Restoring Restorations with Bryn Mawr’s Genji Screen

“The flowers were falling. I know cherry blossoms usually fall in one or two weeks but these looked rusted with cigarette smoke,” conservator Yoshi Nishio noted as a close-up of Bryn Mawr’s Genji Screen is shown before his restoration work.
This past Monday, Bryn Mawr College hosted conservator Yoshi Nishio for a lecture concerning his restoration work on the college’s Tale of Genji screen. The gilded six panel paper screen, originally designed to partition a Japanese household’s main room, was part of a donation of over one thousand Asian scrolls and art objects gifted to the college by noted Asian Art Historian and Bryn Mawr alumnae Helen Burwell Chapin. An intricately detailed and original piece by Master Kano Seisen’in Osanobu (1796-1846), the screen depicts a scene from Murasaki Shikibu’s novel The Tale of Genji. Creating a contemplative snapshot of the moment the Prince Genji sees his future bride, Murasaki, he placed the fated lovers into a traditional Japanese palace painted onto gold leaf backdrop. Despite being a beautiful nineteenth century example of the Japan tradition of folded screen making, Osanobu’s screen at Bryn Mawr had fallen into serious disrepair since arriving in the United States nearly a century ago.
Fortunately, Bryn Mawr’s Collections Manager of Art and Artifacts Collection, Marianne Weldon, was able to rediscover the piece. Thanks to grants from the Sumitomo Foundation, the screen was able to undergo heavy restoration conducted by Nishio and his team at Nishio Conservation Studios in Washington D.C. After spending two years restoring the work, Nishio was invited to speak during the screen’s exhibition, The Tale of Genji: From Princess to Pop Culture.
After introducing his audience to the world of Japanese architecture and screen art with a segment from his upcoming documentary, Nishio proceeded into a lengthy diagnosis of the screen Bryn Mawr tasked him with saving. The screen work was not in good shape. Years of amateur restoration and damage suffered while it was left in a cluttered storeroom had left it’s mark. While the drier Northeastern air was unkind to the screen’s delicate gilded paper, the majority of its issues seemed to stem from mishandling by human hands. One of the maidens in the screen’s painted castle gazes out at one of the many punctures in the golden backdrop as one of Genji’s male attendants had his leg sliced by a deep tear. While the damage done accidentally was immense, the harm done with the best intentions was significantly more insidious.
“Somebody in this country did not know what they were doing,” Nishio remarked.
He then launched into describing the effects previous restoration work had had on Osanobu’s screen. Pulling up a close-up image of the screen’s far righthand corner, a grayish swath of pigment threatened to swallow up the flaked green remnants of some hills.
“This was originally gold in color. I’m sure it might have looked gold originally. Some copper was mixed with the pigment to replace the original gold foil that had flaked off,” he said.
Nishio went on to explain what we are left with is an oxidized reminder of the dark past of artistic conservation. Similarly, the previous restorer tried to leave their own mark by taking several artistic liberties when repainting area of the screen that had lost their original pigment.
Braids were haphazardly added to a maiden’s hair and areas where tree branches that had flaked off were given a more loosely conceived replacement. However, Nishio seemed most incredulous at the decision to add a blob of brownish pigment that appeared to levitate between two mountain peaks.
“Yes, I’m not really sure what they were going for here,” he said.
As Nishio clicked through close-up after close-up of past restorative blunders each new slide drew winces from the audience. Perhaps the most symbolic of the screen’s injuries was a decision to patch its paper backing with American newspapers. Nishio pointed out how the acidic newspaper, which still showed American headlines and caricatures of Congressmen, had started eating away the rice glue and original paper frame.
The remainder of the presentation was devoted to explaining exactly how Nishio and his team were able to bring Osanobu’s screen from its dilapidated state to what is now on display. The process itself appeared to have been a roller coaster of emotions. Nishio then showed a slide of his team performing the thorough but no doubt monotonous task of removing the previous restorations pigments with slightly moistened cotton swabs. hen he explained how the screen’s backing had to be replaced, members of the audience visibly tensed when an image of the screen’s painted front was shown floating in a water bath. However, after having its punctures and tears stitched back together, Osanobu’s screen was finally prepared to be painted by a  thoughtful hand and fixed to a proper frame.
After his presentation, Nishio and a group of students, organizers, and faculty moved from Carpenter Library to where the screen was displayed in Canaday Library for a continued discussion. As the group entered the Rare Book Room, Nishio remarked that this was his first time seeing the screen on display at the college, and he appeared visibly appreciative of the care Bryn Mawr’s curators took with their display.
“Yes, this is how it would be seen originally.You would be kneeling down on the floor, so this is right where eye level would be,” he said, pointing to the effect created by placing the screen on a sizable base.
The screen is certainly not alone in this room. Everything from delicate wall hangings to elaborate emperor and empress dolls fill the cases opposite Osanobu’s screen and help the viewer gain context of what the time period of Shikibu’s novel would have looked like. It’s these objects that Co-Curator Nina Blomfield hopes will bring out the true goal of Bryn Mawr’s new exhibition as a whole.
“While the screen is a spectacular object in itself, our goal was to provide some visual and cultural context for viewers. We brought together objects from the Bryn Mawr collections to tease out the thematic importance of color, nature, seasons, and poetry in The Tale of Genji and its visual representations.”
Nina went on to add that Shikibu’s now millennia-old novel has had such amazing longevity in modern Japanese culture, saying it’s “used to evoke an atmosphere of romance and elegance in objects as disparate as cookies, cosmetics, stationery, and video games!”
As the reception came to an end, two people stayed behind to get a closer look at the Genji screen. Both of them whispered to each other as they pointed out particular details of the golden screen to the other.
“I’m actually a pre-program student of conservation, so I try to follow a lot of the conservation events in the area,” said Yan Ling Choi ’16, a recent graduate from the University of Delaware.
“The talk was very informative. I’m currently interning with the Barnes foundation as a conservation student, so my supervisor Barbara brought me,” She said, happily indicating the woman who stayed with her to admire the Genji screen up close.
The Tale of Genji: From Princess to Pop Culture will continue to be on exhibit in Bryn Mawr College’s Rare Book Room, in Canaday Library, through March 5.

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