Museums Conservation USA

Re-enter the dragon

MFA Boston’s blockbuster Edo-period painting goes back on show after 20 years

Conservators found parts of another work in Shohaku’s Dragon and Clouds, 1763

A whimsical 35ft-long, eight-piece painting by the Edo-period painter Soga Shohaku (1730-81) that has inspired a number of Japanese contemporary artists, including Takashi Murakami and Yokoo Tadanori, has gone on display in Boston for the first time in more than 20 years after a lengthy restoration and a blockbuster tour of Japan. Dragon and Clouds, 1763, is being shown with four other works by the Kyoto artist in the Museum of Fine Arts (“Return of the Dragon: Shohaku’s Dragon and Clouds”, until 6 July).

The Japanese tour was the impetus for a five-year project that not only addressed pressing conservation issues but also provided the opportunity to remount the paintings on panels similar to those used when they formed sliding doors, probably in a Zen temple in or around modern-day Osaka. Before the work was carried out, the paintings were on the same mounts as when they were given to the museum in 1911 as part of a major donation of Japanese art by the American doctor and art collector William Sturgis Bigelow.

Philip Meredith, a conservator of Japanese paintings at the museum, says that the old mounts may have been selected for “expedience”, given that Bigelow acquired the works in Japan in the 1880s. The power of Buddhist temples waned in this period, after the Emperor endorsed Shintoism as the national religion; many temples were disbanded and their contents transferred to other buildings or sent to market. “Bigelow and [fellow Japanese art enthusiast, and major donor to the Boston museum, Ernest] Fenollosa were in Japan at a critical time, when pieces were being lost due to the dissolution of samurai and temple collections,” says Anne Nishimura Morse, the museum’s senior curator of Japanese art. “[It must have been] a great incentive to bring these works to Boston so people could understand the complexity of the history of Japanese painting.”

Two works for the price of one

Meredith and his colleagues, including two Japanese conservators who travelled to Boston for the project, prepared a wooden lattice similar to the original support or core used in Japan, relined the work and treated old repairs. “The thing about Asian paintings is that they are usually painted on paper or silk and are mounted in some way, such as a scroll or screen so they can be displayed, which makes them different from Western paintings, which are often framed and on canvas or panel,” Meredith says, explaining that his job often requires him to treat the support structure as well as the work itself. “Similar to a 200-year-old book, it’s the binding that begins to fail over time.”

Conservators found a direct link to another work by Shohaku in the museum’s collection: Hawk, around 1763, which is painted in a more traditional style. While examining the paint layers of old repairs to Dragon and Clouds, they found that lost panels from Hawk had been used to patch the Dragon painting. “You can see bits of grass, weeds and rocks from the Hawk painting that do not belong in the waves of the Dragon painting,” Meredith says. The two works are being displayed together.

The Boston museum has the world’s largest collection of works by Shohaku and his circle. His eccentricity resonates with contemporary audiences, Nishimura Morse says. “Although he is celebrated today, he was not widely collected in 19th-century Japan,” she says. “He takes conventional subject matter, such as the dragon, and executes it a whimsical, humorous way.”

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