating the hairdo, and the format or genre of bijinga (images of beautiful women) to portray his angry young girl, who displays a scroll reading “(You’re) Nobody’s Fool.”

The exhibit goes on to describe an aesthetic dubbed “kowa kawaii,” or “creepy cute,” a term which I had never heard before, but which describes the feeling of many of Nara’s works quite well. Putting aside the deep-colored portraits, focusing on pieces like this one in which cute young girls wield knives, smoke cigarettes, and shout obscenities, there is a definite sense of the clash between innocence, and a very tough, self-assured, rebellious streak which is aggressive and thus off-putting. These are not girls you “gaze” at, like so many in the history of art, but rather those who gaze back accusatively, like Manet’s “Olympia,” refusing to be passive as the viewer, the voyeur, admires them.

Some of Nara’s pieces, such as “No Hopeless” (second from the bottom on this page), feature real bandages taped onto the canvas. The exhibit text speaks of this as a sign of violence, tying it into the knives and cigarettes, and thematically that is all well and good, though it does fail to acknowledge the fact, well-acknowledged in scholarship, that Nara does this when the eye underneath does not come out the way he likes. He is, in fact, an artist who very frequently paints over or throws out works he doesn’t like, as I would imagine many artists are…

The final section of the exhibit, entitled “Doors and “Untitled (formerly Home)”, an obvious reference to the band The Doors, Nara being a big fan of American classic rock, returns us to the feeling of that installation, liminal space environment of the first room, and to the theme or motif of the house, from the second room.

Doors, each in a different color, lead to small rooms in matching colors, each of which holds one or two artworks. The floors are bare, slapdash wood, and many of the works are on corrugated cardboard. The works are not left to attempt to speak for themselves, but are enveloped in an aesthetic environment which contributes to their reception and appreciation. Photos and video of girls who look eerily like Nara’s stylized depictions occupy other rooms.

It was sad to leave that space. Far from merely a display of 2D artworks in a sterile, elite, gallery environment, this was, as Kathryn said it would be, an experience. A departure from the real world, and the just-above-freezing temperatures of the New York City streets, and an entry into the world of Yoshitomo Nara. This, to my mind, is what more art exhibits need to be like. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s so important for properly experiencing the atmosphere, the aesthetic, the time and place and mindset of the art.

I eagerly look forward to seeing such a transformation of an exhibition space in Honolulu – though I am not holding my breath.

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I just noticed that Hulu is hosting 16 full-length episodes of the PBS series “Art21”. Each episode features several artists from around the globe whose work can be connected to a given theme, such as Identity, Hope, or Play.

Here is the third season episode “Memory”, including a segment on Sugimoto Hiroshi, to get you started:

… I don’t know why embedding isn’t working, but here’s the link for the episode: Check it out.

I must admit I am unfamiliar with nearly all of the artists featured in this series, but am eagerly waiting for Hulu to post episodes from Season Five, which will feature artists such as Jeff Koons, Cao Fei, and Yinka Shonibare.

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It’s been about two weeks since I promised you a post about Murata Range 村田蓮爾, a manga artist whose work was on display at the Kyoto International Manga Museum when I went there a few weeks ago.

I had been familiar with Murata’s work for some time, mainly from his covers for the manga magazine ROBOT, for which he is apparently also editor and compiler. A friend has a number of volumes of this, and I have long been interested in buying some issues, though I was a bit scared off by the price tag, and wavered between the cheaper English version and the more expensive (in the US, that is, as an import) but more “authentic” Japanese version. In any case, I loved the art, but admittedly had not paid attention to the name of the artist. Even looking through this exhibition at the Manga Museum, I remained oblivious to what big-name series Murata had worked on, if any. Actually, I remain a bit unclear on this even after having researched it on the internet – he’s worked on series including Last Exile, Blue Submarine No 6, and the Animatrix, but if I’m understanding this right, he’s only done concept art, not actual animation work.

His art is beautiful. Just stunning. His characters are cute and innocent, his colors and lines as crisp and clean as could be. The Japanese word kirei, one of the first words learned by students of Japanese as a second language and generally translated as “pretty” and used for that meaning, actually has a strong connotation of “clean”, “organized”, “put together”, and the more I think about it, the more I think that this clean & pretty element is really one of the key things that appeals to me in both anime/manga art, and in older Nihonga painting. You can see it in the complete lack of painterly-ness (that is, in the invisibility of any brushstrokes), minimal use of lines, soft, even shading of colors, and just general ‘clean’ feeling. This girl, for example, though she is sweating, doesn’t look sticky or gross or disheveled in any way. She has no blemishes on her skin; her clothes aren’t wrinkled, her hair isn’t ruffled or messed up. And while there are shadows in the places there realistically ought to be (such as on her neck), the whole scene is painted (? or digitally composed? or…?) as though quite brightly lit with a clean white light, like the kind of spring or summer sun that returns color to the world after the dreariness of winter.

The subject matter of Murata’s works is usually one of cuteness and innocence – there are lots of works depicting schoolgirls, for example, though he does depict cute boys, and older, more toned young men as well – and so of course that contributes to one’s reaction to the piece, but I really think that the way line and color are treated play a huge role in making these works, and so many others by many other artists, give off the feeling of a perfect spring day. A breezy, sunny day that makes you just want to smile, and go out and enjoy the day with no cares in the world.

The exhibit was quite small, just one room. But, for a solo exhibition, there were a good number of works there. Any more and there would have been a strong danger of just being repetitive, that is, overkill. The exhibit consisted largely of magazines and the like in cases, and perhaps most interesting for more dedicated fans (and aspiring artists, or those who just doodle for fun), preparatory sketches and the like, something that I guess is seen more rarely.

I quite enjoyed the large, blown up digital prints along one wall. I have not read ROBOT, or any of the other very similar magazines Murata is involved with, such as FutureGraph, but I gather that many of the stories contained within are sort of one-off stories. Not fully encapsulated, they could function as episodes within a much larger plot, but they are presented as just one-off, cute glimpses into the lives of certain characters. I think, if I remember correctly, there were three or four of these short, maybe 10 page stories, posted up on the walls. I read one in which two young schoolgirls chat while riding a train… what about, I barely even remember. Maybe about their friends, and which friend was moving away to another town, or something. What really appeals is the environment and atmosphere created, not solely through the art, but also through the dialogue and plot, which, if not memorable (apparently), are still crucial elements in this creation of an ideal, romanticized, carefree cute schooldays atmosphere.

Of course, the other key element that I’ve been completely glossing over is the fact that these stories, all of those in ROBOT, by a variety of writers/artists, are in gorgeous full color, unlike the vast majority of manga out there, which is in black and white. There are economic reasons for this, basically, as I understand it, stemming from the fact that most manga is published in cheap newsprint anthologies and only later republished in tankobon individual volumes. But all of that is a story for another day.

There is a lot, I am sure, that can be said about Murata’s work, about manga/anime aesthetics and subject matter more broadly, etc etc. But I think I should like to leave it at this: enjoy the pictures.

The exhibit remains up through August 29.

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The New York Times reports that the Asia Society in New York will be hosting a retrospective exhibition of Yoshitomo Nara’s work, from Sept 9 to Jan 2. This is apparently the first time that the Asia Society will devote its entire museum/gallery space to the work of a single artist, raising the obvious question of what this says about Nara, or about Asia Society, or whether it needs to be read as really indicating anything particular special at all.

In conjunction with the exhibit, two large statues designed by Nara will be erected on Park Avenue, much as a sculpture in the form of a so-called “Mao shirt” or “Mao coat” was placed there (opposite Asia Society, on Park & 70th) a few years back for the Art & China’s Revolution exhibit.

Nara will also be present in person, for a few hours each day August 23-27, as an artist-in-residence at the Park Avenue Armory, where visitors will be able to see him at work.

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A sudden thought, not fully thought through…

In the 1890s-1900s, the yôga (洋画、”Western-style painting”) movement gained strength. The concept of the nude as an aesthetic, artistic subject was introduced into Japan after a number of artists including Kuroda Seiki and Yamamoto Hôsui returned from studying painting in Paris. As Penelope Mason states in her History of Japanese Art (2nd ed; 2005, p374), “it was considered pornographic – a frontal female nude having never before been a subject for public display.”

Is this not the same thing, happening in reverse, today, as various voices speak out against certain works of Japanese contemporary art, and against manga & anime in general?

RIGHT: “Morning Toilette”, 1893, by Kuroda Seiki. Exhibited in 1895, it was one of the first nudes to be publicly displayed in this way. It was highly controversial, and was called pornography.

Certainly, there is more to it. There is the fact that some manga/anime do portray very overtly pornographic, sexual, scenes, sometimes involving rape, sometimes involving young children…. and the fact that many who speak out against manga & anime fail to recognize that not all manga/anime are like this, just as not all live-action films produced in America are pornos.

And there is the element, which I tend to mention often, but which I may be perhaps making too much of, of differing attitudes towards the appropriateness of showing pubic hair. The Japanese omit it, on account of they consider the overt depiction of pubic hair to be too sexual, too explicit – in short, inappropriate. In fact, I think they may even have laws against depicting it. These images are then seen in the West, where the absence of pubic hair – intentionally absent to make the image “cleaner”, more appropriate, less sexually explicit – is seen as an indication that the figures are pre-pubescent, at which point the work is decried as child pornography.

Not to mention the whole phenomenon of the craze for “cute” in Japan today, something which did not factor in the nudes of ‘classical’ painting traditions.

LEFT: A work by the artist Mr., who is associated with Murakami Takashi’s atelier. More images can be found at this fine blog post on a blog entitled “traveling with the ghost”.

But, coming back to the original thought – the nude has been accepted in Western art as an aesthetic theme for thousands of years. Certainly, there were long spans of time when there were shifts in attitudes, and ancient Greek & Roman statues were irrevocably damaged in the name of propriety. But, by the turn of the 20th century, and certainly by today, people in the West are perfectly comfortable with the idea of a nude as a set theme in “high” art, and as an aesthetic and non-sexual (in certain contexts) form. The Japanese had trouble adjusting to this idea – they saw nudes and considered them scandalous and pornographic. Then they adapted to the Western view, and from there drifted off again into their own artistic trends and modes, producing works which, to my eye, are often far cleaner, more innocent, than almost anything we see in Western art, yet which are decried as child pornography. Perhaps we, in the West, are simply the ones who are now behind the times, superstitious, and unable or unwilling to see art, that is, asexual aesthetics, as it is intended.

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I really wish I was in NY and could attend these events. Any NY-based readers out there?

*“Thinking on the way to the Yoshiwara: Poetry and Pictures about the trip to Edo’s Courtesan District”
Professor Timon Screech, SOAS, University of London

The Yoshiwara was Edo’s premier courtesan (or ‘pleasure’) district. It existed for some 200 years, so that thousands of men would have gone. Pictures of the Yoshiwara were very commonly made, and form one of the major themes in art of the Floating World. Yet it is never asked how people actually got to the district, nor have representations of the journey to the Yoshiwara ever been properly investigated. This talk will engage with such material, and will offer the theory the pictures and poetry worked to create a sense of difference and transformation in the traveller incrementally, as the journey unfolded.

The lecture will take place at 6:15-7:15 p.m., April 8, 2010 and will be held in Room 934 Schermerhorn Hall. Given the spatial constraints, attendees are encouraged to arrive by 6 p.m.

I was fortunate to take a course with, and otherwise get to know, Prof. Screech during my time in London. This topic, the poetic or metaphorical symbolism or allegory of elements of the trip to the Yoshiwara, played a prominent role in the course, and while I must admit I do love to hear Tim speak about just about anything, I really do have a particular interest in this topic.

*And the following week:

Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecture on Japanese Culture

The Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University will host a rare public lecture by the Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura. Mr. Morimura will deliver the annual Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecture on Japanese Culture at 6:00 p.m., on Wednesday, April 14, 2010, at Columbia’s Miller Theatre. The title of Mr. Morimura’s lecture is “Why I Posed as Yukio Mishima.”

The title of Morimura’s lecture, “Why I Posed as Yukio Mishima,” alludes to a controversial 2006 video work in which the artist took on the persona of Yukio Mishima (1925–1970), the internationally celebrated Japanese novelist. Four decades ago this year, Mishima staged a highly public suicide at the headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, an unforgettable scene that Morimura imaginatively recreated in his 2006 video.

Morimura is the twenty-second eminent figure to deliver the Soshitsu Sen XV Distinguished Lecture on Japanese Culture. The annual lecture series at Columbia University was established with an endowment from the Urasenke Foundation of Kyoto, Japan. Named in honor of Soshitsu Sen XV, former Grand Master (Iemoto) of the Urasenke School of Tea, the Sen Lectures aim to expand American awareness and understanding of Japanese culture. The series began in 1988 with a lecture by Soshitu Sen XV entitled “The Heart of Tea.” Subsequent lecturers have included the novelists Natsuo Kirino, Taeko Kono, and Ryotaro Shiba, the poets Gary Snyder and Makoto Ooka, the composer Toru Takemitsu, the stage director Tadashi Suzuki, the photographer Fosco Maraini, and the graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo.

Donald Keene Center Prize

Directly prior to Morimura’s lecture on April 14, the Keene Center will award the Fourth Donald Keene Prize for the Promotion of Japanese Culture to Impressions, the journal of the Japanese Art Society of America (www.japaneseartsoc.org). Julia Meech, editor of Impressions, and. Joan D. Baekeland, president of the Japanese Art Society of America, will accept the award at a brief ceremony in Miller Theatre.

For further information, please contact Ms. Kia Cheleen, Assistant Director, Donald Keene Center: kcc2126@columbia.edu

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I’d never heard of Umezawa Kazuki before, but today I happened upon a bunch of photos of his work on Flickr, taken at a solo gallery exhibition in Tokyo which closed last month.

Attracted at first by the bright neon colors, one might think it merely, purely, an abstract work, devoid of meaning, if attractively colorful. Upon closer examination, however, one discovers that Umezawa’s works are composed, yes, of neon paints, but also of pages from manga, and from a myriad of digital images, from video games, online chat boards, flash videos, etc, chopped up into miniscule bits and rearranged and stuck together to form an abstract, jumbled mess – albeit a colorful and attractive one. One comment I happened upon on one website indicated that this could represent the jumbled mind of an otaku, or indeed of anyone of our generation, our minds so filled with images and ideas from video games, anime, and the internet. Of course, by that same notion, the painting could represent not an individual’s mind, having absorbed all these images etc, but the internet or the digital universe itself, or perhaps more accurately, one corner, one aspect of it. Perhaps it is in that very ambiguity that the artwork’s real meaning resides. Is it a commentary on the blurring of the lines between individual identity and the realm of digital media? Have we become so deluged with images and media, and so enamored of it and involved with it, that on some metaphorical or symbolic level, we are becoming merged with it? Society merging into the digital? I don’t know. The artist may himself have completely different ideas about what this all means, or is meant to mean.

Umezawa’s works are listed on his own site here: http://umelabo.info/works/works.html

Umezawa is a young artist, born in 1985. He has been having his work shown since he graduated high school; graduating from Musashino Art University in 2008, he has taken part in Geisai, and a number of other group and solo exhibitions. I look forward to seeing his name come up again.

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Among art critics, art historians, art students, and Japanese studies people, I imagine Murakami Takashi to be one of those topics everyone has a take on. Like him, love him, hate him, there are many angles one can take on his work – many different praises or criticisms that can be leveled.

Despite the fact that my chief criticism of him (or of the art critics, curators, gallery owners, etc who praise his work) is of the way he overshadows the diversity of the world of Japanese contemporary art, even so I cannot myself help but write about him, as I have done at least twice before.

One of the most common criticisms is of his blurring of the lines between fine art and commercial art. Certain snooty portions of the art world want to have nothing to do with someone who designs for Louis Vuitton, and who produces & sells cheap merchandising of his art in the form of tshirts, figurines, pin badges, and plushies.

I have little problem with this – however, ironically perhaps, or in a twisted-back-on-itself kind of way, I rather agree with the criticism leveled by my professor today against Murakami’s place in the art world. The same collectors, dealers, galleries and others who criticize Murakami’s merchandising treat his works – his multimillion dollar works – as commodities, buying and selling them as investments, as wagers towards future value, treating art collections like stock portfolios and not as beautiful, cute, colorful, intriguing, or disturbing pieces of visual culture with a meaning and aesthetic to them. In short, the prioritizing of monetary value over cultural or artistic value in the art world today sickens me, and Murakami not only doesn’t fight it, but plays right along, eager to squeeze every penny out of his products.

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In my previous post on Clifton Karhu, I neglected – intentionally – a major aspect of his work, feeling it didn’t quite fit in anywhere in the narrative of that blog post.

In addition to fine art prints, Karhu also produced a more commercial, more mass-produced product, namely, calendars. For a long time, I saw and enjoyed these calendars hanging in my boss’ office, and never thought too much of them, that is, never thought they might be by a famous professional artist, let alone one I might have heard of.

Inspired by Edo period pillar prints (hashira-e), Karhu designed calendars which placed the days of the month at the bottom of each of a series of long vertical strips of paper, covering the rest of the space in illustrations of the animal of that year on the Japanese cycle, in his own distinctive, unique cartoonish style, accompanied by short Japanese proverbs and witty, creative, English translations.

In his personal tribute in Impressions, Norman Tolman writes that “Many people who lived in Japan became dependent on these small treats to complete their year-end holiday giving. … People couldn’t seem to pass into a new year without them.” He continues, writing that “…our Decembers became ‘Karhu month.’ … Clif always came from either Kyoto or Kanazawa… The appearance of Clif Karhu at our gallery brought some people who didn’t visit at any other time or for any other reason during the entire year.”

What fascinates and amuses me the most about these calendars is the strong symbolic or ‘spiritual succession’ connection to the traditions of ukiyo-e, an aspect which goes completely untouched by Tolman, though I am sure he must be aware of it. The first full-color ukiyo-e prints, known as nishiki-e (“brocade pictures”), were in fact calendars, designed in 1765 by Suzuki Harunobu, today one of the most famous and most celebrated artists of ukiyo-e prints. Thus, for Karhu, a foreigner, a famous print artist of the 20th century, a man who used wholly traditional woodblock methods and depicted traditional scenes, to be known for his calendars is to draw an even stronger connection down through the ages between the Masters of old and this newest generation of torch-bearer. Surely, Karhu was himself also aware of the significance of calendars in the history of Japanese printmaking.

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The late Clifton Karhu (1927-2007), mentioned briefly in my post on “Visions of Kyoto – Shin Hanga” back in April, was, arguably, one of the greatest Japanese woodblock print artists of the 20th century, even despite not being ethnically Japanese. His bright and colorful depictions of machiya storefronts, Japanese gardens, castle turrets, and other traditional sights recall the spirit and atmosphere of the age of ukiyo-e, though the style is uniquely and distinctively Karhu’s own. In a time when many Japanese artists were rejecting their artistic heritage, producing works wholly Western, abstract, or acultural, Karhu helped to keep the colorful, magical appeal of traditional scenes alive; not only that, but he carved his woodblocks and printed his prints using methods and tools more true to tradition than those used by almost anyone else.

I first was introduced to Karhu’s work at the Tolman Gallery in Tokyo. As I have likely mentioned before, Mr. Tolman is one of the leading foreigner art dealers in Tokyo; a specialist in 20th-21st century Japanese prints who only deals in artworks by living artists (and those, like Karhu, who have sadly passed away but with whom Tolman worked directly, personally, while they were alive), I would be surprised if Mr. Tolman were not the top leading dealer in that particular niche.

My first visit to the Tolman Tokyo gallery was in April 2008, just over a year after Karhu’s death, and an entire room of the gallery was devoted to his work. I was struck by the bright colors, the bold lines and shapes, and the beautiful traditional scenes. These are the kinds of works one wants to own, and can imagine hanging on one’s walls, to remind one, even in the modern, Western whitebread atmosphere of, for example, my family’s Long Island home, of the wonder and beauty of traditional Japan.

Karhu was an American, of Finnish ancestry, born and raised in Minnesota. He joined the military after graduating high school in 1946, and was stationed in Japan for a few years in the late 1940s before returning to Minnesota, marrying, and returning once more to Japan in 1955, along with his wife. After several years doing missionary work, and several moves across the country, the family settled in Kyoto, where Karhu became director of the English Academy and began, on the side, to dabble in painting.

With the encouragement of friends and members of the Kyoto art world, Karhu then moved into woodblock prints. Norman Tolman relates that it was gallery owner Yamada Tetsuo who first pointed out to him how well his bold lines and colors would do as prints. Delving into that medium, Karhu practiced the traditional methods of block-carving, forgoing Western methods, lithographs and the like. Under the influence of the American artist Stanton McDonald-Wright, Karhu came to use the bright, bold colors he is today so known for, and soon came to have quite a following and a considerable degree of fame within certain circles – not just in the art world, but in Kyoto more generally. Tolman, who was himself the US consul in Kyoto for a time, implies that he and Karhu were roughly equally well-known, famous, appreciated, in Kyoto.

Later in life, after producing many hundreds of prints, exhibiting in many exhibitions, being written about, and selling a great many works – many through Mr. Tolman – Karhu established a residence in Kanazawa and divided his time between the two cities for the rest of his life.

The unrealistic, and un-Japanese, style of his prints, the bold colors and lines, cannot for me truly represent the real Kyoto, the subtle, natural, quiet beauty of the city, but they nevertheless speak volumes about his passion, his love, his understanding and appreciation of traditional Japan (and Kyoto more specifically), as well as implying for many people something of the active, artistic, cultural lifestyle one could have in Kyoto.

That Karhu – a stocky, white American always seen in wafuku; it’s said he owned no Western clothing – could not only attract the attention of the Japanese, but could truly come to be known, loved, appreciated, and come to have his artwork collected by Japanese, is what I find most appealing, admirable, and enviable about him as a figure. That he lived for so long in Kyoto, and in Kanazawa – which has a special place in my heart; a beautiful city with the perfect balance of traditional and modern, and quite off the beaten track – and successfully lived that life of a foreigner making a living out of his passion for traditional Japan, and was accepted by Japanese for this, not shunned or thought of as strange, is most enviable. I myself dream of securing a position as curator, professor, or the like in Kanazawa, and making a life for myself there, and being accepted as Karhu was, though I suppose perhaps I aim too high; Karhu was, after all, one of a kind.

Much has been written and published about Karhu, including at least one book devoted exclusively to his work; for a fairly thorough biography and personal tribute, however, I do recommend that by Norman Tolman in Impressions #29 (2007-08), upon which this blog post is heavily based.

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