‘A fleeting bloom: Japanese Art from the Collection’ is the debut exhibition for a number of historical folding screens that recently entered the QAGOMA Collection as part of the James Fairfax AC Bequest. The Curatorial team for Asian art worked closely with Conservation staff on this project and Emily Wakeling recently met behind-the-scenes with Kim Barrett, Conservator, Works on Paper to discuss some of the work she’s completed in caring for the new acquisitions; and to gain expert knowledge about caring for Japanese folding screens.
Preparing for Display
Japanese screens are made from a light cedarwood or other softwood structure covered in several layers of paper with a painted surface, often with a lacquer frame. The panels are connected by discreet paper hinges. When a work like this seventeenth-century Six-fold screen with nobleman’s cart under a flowering cherry tree comes into the Collection, one of the conservator’s first tasks is to undertake a condition assessment.
‘The first step is to unpack, inspect and assess the condition of the work,’ says Barrett. ‘We need to determine what, if any, work is required to ensure the work is stable and safe for display.’
Given this screen’s considerable age and the delicate nature of the painted surface, some wear and tear can be expected. The screen has been subject to some previous restorations, but Barrett singled out signs of flaking in the black pigment as something to act on before the work went on display.
‘The areas of black media need the most attention. On Six-fold screen with nobleman’s cart, there are large areas of solid black semi-gloss paint. The black is shinier in appearance that the other colours, likely due to a higher proportion of binder, nikawa (animal glue) and an additional layer of nikawa used as a glaze. As the paint ages, the glue tends to shrink and become more brittle, causing cracking and the paint to lift up from the surface.’
Flaking paint presents an additional challenge for handling the screens. Weeks of consolidation —the process of adhering the paint back to the surface — were required to make the screen fit for handling and display.
Related: A Fleeting Bloom Delve into conservation projects to prepare new acquisitions for display.
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Handling and Display
A high level of care and expertise is required when handling such rare and valuable screens. To avoid potential dents, punctures and surface damage — which leads to costly and time-consuming repairs — screens should only be handled by their frame and, where necessary, the very edges of the panel where the screen frame lies below the outer layers.
‘Always with gloves of course, and make sure your hands clamp the solid frame only,’ Barrett says. ‘A tall screen like the Six-fold screen with nobleman’s cart will need two or more people. Dents and punctures can happen when you put pressure on the hollow parts only covered by paper. Gloves will help avoid abrasion of the surface on the parts you are handling. Stand it up while it’s still folded, and then one step at a time, from the outside in, move the panels out in an accordion-like shape.’
Made for the open-plan halls of Edo period (1603–1868) architecture, folding screens were a practical way to stop draughts and section off parts of a room for privacy, as well as a way to display art. They also needed to be easy to move and replace, so they were designed to be self-standing, displayed semi-folded. I asked Barrett if this would also be the safest way to display them, from a conservation point of view.
‘Yes,’ she confirms. ‘Sometimes non-Japanese collectors like to display them flat and mounted on a wall, like a Western-style painting, but this can put pressure on the paper hinges. Also, there’s the question of how to mount it, and this often leads to intrusive screws or fixings that will inevitably damage the work, usually the timber frame.’
‘The best way to care for these screens is to understand the nature of the materials they are made from: timber, lacquer, paper and paint. Screens are complex in their make-up, and understanding the nature of these materials and their use in screen construction helps us determine the best way to handle, store and display these works. One very important aspect to understand, and of great interest to a paper conservator, is the unique qualities of Japanese paper’
Papermaking was first brought to Japan from China, via Korea, around the year 610. Naturally, ‘there are many similarities, but Japanese papermaking developed its own traditions.’
Of the Japanese papers, kōzo (made from the paper mulberry tree fibres), mitsumata and gampi are the most common. All require a painstakingly long cleaning process during production. Kōzo is both the strongest and the most lightweight, owing to its long and high-quality fibres. It had an important role in architecture, used for walls and windows, and is likely to have been used in these screens.
‘More research can determine the exact type of paper we are dealing with. From literary sources, I know it will vary in quality throughout the different layers of the screen,’ Barrett explained. ‘Having these screens in the Collection, along with our others, will allow for even more opportunities for study and care.’
Emily Wakeling is former Assistant Curator, Asian and Pacific Art, QAGOMA
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Feature image: Kim Barrett consolidating the surface of the Six-fold screen with nobleman’s cart under a flowering cherry tree c.1650 / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA