After the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Scripps owns the second largest collection of Chinese paintings available to the public in southern California. At Scripps the art collections are a resource for teaching in the arts and Humanities; consequently, our goal is to make these works suitable for exhibition and accessible for study. Our first project, funded by the Getty, was to catalogue and photograph the Chinese paintings for display on the College’s website. We were assisted in this by several Chinese art scholars, including Professor James Cahill of UC Berkeley, Professor Richard Barnhardt of Yale, and Professor Peter Sturman of UC Santa Barbara. They helped us assess authenticity and quality, and works were prioritized for conservation. Professor Bruce Coats (Ph.D. Harvard), who teaches courses in Asian art history at Scripps, also evaluated the works for their usefulness in teaching and exhibitions.
After completing a conservation assessment of the college’s permanent collection, the gallery’s director Mary MacNaughton secured conservation grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation to treat 15 Chinese paintings.
Before treatment, many Chinese paintings in the Scripps collection could not be exhibited because of various kinds of damage. Sometime in the 1930s, before the college received the works as a gift from a private collector, many paintings had been placed on stretcher frames for Western style presentation. Consider the image of Seated Female to see how the supporting frames left visible marks on the surface of the paper. Other paintings, such as Peacocks, suffered water damage from substandard storage environments before coming under the gallery staff’s care. These paintings have been cleaned, re-backed, and remounted for appropriate scroll presentations. Note the dramatic contrast between the “before” and “after” paintings referenced in the above links.
One of the challenges was to find a conservator in the United States who has the traditional training required to treat and remount Chinese paintings. The few who qualify are often unable to take on new work. After consulting with Robert Singer, Curator of Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, we secured the services of Mr. Hisaji Sekichi, head of Sekichi Bokusendo Conservation Studio in Kyoto, Japan.
Mr. Sekichi came to campus, examined each painting and recommended specific treatments. The paintings were carefully removed by him from the western-style stretcher bars, and then shipped from Claremont, CA to Kyoto, to Sekichi Bokusendo, where there were safely received. Mr. Sekichi initially photographed each work, meticulously examined its condition, and carefully analyzed the paper and mounting silks to determine what areas needed reinforcing or restoration. He also did extensive research to find the best quality textiles for new mountings. These steps preceded the actual cleaning of the silk surfaces of the paintings.
These paintings have been cleaned and remounted with new fabrics and backing papers. In addition, they are be individually housed in traditional Japanese storage boxes. The process of conservation is being documented with description and images of each phase of work.
The outcome of the project will be beautifully restored paintings suitable for exhibition in the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery and for use in the classroom. Dr. Bruce Coats will also organize an exhibition at the Williamson Gallery in 2013, which will look at the traditional art of conservation of Asian paintings as it is practiced in Japan. This exhibition will feature images of the various stages of the conservation process, comparing photo panels of each work in its former damaged state with the final treated painting.
Scripps students will participate in this conservation project. Each year the Williamson Gallery sponsors six paid internships. The Getty Foundation supports three summer multi-cultural internships, and Jane and Michael Wilson, alumnae of Scripps and Harvey Mudd Colleges, provide three Wilson internships. These Getty and Wilson interns will help prepare the exhibition by researching the paintings and writing wall panels to explain the traditional process of conservation. In this way our students will help us illuminate for the public the art and science of conservation as practiced in Japan.
This part of the Scripps collection, which consists of more than 1,000 objects, was surveyed several years ago by textile expert John Vollmer. In recent years expert advice has been received from Chinese textile curators and conservators in Southern California, and in October 2007 a day-long symposium on Chinese textile restoration was held at Scripps, in conjunction with a College seminar course “Asian textiles in Context” taught by Professor Coats. Over the last several years Getty and Wilson interns have helped the gallery’s staff to organize, photograph, and electronically catalogue these objects, which range from grand Chinese imperial robes to small silk slippers. Many of these garments are in need of cleaning and repair. One example is a Chinese Theater Robe from the 19th century.
This Peking Opera costume is actually two robes designed for an on-stage quick change, with an elaborate red satin cape and skirt that can be flipped over an elegant white satin floor length coat transforming the actor into a spectacular butterfly. The surfaces of both robes are densely embroidered with butterfly and floral patterns, and the red garment has layers of gold wrapped threads and tiny mirrors that have been sewn onto the designs to give a brilliant shimmering effect to the butterfly’s wings.
Such a costume would have been worn during performances for imperial and aristocratic audiences in the 19th century. Inside the garment’s linings are handwritten notes, not yet translated, that probably indicate what theater troupe owned the robe, which dramatic character would have worn it, and when it might have been made and used.
The basic structure of the garment is “fine,” though needing repairs on most seams. The gold threads need to be stabilized, for the couching stitches are deteriorating due to friction and contact with the metal. Some water stains and stress creases on both robes should be ameliorated. For display purposes, the garment should be relined.
Few examples of fine quality Chinese theatrical costumes are currently in American museum collections, so that this example (once stabilized) would be available for loaning to other institutions and valuable for display on campus. A regularly offered Scripps College seminar on “The Arts of Late Imperial China” includes the opportunity for students to stage an exhibition on some aspect of Ming-Qing culture, for which they select objects from the Scripps College collections of Chinese textiles, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, cloisonné metalwork, furniture, and illustrated books. Students have frequently wanted to use this Chinese Opera costume, but have been unable to do so because of its current fragile condition.
The gallery’s next challenge is to secure a conservation grant to treat this garment and other Chinese costumes, so that our students, faculty, scholars and the public can enjoy them.