39th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, Wednesday, June 1, “How Far Do We Go? Compensation And Mounting Choices In The Treatment Of Japanese Paintings,” Tanya Uyeda, Asian Conservation Studio, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Tanya Uyeda, conservator at the Asian Conservation Studio at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, kicked off the first BPG session of the conference with an interesting and nicely illustrated talk on the treatment decision-making challenges presented by Japanese paintings. Executed on either silk or paper, Japanese paintings are mounted onto folding screens, sliding doors, and scrolls – inherently kinetic formats that pose many conservation challenges.

The preservation of these formats is dependent on periodic remounting of the paintings. The operating assumption for Japanese paintings is that they have been mounted and re-mounted many times before entering Western collections. In order to accommodate the kinetic nature of these paintings, treatments tend to be rather invasive, requiring careful evaluation of when and how to incorporate past repairs into a structurally, aesthetically, and ethically appropriate result. Japanese paintings have often been re-mounted onto different formats; one example Uyeda shared was a pair of paintings that had originally been mounted to sliding doors and were later mounted as scrolls to facilitate exhibition. A painting’s primary support can serve as a clue to it’s original format. In this example, the sliding door paintings were on quite heavy paper, which doesn’t lend itself as well to the scroll format and can lead to structural problems when the paintings are forced to move in new ways. The decision was made to return to these paintings to their original format. Uyeda was quick to point out that changing formats always has consequences; these remounted paintings will now require new storage space.

Problems with previous repairs include mismatched colors, repair materials that are too strong for the original silk, and weak brush strokes that can diminish the aesthetics of the piece. Since curators and clients are attached to what the paintings look like, care is taken to ensure that the new treatments receive ethical treatment that is also sympathetic to the aesthetics of the object. Past mounters would compensate for losses with patches of painting silk attached to the back of the object; this repair silk wears differently than the original silk, causing both structural and aesthetic problems. The MFA currently has a limited stock of painting silk from Japan they use for loss compensation; this silk has been irradiated, which deteriorates it enough to weaken the repair fibers and achieve a better color match. They also have a stock of mounting silk for remounting scrolls. The MFA strives to choose mounting silk that is complementary to the aesthetics and the time period of the original painting. If the current mounting is appropriate, complementary, and usable, they will leave it.

The current Japanese standard for treatment of paintings is that no non-original materials remain, but the MFA takes a different approach, particularly with regard to inpainting. The ethical standard the MFA follows is not to inpaint, but just to tone the areas of loss. However, previous treatments often exhibit extensive inpainting and there are instances when the decision is made to retain these repairs.  Uyeda discussed a few examples of paintings in which the previous inpainting was reused, since to remove it would leave an unacceptable void in the painting. Traditionally, toned paper was sometimes used as a lining in order to affect the final appearance of the paintings. Uyeda showed a lovely example of a painting that, based on evidence that it had originally been lined with blue paper to create a “night sky” effect, was relined with blue toned paper in order to retain the aesthetics.

I appreciated that Uyeda highlighted the fact that the only reason most of these paintings still exist is because they have been regularly remounted and acknowledged the expectation that they will be treated again in the future. Ethical considerations of past repairs was a thread that ran through many of the talks; Uyeda’s served as a good reminder that all of the work we do exists at one point on a continuum of past and future treatments.

Q: Do they include any of this narrative about past repairs and choices about remounting on the exhibit labels?
A: No, MFA practice is to only include tombstone information on labels.

Q: When remounting hanging scrolls, do they change/replace the roller knobs?
A: They occasionally reuse the knobs if they’re in good condition, but since original knobs are often ivory and many of these pieces go out on international loan, it has become the policy of the MFA to remove the knobs prior to loans in order to avoid the difficulty of transporting ivory through customs.