Asiatic Traditional Painting, its History and Conservation - The 4th Heritage Conference, London, October 2013 Dr. Kate Bailey - News in conservation, Issue 40, February 2014

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Asiatic Traditional Painting, its History and Conservation. Copyright ChinaCultureConnect

This conference was held at the National Maritime Museum, and was organised by China Culture Connect and Artability Art & Collection Ltd in association with the Royal Museums Greenwich with support from Tru Vue. It took place over two full days, 18th- 19th October 2013.The introduction to the conference programme gave the stated aim as ‘to promote the academic understanding of the history of Eastern Asia pictorial art and its conservation’.
Day 1 started with an introductory talk from Clara de la Pena McTigu of the Maritime Museum in which she demonstrated some of the Chinese export pictures of boats on pith and on paper, with particular reference to the Drummond Album. Model boats were also made for the western market. Export works of art were not altogether noted for their accuracy and it was interesting to learn that accurate models and paintings were made by westerners in nineteenth century Canton and Hong Kong.
Renate Nöller from the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) Germany, followed with an overview of the analysis carried out on manuscripts discovered in Turfan and Dunhuang between 1902 and 1920. Pigments have been identified and modes of manufacture and paper preparation discovered which enables researchers to distinguish between the different usages and purposes for which the manuscripts were produced. This information will be added to the database for the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) next year.
Chinese wallpapers which adorn the walls of about 20 rooms in National Trust properties was the subject of the next talk given jointly by Andrew Bush and Emile de Bruijn. The earliest paper dates from c.1750 at Felbrigge Hall and the wallpapers continued to be put up into the late nineteenth century. The cataloguing of these wallpapers has enabled the speakers to draw some interesting conclusions, including the percentages of popularity of different types of motifs, birds and insects, landscapes etc. and the fact that they were used in semi-public rooms associated with women.
The final talk of the morning was given by Wang Minying of the Yi He Yuan Summer Palace, Beijing who told us about the conservation work taking place on the decorative paper and silk wall hangings or ‘Pengbi Hu Shi’. This is seen very much as part of the larger architectural conservation of the buildings and studies of these hangings have revealed much about the materials and craft involved, including lost conservation methods. Impacts of this research, which is continuing, include the provision of training for conservators, an acknowledgement of the need for communication and exchange of knowledge and the formulation of theories of conservation.
Xu Wenjuan from Shanghai Museum spoke about adhesives for the restoration of Chinese paper. In 2005, it was estimated that there are 28.6 million collections of cultural relics in China, of which 28.2% are made from paper. Research has been carried out into traditional adhesives, wheat starch paste and animal glue, and into the effects of alum on paper using SEM and FTIR. As a result, soymilk is now the preferred substance for carrying out paper repairs at the institution and although there was a slight change of colour on the picture shown this was felt to be acceptable.
Mee Jung Kim, based at the British Museum, gave a definition of lining and went on to outline its purposes. Traditional Korean papers or ‘hanji’ were hand-made from mulberry bark and were used for backing and lining Korean works of art. However, during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) the Court mounters also used Chinese papers such as xuan shi and maoban zhi especially for court paintings and calligraphy. Techniques for lining new and old silk paintings were demonstrated.
The Korean theme continued with the following talk given by Young Sook Pak from SOAS titled ‘Amitabha Belief and Paintings in East Asia’ during which richly-coloured paintings of Buddha Amitabha were produced on silk and linen. Buddhism was adopted by the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392). However, these paintings were widely circulated throughout Asia from the 10th century onwards. Pictures of paradise with Amitabha Buddha sitting in the clouds
with his disciples as well as images of the Buddha sitting alone were shown. Pigments used included lapis lazuli, cinnabar, gold, and lead white and because only mineral pigments were applied, these have tended to flake off. A documentary film was then shown about the conservation of a Korean Buddhist painting.
The second day was devoted to Chinese and Japanese art and conservation. Roderick Whitfield from SOAS started the day with a talk about ‘The Many Faces of Chinese Painting’ in which he talked about the forthcoming exhibition at the V&A, ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900’. He drew attention to some points of interest, including the way in which a painting of Buddha had been made by stitching two halves of loom width of cloth to either side of a full loom width, the use of colour shading and outlines in the pictures at Dunhuang, the realism demonstrated by a later painting of a travelling monk and the variation in the way the Chinese wrote their characters.
Chinese calligraphy was the subject of the next talk by Yang Danxia from The Palace Museum, Beijing. Given in Chinese through an interpreter, this speaker introduced us to the calligraphy of Xuan Ye, Emperor Kangxi and demonstrated his learning process, stylistic development and idiosyncratic preferences as revealed by his handwriting. This research has disproved previously held ideas about the source of the emperor’s calligraphic style and, more generally, furthers discussions about the Sinification of Manchu calligraphy and painting.
Next, Chen Gang from the Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology at Fudan University turned our attention from works of art and calligraphy to the making of paper by hand in China. A film captured each of the processes involved, although parts of the manufacture are still kept secret. The successive, and slightly different steps involved in making Xuan and bamboo papers were outlined. The speaker gave three causes for concern about the manufacture of modern papers; namely, the change in raw materials and particularly the use of caustic soda, the lack of high-quality hand-made paper and the loss of the craft of paper-making.
Yang Danxia’s second talk demonstrated what to look for to identify forged Chinese works of art. A list was provided to determine a genuine work from a fake. During the talk examples of genuine and forged works of art were shown side-by-side, Yu Feian’s ‘Two Peonies’, ‘Cat’ and ‘Painting of Wealth and Auspiciousness’, for example. Methods used by forgers were listed and include mounting new works in old frames, passing off students work for that of famous artists by changing the seals and signatures, adding dates, signatures and seals to famous artists’ sketches and adding to the content of a picture, for example, by painting in additional insects to enhance the value of a painting.
A talk on Japanese folding screens, called ‘byobu’ or ‘wind block’, was given by Kyoichi Itoh of the Nishio Conservation Studio in Washington DC. These came to Japan from China via Korea and their history, development and conservation problems were explained. The making of these screens, which always have an even number of panels (avoiding four because the homophone for ‘four’ in Japanese means ‘death’), was explained by reference to
video clips which demonstrated the skills of various craftsmen including the wooden core-maker, mounters gilders and painters. This was followed by a demonstration of traditional Japanese screen and scroll mounting techniques, which included cutting and joining the paper to make a roll and lining silk with Japanese paper, and a video to show specific techniques.
The final session, given by Jing Gao of the Museum Fine Art Boston and Yi-Hsia Hsiao from the Freer Gallery, Washington DC, comprised a demonstration of facing, infilling and lining techniques. Traditionally, Chinese silks and Tung oil papers with paste would have been used but today these have been replaced by rayon and funori.
My final thoughts on this conference? Both days were packed with talks and demonstrations by speakers who were clearly experts in their own fields and the balance between the academic content and the practical felt about right. The venue was ideal, with good use made of the lecture hall and IT facilities. The adjoining room used for the demonstrations allowed us to get a good view of the work being undertaken and to photograph and ask questions of the demonstrators. There was much to take in and much to think about.
I thought this conference was great value for money and I especially enjoyed the fact that many of the speakers were Asian. Did the conference match up to its aim ‘to promote the academic understanding of the history of Eastern Asia pictorial art and its conservation’? Certainly.
However, at the end of the second day we were made aware that the cost of running the conference made it difficult to contemplate another one next year unless a sponsor or some other source of funding can be found. This was the fourth conference in the series and I sincerely hope that it won’t be the last.
Abstracts of the all the talks of the 4th Heritage Conference can be retrieved from: