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Tuesday, June 12, 2018, 12:04
Restoring Chinese art
By Cheng Yuezhu
Tuesday, June 12, 2018, 12:04 By Cheng Yuezhu

Experts call for better understanding of historical and cultural context. Cheng Yuezhu reports.

Experts seek to put emphasis on the background stories in the restoration of ancient Chinese art and calligraphy at this year's international forum on art preservation in Beijing. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Restorers of ancient Chinese art and calligraphy need to focus on the historical context of the artworks when working on them.

"We should focus not only on the ancient calligraphy and paintings themselves, but also on the art, culture and civilization hidden within," says Zhang Bin, the director of the Conservation and Identification Center of Documents and Paintings at Renmin University of China.

Zhang made these comments at the 2018 International Summit Forum on the Authentication, Restoration and Protection of Chinese Ancient Calligraphy and Paintings which took place in Beijing between June 5 and 7.

We should look at the historical background so as to restore the original features of the works

Yu Hui, Palace Museum Research Laboratory director

According to Zhang, the center has been seeking to connect with world-renowned museums, galleries, institutes, artists and critics, to protect Chinese ancient art and calligraphy on a global scale since the first forum was held in 2016.

So far, the forum received academic support from 28 museums and archives from China, the United Kingdom and the United States, including the Palace Museum and the British Museum.

Echoing Zhang's concerns, Yu Hui, the director of the Research Laboratory at the Palace Museum, focused on the earlier preservation and restoration work done on five renowned pre-Yuan-Dynasty paintings.

"The original historical and cultural information was often misinterpreted by later generations (during those restorations). So, we should look at the historical background so as to restore the original features of the works."

In his case study on the work of Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy (Bunian Tu), Yu countered the assertion of artist Ning Enbao, that the Palace Museum had damaged the painting during the restoration process, resulting in the disappearance of a white cloth bag and the obscuring of the view of a maidservant's hand.


According to Yu, the "white cloth bag" was in fact an illusion from a piece of damaged silk, and the seeming obscuring of the hand was caused by low-resolution printing.

Yu pointed out that art restoration goes hand in hand with art research. "So, only when we know the reason for the damage (of the artwork) and the history of its restoration, can we restore it properly."

Context is also key in calligraphy authentication. This is showcased by Cai Yaoqing, a researcher at the Museum of History at Taiwan, who investigated artist Wang Duo's copy of calligrapher Yan Zhenqing's work, Liu Zhongshi Tie.

Though the work is listed as a copy by Wang, the piece differs greatly from Yan's original work.

Explaining the difference, Cai points out that 1639, the year when Wang produced the copy, was when Wang's second daughter died. It marked the continuation of Li Zicheng's peasant rebellion at a time when there was widespread famine.


Cai further says that as Yan's original work was a passionate expression of his loyalty to the country in a time of turmoil, Wang also chose this work intentionally to express his patriotism. Therefore, he adds that the deviation in the copy is understandable, for Wang's work "was not only to imitate the appearance of the original work, but to reveal more of his own emotions".

Meanwhile, apart from focusing on the uniqueness of Chinese artworks and culture, this year's forum focused on the combination of traditional Chinese restoration techniques and global best practices, says Liu Wei, the president of Renmin University of China.

One example of this is how paper conservation techniques from the West have been incorporated by Chinese restorers.

According to Joanna Kosek, the head of Pictorial Art Conservation at the British Museum, paper conservation as a profession developed in the West only after World War II. But this technique has gained popularity globally as evidenced by the work of the museum's Hirayama Studio, which was set up in 1994 for the conservation of East Asian paintings.


Now, restoration experts from East Asia, including Chinese restorer Qiu Jinxian, blend traditional Eastern preservation methods with modern preservation practices.

For instance, in scroll mounting, the studio uses the paper, silk and tools recommended by Chinese experts, but also uses gluten-free wheat starch.

The use of modern technology is exemplified by the work of the National Archives of Singapore, according to Lay Yoong-ell, a researcher at the National Palace Museum at Taipei, who says NAS is constantly updating its methods of archive preservation, with an elaborate system of document filming, repair and oral history compilation.

The forum also featured an exhibition of select ancient Chinese paintings and calligraphy works by artists from the Ming and Qing dynasties and the modern era, including Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong and Zhang Daqian.

Contact the writer at chengyuezhu@chinadaily.com.cn

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