QAGOMA conservators collaborated with specialist East Asian Art Conservator Jennifer Loubser to assess the conservation repairs necessary to stabilise an unusual 8-panel Japanese folding screen, Scenes from Genji Monogatari to allow its safe handling and display – in assessing the condition of the work when it came into the Collection it was found that hundreds of years of use and display had caused four sets of the delicate paper hinges connecting the three right panels to become weakened and in danger of becoming completely broken and detached.
Behind-the-scenes: Conservation of an 18th Century 8-panel Japanese folding screen
Paper was an expensive item in Japan during the 18th century. Among luxuries, paper appears to have been used sparingly in the delicate construction of this folding screen, perhaps to allow for a generous excess of chume sunago (flakes of gold leaf) throughout the painted silk surface, and surrounding kinran (gold thread silk borders). The graceful brush-work of the artist’s hand detailing dainty patterns in layers of the court ladies’ silk kimono garments adds an ornate appeal to this fine example of a koshi-byobu (waist-height folding screen).
This screen has survived in excellent condition for hundreds of years, as the tradition of seasonal displays is still strong in Japan. Rotating artworks provides rest and protection, so they too may live longer lives. Folding screens known as ‘byobu’, are constructed with the intention to provide a delightful continuous scene over a wide area, while creating privacy and shelter from drafts. The panels are connected by hinges made entirely of strong Japanese paper which can last a thousand years when well cared for. Through normal use folding and unfolding, paper hinges see the most wear and tear. These moving parts may need repairs or reconstruction after several hundred years. Displaying byobu standing in an accordion pattern allows them to be free-standing and also protects screens from being overextended. If folding screens are displayed completely flat their hinges can begin to strain and tension may be exerted across the painted surface.
This folding screen was stabilised just in time, before the failing hinges began to cause splits across the paintings. Weakened with use over centuries, hinges had torn apart from the adjacent panels. Gold leaf had delaminated from single-layer paper hinges. It was crucial to support these frail connections with museum quality Japanese handmade paper sub-hinges. Traditional Japanese art conservation methods and materials including plant-based watercolours and pure gold pigments to infill loss areas were used in continuity with the original artist materials. The autumn story depicted in this painting has now been fortified with strength to weather an abundance of seasons ahead.
Related: A Fleeting Bloom Read about necessary conservation repairs to stabilise works in the exhibition
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This 8-panel folding screen is now standing proudly in the Queensland Art Gallery as part of ‘A Fleeting Bloom’. The stunning display of antique Japanese artworks in the exhibition are fine examples of delicate artistic rendition and quality materials. I highly recommend seeing these in person if you enjoy spending time with refined details and aesthetics of splendid open spaces.
Jennifer Loubser is an East Asian Art Conservator
Before and After Conservation
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Learn more about Traditional Japanese Art Conservation in Australia
Caring for Japanese folding screens: Free-Sackler Conservators demonstrate Safe Handling for Japanese folding screens
Feature image detail: Tosa School Eight-fold screen: Scenes from Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) 18th century