Conservation of the Alden B. Dow Home and Studio’s Japanese Folding Screen

While traveling in Japan in April of 1960, Alden and Vada Dow purchased a pair of folding screens from Yamoto Brothers and Company in Kyoto, along with a set of old brass carpenter’s tools.  The folding screens were described on the original invoice as Old Gold Paper “Hotaiko” Flower Picnic Design; painter unknown.  Each one has six panels measuring 42 inches tall by 102 inches in length.  Although the designs differ slightly, both boldly display large white flower blossoms against a bright red background, with secondary colors of gold and green.

One of the screens, perhaps Mr. Dow’s favorite of the two, was on display as part of the “A Way of Life” retrospective exhibition in his honor at the Midland Center for the Arts in 1975.  It’s also the one that can be seen by visitors to the Home and Studio in its usual location in the guest bedroom.  Over the years, however, the screen began to show its age and the need to prevent further deterioration became a priority.

In 2019 the screen was taken to the Robert B. Jacobs Asian Art Conservation Lab at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.  This conservation lab was the first lab in the United States that was established using traditional Chinese conservation techniques.  It is also the only lab in the Midwest, if not the country, that accepts artwork for remedial treatment that isn’t from a museum collection. 

The work was overseen by Katie Prichard, Associate Registrar of Collections & Exhibitions at the Museum, and carried out by conservator Qian He.  Qian previously worked in China and held fellowships in the U.S. before and during his time at the Museum.  He literally grew up in conservation labs, as his mother and grandfather were both conservators.  The following description of the multi-stage process used to treat the Japanese folding screen was provided by Katie Prichard. 

The materials used in Asian paintings, which includes framed artworks, scrolls, and folding screens, are different from those commonly found in western art. Rather than using single sheets of paper, Asian paintings often consist of many layers of incredibly thin sheets of paper.  As a result, conservation efforts require many hours of painstakingly removing each layer of paper to repair any damage. The layers of paper can even be thinner than the layers of paint on the surface and are held together using special adhesives such as wheat paste. To remove the individual layers of paper, each layer needs to be soddened to reactivate the adhesive and lifted from the piece. 

The folding screen had color loss throughout the panels, multiple hinges were broken, and there were rips and tears, also called “separations.”  To remove the layers of paper, the pigments used in the painting needed to be stabilized beforehand, but this process turned out to be more complicated than originally anticipated. Traditional white pigment is not usually as bright as in this screen and it turns out that a more contemporary approach of using less glue to hold the pigment was used in the painting. The glue would have had a yellow tinge which would have in turn dulled the white’s brilliance, but this also made the pigment very unstable. In addition to being unstable, the pigment was very heavy and caused smaller cracks along the surface which in turn trapped dust and surface contaminants. To address this issue, Qian He applied a custom solvent mixture to reinforce the white pigment. Once the pigment was reinforced, he was able to lift the layers of paper to continue with the repairs. 

Following damage treatment, further steps included color correction, redrawing and inpainting; hinge reinforcement or replacement; remounting; hanging for final drying; and reassembly.  In addition to the time allowed for each step and the resting time between each step, the entire process was interrupted when the University and the Museum closed in March of 2020 due to Covid-19.  As a result, the work was not entirely completed until late summer of 2021.  Thanks to the high level of artistic and technical skill of Qian He and the diligent oversight of Katie Prichard, the Japanese folding screen is now back in its place in the guest bedroom of the Home and Studio once again.

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