Conservator Gao Jing painstakingly works to restore 12-foot portrait of Marshal Xin
When Gao Jing, a conservator of Chinese paintings at the Museum Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), began working for the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art in 1988, he was the first and only conservator of Chinese paintings working in the US.
Now, he works with three other Chinese conservators at the MFA, currently restoring a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) portrait of Marshal Xin, “a general of thunder”, which is painted on silk and mounted in a simple two-colored hanging scroll format.
“It’s the first time we’re restoring a painting on view to the public,” said Gao, sitting in his office in front of a shelf draped with all kinds of facing, infilling and lining kits. “Visitors can observe the Chinese painting conservation process in person – a great opportunity to see what happens behind the exhibitions.”
Gao said another reason for restoring the work in public was that the 12-foot-high painting was too large to be treated in the studio. The conservation work started in July and will last through next February.
“The scroll was in poor condition when we started,” said Gao. “The painting and mount form an inseparable unit, which is very different from most Western paintings, so we have to restore the painted image and original silk support together.
“Before we brought the piece to the gallery, we spent a month cleaning off the mold stains and the brownish discolorations,” Gao said. “We first removed the mold stains with filtered water and blotting paper squares; then we sprayed a solution of 70 percent isopropyl alcohol onto the surface for further cleaning.”
Gao said the treatment process was complicated, involving cleaning, consolidation of pigments, removal of old paper linings, filling gaps with appropriate silk and more.
Gao was invited by Jacki Elgar, head of the Asian Conservation Studio at the MFA, to join the staff in 1995. He has been restoring Chinese paintings for more than 40 years since he studied and worked at the Palace Museum from 1973 until 1985, where he learned Chinese painting conservation and mounting techniques from master mounters.
“It’s a chance for the American public, as well as all visitors from different countries, to see a Chinese painting being treated and how much effort and processes go into it,” said Elgar. “Most people have no clue about Chinese painting conservation and even conservation in general.”
Elgar said it has always been difficult to find a well-trained Chinese conservator for museums in the US, where many Chinese paintings are stored and preserved.
“We always want more people,” said Elgar. “Asian conservation is such a small group, so we not only share knowledge about materials but also people.”
The portrait is exhibited as a part of the Conservation in Action: Demons and Demon Quellers show in the Asian Paintings Gallery, which features 21 other works from China, Japan and Korea.
The painting was originally labeled in the museum as a portrait of the well-known demon queller Zhong Kui. “However, recent research by curators has revealed the subject’s true identity to be Marshal Xin,” said Gao.
“Marshal Xin was transformed by the thunder deity into a thunder guardian because of his deep filial piety,” volunteer docent Irene Chang explained to visitors watching the conservation work in action.
“You should also take a look at this painting,” Chang said, pointing to another scroll on the wall.
Chang said the exhibition is an excellent opportunity to familiarize Americans with the profoundness of traditional Chinese culture. “Many visitors are extremely attracted by this topic and willing to know more,” Chang said.
“I was always curious about how they restore those ancient paintings, and it’s the first time I’ve see it happen in front of me,” said Rahel Desalegne. “And the topic of demons and demon quellers is so unique; I’ve never seen such an exhibition before.”