A Six-Panel Screen and a Panel of Conservators

Whether ancient, contemporary, or any time in between, there are countless types of artwork of all styles and ages that challenge conservators. Every piece of artwork has its own nuances and characteristics that are the result of the artist’s technique, the materials used, and the conditions the artwork experiences over the years. When it comes to conservation there is probably no type of artwork as commonly complex as traditional Asian screens. Typically constructed of paper decorated with paints, gilding, and stretched over a wooden support, Asian screens are a type of object that can require consultations including conservators in many different specialties. Collaboration between paper, furniture, painting, and gilding conservators can be critical to determine the appropriate treatment and achieve successful results when treating Asian screens.

 Recently brought to The Center, this six-panel Japanese screen, titled The Marriage Scene, measures twelve feet wide by nearly six feet tall. Each panel had its own list of condition issues, though several were notable throughout the entire piece. A tide line was present along the bottom of every panel, indicating that the screen had been exposed to high levels of moisture. Hinges connecting the panels showed signs of strain and degradation. Previous conservation campaigns were evident by the presence of overpainted tapes that had been applied to repair damage to the seams. Scratches and abrasions were noted throughout the surface, and areas of cracking had resulted in paint loss, specifically in the red painted fields. 

 Before treatment could be proposed to address any of the condition issues, testing was necessary.  Due to the sensitivity of the gilded surface and the tenacity of the overpaint, it was critical to determine whether or not the original surface beneath the overpaint could be revealed both successfully and safely.  Fortunately, initial testing returned positive results and it was determined that the entire screen could be treated for the discoloration.  Removing the overpaint was no small task, told by Senior Conservator of Frames and Gilding, Josh McCauley, “testing determined that at least two different types of overpaint have been previously applied to the surface of the screen. It was necessary to identify the correct chemical formula that would remove those overpaints without disturbing the surface.”  Josh was able to formulate a solvent that successfully broke down the bronze paints while leaving the original surface undisturbed.

One of the two overpaints had heavily oxidized, meaning that over time, compounds in the paint chemically reacted to oxygen in the air.  This reaction made the cleaning process very slow and laborious, as each area had to be treated multiple times with the solvent formula, gradually removing the overpaint carefully. Captured in time lapse, this video features the meticulous bronze paint removal from just a section of one of the six panels; each panel is two feet wide by almost six feet high. Removal of the overpaint may have been a slow process, but the results are remarkable. Collaboration will continue among the gilding, paper, and furniture conservators as they work through the second phase of this complex Asian screen treatment.

In phase two of this collaboration, conservators work to address the structural components of the massive screen.  Senior Paper Conservator, Brian Kapernekas, will be focusing on a thorough cleaning of the entire screen. He explains, "we are proposing to treat areas of delamination, as well as cleaning the recto and the verso of the piece."  Conservation proves to be meticulous and complex, however with interdepartmental collaboration, our conservators are up for the challenge!