Sav­ing the fab­ric of history

Grad­u­ates from the Shang­hai In­sti­tute of Vis­ual Arts re­ceive in­ter­na­tional ac­claim for their ef­forts in restor­ing an­cient Chi­nese art­works

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ZHANG KUN in Shang­hai zhangkun@chi­

An ex­hi­bi­tion of works by grad­u­ates of ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tutes do not usu­ally garner much fanfare, but the cre­den­tials of those in at­ten­dance at this par­tic­u­lar one in­di­cated that it was much more sig­nif­i­cant than a reg­u­lar show­case.

Be­tween June 23 and July 17, Jianyu Yaji — a gallery in Hongqiao An­tique Town in western Shang­hai — be­came a bustling hub of in­ter­na­tional art ex­change as it hosted an ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing Chi­nese paint­ings and cal­lig­ra­phy works that were re­stored and re­pro­duced by 32 grad­u­ates hail­ing from the restora­tion depart­ment of the Col­lege of Fine Arts in the Shang­hai In­sti­tute of Vis­ual Arts (SIVA).

The ex­hi­bi­tion had at­tracted scholars and aca­demics from some of the most ac­claimed mu­se­ums in the world, in­clud­ing re­searchers and restora­tion ex­perts from the Bri­tish Mu­seum in Lon­don, the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum in New York and the Shang­hai Mu­seum. But be­sides be­ing a plat­form for show­cas­ing works of art, the ex­hi­bi­tion also earned sev­eral grad­u­ates op­por­tu­ni­ties to work abroad at the fa­mous Metropoli­tan Mu­seum.

“They have in­ter­viewed three of our stu­dents, and the next round of in­ter­views will take place in the United States. It’s an ex­tremely com­pet­i­tive process, and ev­ery­thing is fair and open,” said Shen Yazhou, a pro­fes­sor at SIVA who was once a re­storer at the Shang­hai Mu­seum.

Chi­nese art, es­pe­cially tra­di­tional ink paint­ings, are gain­ing more recog­ni­tion in the in­ter­na­tional art scene as China’s econ­omy and so­cial de­vel­op­ment grow, ob­served Qu Jip­ing, man­ager of Jianyu Yaji gallery. In the past few years, when tur­bu­lence in the fi­nan­cial mar­kets sig­nif­i­cantly im­pacted the price of con­tem­po­rary art, the value of Chi­nese art and an­tiques have re­mained steady at auc­tions home and abroad, he said.

The in­tri­cate hand­i­craft of restora­tion is an in­dis­pens­able part of China’s art history but has in the past few decades, like many other tra­di­tional pro­fes­sions, been left be­hind in the wake of so­ci­etal change. The restora­tion of an­cient Chi­nese art has been an ex­per­tise passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to another through fam­ily-size stu­dios. Two an­cient wa­ter towns in Suzhou and Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, had both hosted some renowned stu­dios in the early 20th cen­tury and when the Shang­hai Mu­seum was founded in the 1950s, ex­pe­ri­enced crafts­men from these places were re­cruited.

Shen, who was a young ap­pren­tice at Shang­hai Mu­seum dur­ing the 1970s, learned from these ex­pe­ri­enced crafts­men and he still re­mem­bers the heated ar­gu­ments be­tween the mas­ters of “Yangzhou school” and “Suzhou school”. It was only a few years later that he re­al­ized this bick­er­ing was ac­tu­ally an im­por­tant aca­demic dis­cus­sion about the best meth­ods to cre­ate art.

In an at­tempt to in­te­grate tra­di­tional hand­i­craft into its mod­ern cur­ricu­lum, SIVA founded the restora­tion depart­ment at its Col­lege of Art in 2008 and hired Shen along with other ex­pe­ri­enced re­stor­ers as pro­fes­sors. The new cur­ricu­lum now re­quires stu­dents to learn the science and artis­tic the­ory in­volved in restora­tions, as well as the ac­tual op­er­a­tion meth­ods. One of the most im­por­tant guide­lines in art restora­tion is that the work must be re­triev­able so that it can be fur­ther re­stored in the fu­ture when bet­ter tech­nolo­gies are avail­able.

“They have to prac­tice tra­di­tional ink paint­ing skills, learn mod­ern lab­o­ra­tory tech­nolo­gies and of course the mod­ern re­search method­ol­ogy and the­sis writ­ing. This sys­tem­atic ed­u­ca­tion will teach not only how the job is done, but also why it should be done this way,” said Shen.

As Chi­nese paint­ings or cal­lig­ra­phy works are usu­ally mounted for the pur­pose of vis­ual ap­pre­ci­a­tion as well as con­ser­va­tion, a layer of rice pa­per or silk needs to be glued to the back of the art­work be­fore a frame is added. How­ever, as time passes, the pa­per or silk back­ing in­evitably gets worn out. Also, min­eral pig­ments and ink tra­di­tion­ally used in Chi­nese art easily dis­solves in wa­ter, but restora­tion works can­not be per­formed with­out wa­ter. Shen said that it re­quires a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence to tell which paint­ing should be soaked in wa­ter for some time, and which should just have wa­ter sprin­kled on the sur­face.

Af­ter a pre­lim­i­nary eval­u­a­tion of the con­di­tion of the art­work, the re­storer pro­ceeds to care­fully re­ar­range the fibers and re­move the dirt and mold with fine tools. Fol­low­ing these clean­ing pro­ce­dures, re­stor­ers then sep­a­rate the paint­ing or cal­lig­ra­phy from the pro­tec­tive lin­ing and use all pos­si­ble means to mend the dam­aged ar­eas. The whole process is akin to putting to­gether an in­cred­i­bly del­i­cate jig­saw puz­zle, be­cause tra­di­tion­ally hand­made rice pa­per and silk con­sist of very fine fibers.

“You must also use all means pos­si­ble to achieve the same shade of color as the orig­i­nal,” said Fang Jin­jie, a new SIVA grad­u­ate whose re­stored art­works were on ex­hi­bi­tion.

Sun Jian, a se­nior re­storer with Shang­hai Mu­seum, used to ap­ply to­bacco ashes on the pa­per in or­der to achieve the right color. Fang had also tried us­ing grounded brick pow­der be­fore.

Among the art­works on ex­hi­bi­tion was a badly dam­aged por­trait where one of the sub­jects was miss­ing a head. There was also a paint­ing that was re­stored from hun­dreds of torn pieces, and another that was dam­aged dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion (1966-1976) af­ter the Red Guards de­faced the work — the paint­ing of an­ces­tors was con­sid­ered “counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary” — by draw­ing a cross on it. For­tu­nately the cross was not painted across the body of work, else the restora­tion process would have been much more com­pli­cated, Fang said.

Re­stor­ers are per­mit­ted to fill in the miss­ing strokes in a dam­aged paint­ing or cal­lig­ra­phy work, but only those who pos­sess a deep un­der­stand­ing of the work and its in­tended mes­sage are trusted with such work. Yan Xiaoyan, for ex­am­ple, had to in­ten­sively study the art of an­ces­tor por­traits, a pop­u­lar genre of paint­ing, be­fore com­ing up with a plan to fill in the miss­ing head in the por­trait she re­stored.

The restora­tion depart­ment in SIVA en­rolls up to 20 stu­dents ev­ery other year. Only a few in­sti­tutes in China pro­vide higher ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams for the restora­tion of an­cient Chi­nese art and SIVA stands out among them largely be­cause of the ex­per­tise from Shang­hai Mu­seum, whose restora­tion depart­ment is among the most rec­og­nized in China along­side Bei­jing’s Palace Mu­seum.


This paint­ing was a badly dam­aged por­trait of an­ces­tors where the head of one of the sub­jects was miss­ing. The re­storer, Yan Xiaoyan, had to in­ten­sively study the art of an­ces­tor por­traits, a pop­u­lar genre of paint­ing, be­fore com­ing up with a plan to fill in the miss­ing head.

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