Expertise spreading in preservation of ancient Chinese art, calligraphy
For the past 29 years, Qiu Jinxian, who works at the British Museum, has been handling top-tier artworks from China.
“My job is to handle precious cultural relics and rejuvenate the paintings, just like a doctor treats patients,” the 64-year-old said earlier this month at an international forum on the authentication, restoration and protection of ancient Chinese calligraphy and paintings at Renmin University in Beijing.
“I always use traditional techniques in my work, whether it is for mounting, colors of pigments or selections of materials,” she says.
The process is complicated, and many details are still rooted in tradition. For instance, the glue she uses is made of starch and seaweed. And the paper she uses to restore paintings is dyed using soybean milk.
Qiu arrived at the British Museum in 1987. Before that, Japanese methods were widely used to restore ancient Chinese paintings.
For example, The Admonitions Scroll housed in the British Museum, a work from AD 400 and the oldest surviving Chinese painting — a claim doubted by some scholars, who believe that it is a facsimile of the original — was mounted in wooden lattice in the 1910s rather than preserved as a scroll.
But when Qiu and her colleagues restored the piece in 2013, they decided not to mount it as a scroll due to its fragility.
Typically, mounting a painting takes months using old techniques. Some basic principles are followed: Minimal contact with the cultural relics to maintain their original appearances, and repair of the treasures with materials that can be replaced in case of errors.
Describing Chinese artifacts, Joanna Kosek, head of the pictorial art conservation department at the British Museum, tells China Daily at the forum: “Chinese paintings and calligraphy are more like 3-D objects. The scroll format gives them protection. But, when you roll and fold them, damage becomes inevitable.
“So, you have to learn techniques for mounting and lining (Chinese works), and they are different from commonly used materials (in the West).”
Kosek says that the number of conservationists who can handle ancient Chinese paintings in Europe is small compared with the expertise available for Western art. Of the roughly 1,500 ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphy pieces housed in the British Museum, “hundreds” need to be restored, she says.
Some attempts are being made to remedy this situation.
In recent years, the museum has been working on specific projects with its counterparts in China like the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Shanghai Museum.
Also, Qiu has so far trained five full-time conservators for ancient Chinese paintings.
“You cannot teach quickly,” Kosek says. “It may be difficult to see the results even after a decade, but the number of conservators (of Chinese paintings) will slowly grow in Europe.”
Mixing of schools
According to Zhang Jigang, a professor at Renmin University who launched the forum, the event will move to the University of Hong Kong in 2017 and then to Yale in the United States the year after.
“Paintings and calligraphy represent the spirit of the Chinese and their philosophy. They are common treasures of humanity. So, such an event helps the study of scattered Chinese art,” Zhang says.
Still, mindsets vary when it comes to the restoration of ancient Chinese paintings in China and in the West.
For instance, at the British Museum, restoration is linked to specific programs and exhibition schedules.
Kosek says: “It’s (restoration) very exhibition-focused and access-focused. If we want to allow a research program on the paintings of an artist, we make sure they are safe to be handled. The structure of the scrolls has to be sound, and there have to be no cracks.”
At Beijing’s Palace Museum, things work differently.
Yu Hui, a senior painting researcher at the Palace Museum, prefers to first rank the museum’s collections and then set a restoration timetable for the paintings according to their importance.
The museum houses 56,000 paintings. Most were collected by royal families of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
“With such a huge number of works, we have to know which ones are the most important,” says Yu. “And that leads to the combining of painting authentication — which explores historical information — and restoration, which is more chemical and physical work.”
Yu adds the two fields used to be seen as separate entities, but the forum at Renmin University shows they are gradually coming closer.
“Without historical research, restorers can easily be distracted by the appearance of the painting,” says Yu. “But what if they are counterfeits?”
So, as the two fields intersect, experts are also calling for the use of technology in the restoration process.
“The work needs to be measurable with modern instruments rather than relying solely on experience,” Shan Guolin, a researcher at Shanghai Museum, says. “Scientific methods and new materials need to be introduced.”
Still, Yu says that, although technical methods are now used to check the authenticity of the paintings and analyze the materials used to create them, most of the restoration process is manual.
“We once tried to mount paintings using machines,” he says. “It was more efficient, but the results were not very satisfactory.”
Need for rejuvenation
Meanwhile, in spite of help from technology, a challenge commonly faced in restoration is the lack of expertise in taking care of ancient Chinese paintings, both in overseas institutions and at home.
Mei Mosheng, a researcher at the National Art Museum of China, says: “The expertise is generally restricted to a small circle because of the way today’s education system is structured. And the dilemma cannot be resolved with a few years of training. To be a professional restorer, you need lots of practice.”
Mei says the way modern society functions means that there will be big gaps to fill as the older generation retires.
So, how to focus more attention on the issue is a shared concern for all professionals in the sector.
Earlier this year, Masters in the Forbidden City, a three-episode documentary about cultural-relic restorers from the Palace Museum, went viral. It was even edited into a feature-length film that was screened nationwide two weeks ago.
Separately, at the British Museum, short films on Qiu’s works were released on YouTube.
As Kosek sees it: “It (conservation) is a profession for life. And it is important to gain public understanding through the media and tell people that heritage is valuable and worth preserving.
“Investing in people who know how to do it (restoration) is a good business in many ways.”
Top: Qiu Jinxian (right) restores an ancient calligraphic piece with the help of a conservator at the British Museum. Above left and right: Visitors at the exhibition that runs in tandem with the international forum on the authentication, restoration and protection of ancient Chinese calligraphy and paintings at Renmin University in Beijing.