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Tales in Conservation: The Application of Science to Asian Art (Part One)

Cosmetic Set: Lacquer on Fabric, Western Han dynasty (2nd-1st century BCE), Diameter of outer case 8 1/2 in. (21.9 cm)


Mary Ann Rogers, Kaikodo LLC, dealers in Asian art
Leslie Gat, Objects Conservator and Owner of Art Conservation Group
John Twilley, Art Conservation Scientist
Thomas Murray, Thomas Murray Asian and Tribal Art 

Synopsis of the presentation by Mary Ann Rogers and answers to questions from the audience.

As dealers in Asian works of art, one of our most important jobs is attending to their physical wellbeing.  In our presentation on this panel we focused on our experiences with the conservation of Chinese paintings and early Chinese lacquer. A new painting on paper, silk, or satin must go through a process of mounting: pasting it to layers of backing paper to support the fragile material and the addition of borders that serve as frames, resulting in works easy to handle, store, move, and exhibit.  The nature of the materials, however, makes paintings vulnerable to their environments and to handling.  This can result in discoloration, pigment flaking, creasing, and cracking. Cleaning, repair, and remounting are often necessary.  The borders and backing materials are removed, the work washed, old repairs removed, reinforcing or replacing damaged areas with appropriate materials, and new backing papers pasted to the work. Old borders can be reattached or new borders introduced.

Remounting a large horizontal hanging scroll painted by the Yuan master Zhao Mengfu in 1299 was a challenge given its size and the condition of the silk, dappled with mold throughout. The painting’s unusual dimensions suggest it was originally mounted in a freestanding wood frame as a screen and the mold a result of the painting’s continuous exposure. Although the painting is quite presentable, newly developed methods of treating silk might allow for the removal of the mold without impacting the painting itself.  The conservation of another 14th-century painting, a style popular in Japan, involved historical and aesthetic considerations. In the course of cleaning, realigning the silk where needed, and minor retouching of the pigments, our Chinese mounters had done an exemplary job. They, however, replaced the original Japanese-style decorative brocade mounting that spoke to the painting’s history in Japan with a neutral-colored silk, in Chinese taste. Fortunately, the original materials had been saved and the painting too when the old mounting was returned to it.

Our greatest challenge, expense and time-wise, was in conserving the early Chinese lacquer that became available to us almost three decades ago. Specialists in the United Kingdom and Germany treated numerous pieces by impregnation with synthetic resigns, freeze-drying and reattaching detached lacquer and, in the case of two rare sets of cosmetic containers, resetting gold and silver appliqué where possible. The fabric-core vessels did not present the same problems as did the waterlogged wood-core pieces that were subject to shrinkage, warping, distortion, and lifting and curling of the surface lacquer.  With the development of more efficacious synthetic resins, such negative results might well be prevented.  The presence of silver-sprinkled particles discovered in the lacquer of one of these sets revealed the use of this decorative technique in China long before its appearance many centuries later in lacquer wares produced in Japan, the origin of the technique traditionally attributed to the Japanese.  Science thus serves not only in conservation but also in widening our understanding through close scrutiny and chance finds, adding to what we art historians provide using our own ways and means.

Some questions and answers about painting and lacquer conservation:

1. Please discuss private access to:

  • Painting restoration and remounting resources: As scrolls; as flat in Japanese/Chinese style frames
  • Scroll storage resources: boxes, etc.; screen mounting resources.

A number of major museums in Asia, Europe and the US have studios or centers devoted to the remounting, restoration and conservation of their Chinese and Japanese paintings and contacting one of these should lead you to the expertise you are seeking for both restoration of your own works and also materials for storage and conservation. You might try the East Asian Painting Conservation Studio associated with the Freer-Sackler in Washington D.C. or the East Asian Conservation Studio at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.  There are some private studios with websites online that you might seek out, although not having done business with them, we cannot make recommendations. 

Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) Bathing Horses, 1299, horizontal hanging scroll, 35 1/4 x 63 5/8 in. (89.6 x 161.6 cm)

2. How do you decide if a Chinese hanging scroll needs a new mounting, ex: mounting style from Japanese mounting to Chinese mounting?

As suggested during the webinar, you can decide simply by looking at a painting if it should be remounted.  On one extreme is the physical condition of the work.  If it has developed creases or cracks, if there is evidence of insect damage or rips or tears have appeared, if the silk has become stretched and the threads are no longer aligned, if the painting looks dark or soiled (dirt can be removed but darkening of silk due to age is irreversible) or if a hanging scroll does not hang straight and flat, but rather undulates—if any one or a combination of the above occurs, then the work might need to be remounted.  It is, however, a matter of degree and since remounting is not without stress to the painting, if the work does not seem to be seriously compromised or its condition distracting to the viewer, then it might be best to leave it be.  At another extreme are historical and aesthetic considerations.  The example I used was the Chinese Piling-school painting that had long been in Japan where that painting style has historically been most appreciated.  That the painting had been, and we assume for a long period of time, in Japan is reflected in what we think of now as a Japanese-style mounting—characterized by decorative brocades.  This mounting style originated in China in the sixth-seventh centuries and was the standard mounting style in China until the time of Zhao Mengfu (the painter of the “screen” I discussed in the power point), whose taste for the simple and unadorned in painting extended also to their mountings. From that time on, that is, in the post-Song-dynasty period, and whereas the Japanese remained attached to the decorative mounting style they had learned from the Chinese, the Chinese themselves, on the other hand, were drawn to the austere, understated style. Therefore, Song paintings are often mounted and are believed to look best in decorative mountings, whereas later paintings—Yuan onward—are best in Chinese style mountings, especially in the eyes of the Chinese.  One last consideration is that of personal taste.  Sometimes we buy a painting and think the mounting is aesthetically a disaster, reflecting the taste of a former owner maybe 30 or 40 years earlier and that would be reason for a simple, non-invasive job of remounting.

3. Could lacquer boxes be acceptedly exhibited in situ/soaking in water, in a collection?

When the question was asked during the webinar about the feasibility of a museum exhibiting ancient waterlogged Chinese lacquers in water, I was reminded of how extraordinary the pieces looked when we first saw them, submerged in water, and that memory pulled at my heartstrings. As I explained, despite a five-year attempt at restoring one set of boxes, the large exterior container came back to us a ghost of its former self: shrunken and distorted, resulting in the lacquer surface left wrinkled, much having flaked off, and much of its magnificent painted design lost, despite all of the very best efforts of the restorers.  However, even though the lacquer was breathtakingly beautiful when submerged in water in its waterlogged state, there is probably no museum curator or director who would entertain even briefly the possibility of taking on the responsibility of caring for lacquer that exists in a kind of purgatory—not lost forever but not reborn, much less actually taking on the responsibility.  Waterlogged lacquer while still in water is not in a stable or easily maintainable state. In fact, it is even extremely difficult for museums and private collectors to acquire lacquer that has been successfully treated and proven stable over long periods of time, the fragility of the medium always a matter of concern.

This post is part one of a three part essay about our Webinar, Tales in Conservation. To read part two Click here.

Watch an excerpt from the Tales in Conservation webinar: