Auspicious Visitors:Working with Chinese paintings (with a little help from the British Museum)

Destined to be an iconic exhibition, Masterpieces of Chinese Paintings 700-1900 will open this week to a public eager to see some of the most remarkable examples of Chinese painting from 1200 years of tradition.

Detail from ‘Nine Dragons’,  Chen Rong, 1244, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Photograph © 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The paintings have been lent to the exhibition by collections from all over the world, from the Boston Museum of Fine Art to the Palace Museum in Beijing. Many  of the paintings have never been exhibited outside of China before.

Although V&A Paper Conservation has a long history of conserving east Asian paintings, we no longer have a dedicated studio for it. Of course, western conservation techniques for works of art on paper for the most part come to us from the east, through a long tradition of papermaking, brushmaking and scroll mounting in both China and Japan,  but the conservation and mounting of east Asian paintings is a discipline in its own right, requiring a particularly long and intensive period of study. It is a discipline that has changed little in centuries, and the skills and techniques of the conservator are typically honed over an arduous ten-year apprenticeship under a master scroll mounter. Several museums in the West (for example the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the MFA in Boston and the British Museum) have such significant collections of Chinese and Japanese paintings that they have dedicated Asian paintings conservators and conservation studios, which are typically designed after traditional studios found in China and Japan.

Much as spending ten years in China is an attractive prospect to many of us here working here at the V&A, we don’t really have the time to amass these skills prior to an exhibition. Even though our combined expertise in Conservation and Technical Services covers the examination, mounting and display of most objects, we felt that because Chinese paintings come with their own particular display needs and cultural contexts, it would be appropriate to enlist some expert advice from our colleagues at the British Museum. The British Museum has had a dedicated Eastern Pictorial Conservation section since 1980, and their state-of-the-art Hirayama studio for the Conservation of Asian Pictorial  Art was established in 1994.

                  

Mrs. Jin Xian Qiu, Senior Conservator of Chinese Paintings at the Hirayama Studio,  British Museum, demonstrating methods of mounting Chinese hanging scrolls to V&A conservators and technicians. © Susan Catcher.

We have a long history of working in collaboration with the Hirayama studio, and so it is always a privilege and an education to be able to work with Mrs. Jin Xian Qiu, Senior Conservator of Chinese Paintings and Valentina Marabini, Conservator of Chinese Paintings (I recommend Valentina’s blog on training and working in Shanghai if Conservation of Chinese paintings interests you). Mrs. Qiu was able to consolidate our knowledge of the techniques and structure  of Chinese paintings, and particularly the ways in which they have traditionally been displayed. Her expertise also gave us valuable insight into subtle differences between Chinese and Japanese methods of mounting – both of which are encountered in Chinese paintings – and how that can affect their handling for installation. As you can imagine, 1200-year-old scroll paintings on paper and silk can be extremely fragile, and they are particularly susceptible to light and physical damage. For this reason they are only unrolled and displayed for very short periods of time in very low lighting. This means handling them as little as possible, and in some cases swapping particularly sensitive paintings for other examples halfway through the exhibition.

Having this kind of collaborative relationship is invaluable to conservation practice. Aside from practical considerations, perhaps most importantly it informs our understanding of cultural tradition and expectation – the kind of knowledge one can only gain through many years of working closely with Chinese paintings. This in turn enables our technicians, conservators and exhibitions coordinators to understand the most appropriate and efficient means to install paintings in a very short time period without uneccesary handling. As a result of our discussions with Mrs. Qiu and Valentina on the construction of Chinese paintings and the specific ways in which they have been displayed, our technicians were then able to create solutions for installing hanging scrolls in the V&A gallery space using traditional techniques and eliminating the need for rolling and unrolling paintings as they were hung.

The exhibition opens on 26th October, though the V&A’s excellent animated trailer is well worth watching for a preview of what to expect!:

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