Rare Medieval Japanese Paintings Restored

The Kimbell has been privileged to participate in a unique conservation program in Japan. The two oldest Japanese paintings in the collection, Twenty-Five Bodhisattvas Descending from Heaven, dating to about 1300, have been cleaned, and restored. In this pair of scrolls, twenty-five small music-making divinities, bejeweled and richly dressed in gold, float down from the heavens on diaphanous clouds. The divinities are bodhisattva attendants to Amida Buddha, who inspired in his followers the hope of eternal life in his Western Paradise. The pair would originally have flanked a painted image of Amida Buddha. The two groups of divinities are led on the right scroll by the bodhisattva Kannon, who holds a small lotus pedestal to receive the soul of the deceased, and on the left by Seishi, whose hands are held in the anjalimudra, the gesture of respect and salutation. The rest of the entourage play drums, a lute, koto, and other stringed instruments, and stand and dance on lotus pedestals as they float down on clouds, their long scarves and jewels swaying as they move. The figures are outlined in ink, their features delineated with fine, delicate lines, and painted in gold, their garments executed in the painstaking kirikane technique of cut-and-pasted gold leaf. These paintings express belief in the compassionate grace of Amida, who grants salvation to any believer who sincerely calls upon his name, and who descends from heaven to personally receive the soul of the believer at the moment of death.

The skillful draftsmanship, subtle coloring, and expressive faces make these splendid medieval scrolls arresting works of art. Fourteenth-century Japanese paintings do not commonly survive, a consequence of the fact that they are executed on silk, which is extremely fragile and sensitive to light, and mounted onto several layers of paper or silk lining, which, after centuries of rolling and unrolling, causes the silk support to crease and the painted surface to incur losses.

The scrolls were restored under the Cooperative Program for the Conservation of Japanese Artworks in Overseas Collections, part of the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo. The program conserves classical Japanese artworks from museums worldwide, utilizing leading conservation studios and employing traditional Japanese restoration techniques. The scrolls were chosen for treatment because of their art-historical importance and urgent condition. The paintings were restored in Tokyo, where the conservation studio Shugo Co., Ltd., carried out the highly specialized work between February 2012 and September 2013.

To begin the restoration process, the paintings were first separated from their old mounts. Moisture was added to remove the former subsidiary lining, filtered water was sprayed onto the paintings’ front surfaces and grime was soaked up with absorbent blotting paper. This was followed by consolidation of the surface paint layers. The old mending silk was removed and new mending silk was used to repair the paintings from the reverse side. After two new paper linings were attached to the back of the paintings using wheat-starch paste, thinly cut strips of mino paper were applied to the back to strengthen areas with cracks and creases. Retouching of losses was then carried out on the paper strips. Finally, the paintings were fitted with new mounting fabric and other support materials, and the original metal fittings were reinstated.