World her­itage

Ex­per­tise spread­ing in preser­va­tion of an­cient Chi­nese art, calligraphy

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at wangkai­hao@ chi­ Wang Yi­ran, Yan Yu­jie and Xu Zim­ing contributed to this story.

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.

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