Starting tomorrow, visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, will have a rare opportunity to experience what usually occurs behind the scenes in conservation labs. For five months, experts from the museum’s Asian Conservation Studio and the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art will engage with the public as they restore, in the MFA’s Asian Paintings gallery, an ancient Japanese hanging scroll that depicts Buddha’s entry into enlightenment. Painted in 1713 by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724), the massive “The Death of the Historical Buddha” was well known in the Edo period, drawing travelers to a Zen temple known as Ginsoin that stood in present-day Tokyo. For over 150 years, the nearly 16-foot-tall and 7-and-a-half-foot-wide work is believed to have graced the walls of the now-gone building annually, to commemorate the Buddhist holiday Nehan-e, or Nirvana Day. “The Death of the Historical Buddha” was last on view at the MFA in 1990, and its conservation marks the first time in the museum’s history that a work undergoing treatment has received such public visibility, according to Jacki Elgar, the institution’s Head of Asian Conservation.
“We do conservation in action very well here, but there is room for improvement,” Elgar told Hyperallergic. “I wanted to remove any barriers, that wall, because it’s a fishbowl for people on both sides.” For set periods during the run of the exhibition, which is titled Conservation in Action: Preserving Nirvana, a team of two to six conservators will attend to Itchō’s masterpiece, with scheduled times for the public to speak to them. To avoid any accidents, a waist-high safety barrier will prevent people from getting too close to the work. The show will also feature other hanging scrolls and woodblock prints from the 19th and early 20th centuries that portray scenes executed in the same memorial portrait tradition as “The Death of the Historical Buddha.”
The work is due for treatment, as it’s returning to Japan as part of a larger, touring exhibition, but Elgar also thought the scroll would be ideal to demonstrate certain conservation processes; similar public endeavors previously undertaken by US art museums have focused on Western works. Rendered on medium-weight Japanese paper known as gampi, the painting requires very specific methods. Although last treated in the 1850s, the detailed, figure-filled scroll is well preserved, presenting some creases and cracks but little loss of paint. Conservation actually began in the lab this past spring (you can glimpse some of that action in this video) with the team consolidating pigments — essentially, using tiny brushes to reinforce them with animal glue to ensure that the painting’s surface does not flake off or abrade.
“It’s nerve-wracking enough for conservators to be on view, but the painting itself is pretty stable,” Elgar said. “So it became the best candidate for this, as the risk I felt in having it on view was quite small in the sense of damage and people watching the whole operation.”
The process in the gallery will involve dismantling and reassembling the scroll, replacing all the paper linings that hold it in its hanging mount, which itself is large: without it, the painting measures just over nine feet tall. Conservators will treat every component of the mount separately, trimming and connecting each of the colored strips of silk brocade that wrap around the edges. While they will save some parts of the original object, others will be replaced. A new final, patterned layer of brocade, for instance, arrives from Kyoto, where traditional weavers replicated the fabric, even maintaining its softened, aged look. The dowels of the scroll are their own works of art, created and signed by the metalworker Yokoya Sōmin, a close friend of Itchō’s. They feature gilt metal fittings whose knobs he carved with mythical lions, which Elgar says are “in perfect shape.” Once reassembled, the scroll will lie face-up for several weeks on a drying board before it goes off view to be flipped.
In addition to being a painter, Itchō was know as an “artist-rebel” and “enigmatic anti-hero,” according to a post on the MFA’s website. He painted this scroll after being exiled for over 10 years for unknown reasons. We’re able to identify him as the artist of the work because he signed it — a rare gesture for a Buddhist painting, Elgar said, and one that indicates that he considered it a masterpiece.
“Itchō is wonderful in the way he portrays the group mourning Buddha’s loss,” she said. “It’s not only bodhisattvas and his disciples, but even Hindu deities. He actually portrays 44 different species of animals — from a bat to an insect to wild boars — coming in and grieving. There is an elephant on its back, and you can see the sorrow because the elephant doesn’t really understand what’s going on. Whereas the bodhisattvas are more serene; they look sad, but it’s not this anguish you see on several of the other figures. Coming down from the sky is his mother, Māyā, and she has her sleeves in front of her face because she’s weeping.
“I think he’s showing off when he portrays some of his animals,” Elgar added. “He portrays two different types of monkeys: a gibbon and a macaque. You don’t need two different types of monkeys. It’s almost to show, I can do this.”
Although the scroll is headed to Japan, when it returns Elgar would like it to finally hang in the museum, ideally during the same period of the year when it was originally displayed: the fifteenth day of the second month, according to the lunar calendar. For now, she’s hopeful that Conservation in Action: Preserving Nirvana will offer people more reason to make multiple trips to the museum in the coming months.
“It’s an exhibition, but it’s a changing exhibition,” she said. “Every week will be different because we’ll be progressing in the treatment. To me, it’s more like a performance piece.”
Conservation in Action: Preserving Nirvana continues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (465 Huntington Avenue) through January 16.