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Art disaster turns out to have a silver lining

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

A dozen paintings hang from the white walls of a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture. Mostly prewar works by artists involved in the Proletarian movement, who focused on depictions of factory and farm laborers, the paintings are like many others on display at the museum — except that alongside each is a small photograph showing the same works cracked, scratched and, in many cases, caked in dirt and paper pulp.

It turns out this isn’t just any exhibition, but a happy report to the people of Japan that this series of oils, once the pride of Ishinomaki Cultural Center in Miyagi Prefecture — an institution that was almost completely destroyed by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 — have been restored to very nearly their original condition.

In the weeks after that disaster, the national government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs set up a “cultural properties rescue committee,” comprising the nation’s major arts bodies, to coordinate the work of salvaging damaged artifacts. One of those bodies was the Japanese Council of Art Museums — and one of its members is the Museum of Modern Art in Hayama.

Thus, in late April 2011, a conservator from the Hayama facility named Yumi Ito found herself traveling to Ishinomaki with the goal of retrieving damaged paintings.

“Truth be told, there really aren’t many public museums in Japan with full-time conservators,” Ito told The Japan Times. “So it was clear from the outset that I would go.”

Ito coordinated the restoration project in two stages. First were “emergency” measures carried out at Miyagi Museum of Art in the nearby city of Sendai, where the paintings had been delivered by Ishinomaki officials. At that point they were still in the precise state in which they had been found in the tsunami-damaged building — that is to say, soaked in saltwater and mud and often covered in a layer of paper pulp that had washed in from a paper factory that had been located next to the Cultural Center.

“The goal of the ‘emergency’ measures was to remove visible dirt and pulp,” Ito explained. “We used brushes to wipe off dried dirt and sometimes had to scrape the caked pulp off the backs of the paintings.”

In the context of the Japanese museum hierarchy, with the national government-run institutions at the apex, city-run facilities such as Ishinomaki’s Cultural Center only rarely have works of extreme value. Hence most of the paintings Ito and her team of curators set about cleaning were by little-known artists who had hailed from the small coastal city.

Among the works were several by Takashi Haga, who had been influenced by the Proletarian movement and created rather dark portraits of often bent-over laborers. Ito explained that Haga in fact spent a lot of his time in Tokyo, but it is nonetheless hard not to see in the haggard faces that populate his works similarities to those of survivors of the March 11 catastrophe.

With water-damaged oil paintings, Ito explained, the greatest danger occurs when the canvas and its wooden frame expand or contract due to wetting or drying, as this can cause the paint to crack or separate from the canvas. Sure enough, many of the Ishinomaki paintings had suffered such damage, and this became the focus of the second stage of restoration efforts which took place back at the Hayama museum.

“The main task then was to identify places in the paintings where the paint layer had cracked or come loose,” Ito said. “We would then carefully insert glue between the two to reestablish a bond.”

“It is easy when there is just a simple crack, into which you can insert the glue,” she continued. “But the tricky part is where the paint has started to crumble or has fallen away completely.”

Ito went on to explain how, in the former case, it is possible to cover the crumbled paint with a layer of paper and then apply a thin glue on top of the paper. The glue seeps through the paper and fastens the paint to the canvas where it lies. The paper can then be removed leaving only the bonded paint.

However, she said that the latter case requires a different type of skill altogether, as color has to be precisely matched and applied where the paint has fallen off and been lost.

Ito was quick to point out that such work is only attempted for small areas, and that meticulous photographic records are made of all additions and are kept in case they ever need to be removed.

Perhaps remembering the famous recent case of a Spanish woman who took it upon herself to touch up a medieval portrait of the Virgin Mary — with almost comically catastrophic results — Ito made clear that such work is only ever carried out “when it is decided that additions will not in any way impede viewers’ enjoyment of the painting.”

Of course, all of those tasks — from the cleaning to the re-adhering of the paint to the addition of color — are a lot more easily described than done. All up, indeed, one expert working alone would have had to toil full-time for several weeks to restore even one of the most-damaged works.

Fortunately for Ito, who still has a 13th and final painting to finish restoring, help has been at hand. Indeed, an upside to this calamity has been that she has been able to give several students and apprentice conservators valuable hands-on training.

Ito thus returned to the subject of the dearth of professional conservators in this country: “This is a rare opportunity for students to get experience with this kind of work, because there are so few museums actually hiring conservators these days,” she lamented. “Ironically, it is only during disasters like this that people really appreciate the importance of having conservators around.”

The 12 paintings from Ishinomaki restored so far by Yumi Ito and her assistants will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, through March 24. For further details, see www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp.