Grace Jan, assistant Chinese painting conservator
In March 2009, I joined the East Asian painting conservators in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the Freer|Sackler. Prior to coming to the museums, I graduated in 2007 from the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where I studied paper conservation with a specialization in Chinese mounting. At that time, there were few opportunities to gain formalized training in this field in the United States. But in between graduate school and my work at the Freer|Sackler, I was able to pursue opportunities abroad in China and train at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), studying conservation of Chinese paintings. In China, I completed seven months at the Shanghai Museum and four months at the Palace Museum in Beijing.
I first specialized in Chinese paintings during my last two years of graduate study, when I trained in the Asian Art Conservation Studio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met). The Met laid a strong foundation in the basic knowledge and use of various tools, brushes, measurements, and mounting techniques on which to build a more advanced level of conservation training. The opportunity to study in China came at the most appropriate time, because it at once enabled me to pursue advanced training and broadened my experience beyond the Met.
My objectives while training in China were to be part of a larger mounting studio than exists in the United States, to study under the instruction of multiple Chinese painting conservators, and to work alongside other pupils pursuing a similar career path. The Shanghai Museum follows the traditional approach for training students, which resembles a master/apprentice teaching model. The presence of many mentors and peers created a stimulating environment for learning various mounting techniques and discussing issues related to the conservation of Chinese paintings. I found that each teacher had his/her own style and I observed and learned from each one’s particular strengths.
Another goal was to focus on practicing the fundamental techniques used in mounting Chinese paintings and to continue to develop my hand skills. In the past, Chinese painting conservators who trained in a museum setting spent at least three years learning to remount new paintings, mastering their basic hand skills before they were allowed to work on old paintings. In a similar approach, I was given a few new paintings and made models of standard formats: a mounted framed painting, a one-color and two-color mount hanging scroll, a hand scroll, and a folding album. I was able to review techniques such as paste making, cutting and tearing paper, brushing, pounding, backing and dying silk and paper, assembly of the painting and mount, and installation of the top and bottom rods of the scroll.
The opportunity to work on mounting multiple paintings from start to finish enabled me to improve my hand dexterity and set in memory the many complicated steps of each format. In addition to working on new paintings, I assisted with the conservation of old paintings painted on either paper or silk primary supports. I focused on techniques including washing, backing removal, tear and loss repair, and inpainting.
One of my favorite aspects of working on Chinese paintings is that it is primarily a wet process. In many ways, it reminds me of my early training in Western paper conservation, where water is often the most useful tool for reducing discoloration and deterioration products, removing backing layers, and enabling precise mending of tears and losses. A Chinese treatment technique that I found particularly interesting was the repair of losses while the painting is still wet, using watery paste and wet paper infills, which are easily shaped and pared with a small blade or knife.
I quickly learned that the quality of the tools used is critical to the outcome of the work. I discovered that there was a variety of special Chinese mounting materials and tools that I had never seen, such as traditional facing paper and the water brush, paste brush, and pounding brush. I realized that many of the tools had to be specially ordered, but even then, good quality was an issue.
My time in the Palace Museum in Beijing gave me the opportunity to compare conservation approaches at the two most esteemed Chinese painting conservation studios in China. Indeed, hearing about the history of both studios from my teachers at each museum was fascinating and, from a living history perspective, quite precious. I learned that both studios share similar foundations in southern style techniques of mounting, with Beijing also integrating northern style techniques. Both museums’ traditional techniques and methods of Chinese painting conservation are not very different and have not changed much. However, I was able to note some distinctions and to observe a little of how Western and East Asian conservation treatment approaches have influenced one another.
Besides working in the studio, I had the unique opportunity to participate in the on-site restoration of Emperor Qianlong’s Juan Qin Zhai in the Forbidden City, a joint project undertaken by the Palace Museum and the World Monuments Fund. In the project’s final stage, large-scale wall and ceiling paintings that had undergone conservation treatment were reinstalled. The chance to be part of a project that required collaborative work between conservators from the United States and China was especially rewarding, and I was able to contribute to the dialogue by serving as a translator.
Studying abroad was one of my most rewarding experiences and built upon my graduate training. These experiences have provided a foundation for my current work at the Freer|Sackler alongside senior conservator Xiangmei Gu. Apprenticeship training in the East is much more dependent on the relationship between master and student, and it is crucial to the development of a conservator. However, the confluence of my experiences has revealed that the field needs balance to move forward. The younger generation should honor the traditions that gave rise to the senior conservators we respect today. Likewise, the older generation should consider the challenges facing the next generation and find ways to combine the education offered through apprenticeship and degree-granting training. I believe we are moving in the right direction, but we are still in the initial stages of bridging these two systems.
As mentioned previously, the majority of formal training in Chinese painting conservation is in China, with limited opportunities in the United States. I have had the privilege of training not only in China but at several U.S. institutions: the Met, the MFA, and now at the Freer|Sackler. These opportunities have fostered my desire to contribute to the field and be active in moving it forward.
One way we are addressing this at the Freer|Sackler is by securing a permanent position for an assistant Chinese painting conservator. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has offered the museums a matching endowment to help raise funding for a permanent assistant position by 2016. This position will establish a master-student apprenticeship model in the United States, providing a training framework to ensure the continued conservation of Chinese paintings in U.S. museums. As a “hybridized apprenticeship,” it will grant me the privilege of continuing to train with Xiangmei Gu, developing my skills and knowledge under her tutelage along with applying those I acquired during graduate school and abroad. It will be among the first positions of its kind in the States.