Conservators Preserve Story Behind Chinese Painting at Cleveland Museum of Art

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Artwork doesn't go on display right away when the Cleveland Museum of Art acquires it. The first stop is the conservation department. Some pieces move through quickly, and others require work.

Yi-Hsia Hsiao and her colleague speak to one another in Chinese as they work on smoothing out the creases on a wet piece of patterned, silk spread on the table in the Asian painting lab on a recent afternoon.

“I’m an art doctor. I save art[‘s] life,” said Hsaio, an assistant conservator of Chinese paintings.

She is preparing one of three new linings for an 18th century silk painting the museum purchased from a gallery in New York earlier this year.

Her work requires precision. She studies the fabric for any debris. And when she finds something, she carefully plucks it away.

 “The painting’s condition is fair, it’s not bad, but the mounting itself, it was very bad. [The mounting was short] and then the color was not right.”

She has been working on the new mounting for several weeks. That included removing the backing of the painting, which had become rumpled and faded. She’s replacing it with new linings, or layers, made of silk glued to a thin paper.  Those linings are dried, dyed and eventually cut to length to support the painting.

This is physical, craft work she has to get just right.

 “I was thinking, ‘don’t screw up or I have to start all over,” she said after completing one of the steps.

When the painting was purchased, the museum staff knew then it needed work before going on display and made room for it in the conservation lab.

“We are preserving not only the object but the story of the object, so we are trying to slow down the inevitable deterioration of an object,” said Per Knutas, chief conservator.

While the artist for this painting is unknown, the museum’s curator of Chinese art, Clarissa von Spee, can tell a lot about its story just looking at it.

“The artist plays a lot of little games with the viewer,” she said

The central female figure in the painting is one of the four beauties of ancient China, Yang Guifei. Her nude body is outlined through her semi-translucent red robe, which a viewer might miss with a quick glance.

“Clearly it has an erotic note, but it is very subdued,” von Spee said.

She also believes this painting likely would have been sold at a market for a high-price to an educated viewer that would appreciate the subtleties.

The painting’s story will live on for years to come now that it has a new mounting. Museum visitors can see it in person when it goes on view next year.  

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