17th-century screens return to MFAH collection after restoration in Japan

In January 2009, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will unveil a pair of 17th-century six-paneled screens from its permanent collection newly restored by conservation experts in Japan. The screens were among only nine objects selected last year from prestigious Asian collections around the world for a competitive conservation program overseen by Japan’s National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.

The MFAH will present the transformed screens, last shown at the museum in 2005, in “Art Unfolded: The Gift of Conservation from Japan” from Jan. 17-Feb. 22, 2009. The exhibition will feature a presentation describing the conservation process, including materials used, and a video of the Hie Sanno festival depicted on the screens. The screens, titled Hie Sanno Sairei-Zu, will be the centerpiece of a new gallery devoted to Japanese art scheduled to open in winter 2009-2010.

Conservators carefully implemented their conservation of the Hie Sanno screens over nine months. They treated the painted panels of the screen for surface damage and pigment deterioration, replaced the backing and border fabrics of the panels, and reattached the original metal fittings.

“Japan’s passion for the preservation of tradition and art is well-recognized, and the museum is fortunate to be the recipient of that passion,” said Wynne Phelan, MFAH conservation director. “The masterful work of the Kyushu experts has guaranteed the long-term preservation of the screens.”

The Hie Sanno Sairei-Zu screens derive from the practice of painting panoramic views of the city of Kyoto and its environs that evolved in the 16th century. Festival screens adopt the same elevated vantage point and panoramic presentation as city view paintings, but also have a narrative and anecdotal quality. Festival screens are often remarkably faithful to the topography and events being portrayed.

The Hie Sanno festival is held every April in tribute to peace and a rich harvest. It dates from 1072 and takes place at the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine in Sakamoto, a historic village on Lake Biwa that lies at the foot of Mount Hie, near Kyoto.

The MFAH screens, each about 5 feet by 12 feet, describe the village and shrine complex set against the landscape around Lake Biwa. The upper middle part of the right screen shows the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine complex. A distinctive large red gate (torii) marks the boundary of the shrine’s sacred space. The Jinko-sai, the great procession of large portable shrines from other villages, departs through the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine’s red gate toward Sakamoto. The heavy shrines are transported by many men as other men on horseback oversee the proceedings. In the left screen, villagers watch as the portable shrines are carried onto boats on Lake Biwa to return to their villages.

Hie Sanno Sairei-Zu was given to the museum in 1996 as a bequest of Mrs. Dudley C. Sharp, Sr., who was a generous supporter of Asian art at the MFAH.

For museum information, call 713-639-7300, or visit www.mfah.org.

About the Conservation Program

The Agency for Cultural Affairs, a special branch of the Japanese Ministry of Education, established the conservation program in 1991. It is overseen by the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties. Since the program’s inception, 323 Japanese art objects of important cultural significance from 48 museums worldwide have been restored. The folding screens are the first object from the MFAH selected for the program.

Other museums whose works were accepted into the program in 2007 include the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia; the National Museum, Krakow, Poland; and the East Asian Art Museum, Cologne, Germany. Museums that have participated in the program in past years include the British Museum, the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All of the works accepted in 2007 for restoration were shown in May 2008 at the Tokyo National Museum in an exhibition celebrating the Cooperative Program for the Conservation of Japanese Art Objects.

Conservation at the MFAH

The MFAH conservation department was established in 1996 to care for the museum’s rapidly increasing collection and to support an ambitious exhibition schedule. In 1990, the museum added a special off-site storage and conservation facility to the institution’s campus, and in 2000, the opening of the Audrey Jones Beck Building included a special conservation laboratory with the same lighting conditions as the galleries within its walls. The department now has specialists in the conservation of paintings, sculpture, furniture and decorative arts objects, photography, and works on paper and is actively integrated with other MFAH departments and activities. As part of a new partnership with Rice University and the Menil Collection, the museum’s conservators are working to create the first comprehensive scientific program in the south central United States for the study of works of art using the analytical resources of a major research university.

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