Remounting of The Death of the Historical Buddha, dated 1713, by Hanabusa Itchō (Japanese, 1652–1724):
August 2016

On August 20, 2016, MFA conservators, along with colleagues from the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, begin treating the painting in gallery 178. See the time-lapse videos below for a snapshot of the activities from the first three days of work.

Day 1, Relaxing the Painting: The objectives on the first day are to relax the painting and apply a three-layer paper facing, so that the painting may be stretched out to reduce creases and wrinkles, as well as to remove any water-soluble degradation products.

The painting is placed face-down on rayon papers (to protect the surface) and felts. The back of the painting is then moistened with water, brush-applied along the paper joints. Sprayers filled with water are also used to relax the painting overall. Plastic is placed over the back of the painting to create a humid environment and allow the moistened joints to swell.

The painting is then turned face-up and moved to the central table, where layers of paper facing are applied with brushes using only water. As one team of conservators covers the painting with the first layer, made up of small squares of rayon paper, the next team applies a second layer of slightly larger squares of a Chinese paper over the first layer. The painting is covered in plastic to keep it damp, while the final facing layer, three large pieces, is measured and cut.

After the third layer is adhered, a sturdy tube is used to lift and turn the painting face-down, first positioned onto the felts on the tatami mats, then returned to the central table, where a temporary lining is applied to the back of the painting. Finally, the painting is moved again with the aid of the tube and placed face-up on the felts. Plastic and more felts cover the painting to slow down the drying process.

Day 2, Removing the Facing Layers: The objectives on the second day are to remove the facing layers applied on the first day, while continuing to eliminate the creases and wrinkles and to clean the painting through the capillary reaction of the damp facing, as well as to prepare for the next day when the old lining on the back of the painting will be replaced.

The central table is prepared to receive the painting at the start of the day, with several sheets of protective machine-made papers. Once the painting is moved up to the table, the top two layers of the paper facing are removed together, followed by careful removal of the bottom layer, one square at a time.

A temporary facing is then adhered to the surface, and the painting is turned face-down, again with the aid of a sturdy tube. To reduce the creases and wrinkles, conservators alternate between spraying the back of the painting with water, covering under plastic, which allows the painting to relax and swell, and brushing out with “smoothing” brushes that have bristles made from hemp palm fibers.

Next, conservators begin to remove the old lining papers on the back of the painting. At this stage, only the old lining (or the paper fibers of the old lining) behind the heavily creased areas are removed using tweezers, so that these areas will be able to loosen even more.

Once again, a temporary lining covers the back of the painting, adhered with only water. The painting is kept damp under felts for a second night.

Day 3, Attaching the New Lining: The objective on the third day is to remove the old lining on the back of the painting and attach a new lining, made of handmade mino paper, using wheat starch paste, a traditional adhesive that is also considered reversible.

The painting, in a damp state for the past two days, continues to be kept moistened, with water and damp towels laid directly on the back of the painting, as the old lining is removed. The old lining needs to be taken off because it is separating from the painting, causing creases and wrinkles to develop.

To prepare the new lining, the mino paper is brushed onto another paper carrier just larger than the mino paper. After dilute wheat starch paste is applied to the mino paper, both the paper carrier and the mino paper are positioned on the back of the painting. The paper carrier is then removed, as its sole purpose is to safely handle and carry the pasted mino paper. Adhesion of the mino lining is secured by applying pressure with a brush. The process is repeated four more times to complete this first lining.

At the end of the day the painting is once more lifted off the central table using the sturdy tube. The newly-lined painting is placed face-up onto the felts on the tatami floor, covered with protective paper and more felts, and left to air dry slowly.

A few days later, a second lining of the same mino paper will be added, this time with the grain of the paper perpendicular to the first lining, to strengthen the support.

See next update.