Conservation Project: Guanyin, October 2014

Conservation and Collections Management

In October 2014, the sculpture is relocated from storage to the conservation studio for initial examination. In order to move the sculpture without disturbing the fragile surface, Guanyin is lifted by the boxes on which it was seated in storage.

conservator adjusts tarp on Guanyin sculpture on cart

A custom-made steel base was created to transport the sculpture to the conservation studio. The twelve air-filled wheels allow for smooth transport without vibrations. The sculpture will remain on this base throughout the examination and treatment. Once the surface is stabilized, it will be moved to a permanent base that can be used for handling and display.

At the same time, conservators also review the sculpture’s restoration history. As a religious sculpture, Guanyin would have been repainted periodically as an act of devotion, or even completely redecorated to reflect changing tastes in society. Photographs taken when Guanyin first came to the MFA in 1920 show that the sculpture was painted entirely white with no indication of the brilliant polychrome layers and gilding beneath.

archival photograph showing Guanyin sculpture painted entirely white
Photograph from 1920 showing Guanyin sculpture painted entirely white

The sculpture appears to have been on permanent display from the time of acquisition in galleries lacking modern climate-control systems. The environmental fluctuations contributed to ongoing problems with flaking paint and unstable cracks in the wood.

archival photograph of Guanyin sculpture on display in gallery
Archival photograph of the Guanyin sculpture on display

A major conservation effort was undertaken in the 1950s, when conservators removed several layers of the white overpaint, revealing the gilded flesh, blue hair, and the brilliantly painted garments with raised brocade border that is visible today. This dramatic treatment resulted in fascinating discoveries, revealing the pattern of large lotus flowers made from cut gold leaf on the red skirt, the intricately painted designs on the shorter white skirt, and of course the gilded flesh and colorful jewelry.

There are no treatment records from this early restoration, although a newspaper clipping from the Boston Herald in 1956 mentions that six layers of paint were removed and that the sculpture was “restored to its original coloring for display to television audiences.” (It is particularly interesting to note that this was just at the advent of color broadcasting; unfortunately the television program has not been identified, but undated postcards showing Guanyin before and after restoration attest to public interest in the treatment at the time.) Even after this removal of overpaint, additional colors of paint underneath the present surface are still visible, evidence that this is the not the sculpture’s earliest decoration.

As examination continues, conservators will try to answer several remaining questions:

  • Do traces remain of the paint layers removed in the 1950s?
  • What can be learned about the decorative schemes that are visible now? Does the decoration depict one or multiple moments in time?
  • What are the underlying paint layers? Can the original appearance of Guanyin be reconstructed from the extant decoration?