Keiga

Blogpost 001: Keiga folding screen – behind the scenes

Welcome to this blog!

Where we’ll be posting all the latest updates on the restoration of the folding screen by Kawahara Keiga over the coming months. The National Museum of World Cultures, which incorporates the Museum of Ethnology, acquired this key artwork last year.
Its restoration is being aided by the TEFAF Restoration Fund.

A masterpiece, but poorly preserved

The folding screen is a veritable masterpiece, but currently in poor condition and desperately in need of complete restoration.   That promises to be an exciting process, especially because we expect to make interesting discoveries along the way. Over the coming months we’ll regularly be updating this blog with the latest news and images tracking the various stages of the restoration process. Alongside these updates we’ll be talking a bit more about the unique Japanese-Dutch context in which this screen was made. The screen’s focal point is, after all, the artificial island of Deshima; the place designated by the Japanese for doing trade with the Dutch, as the sole Europeans permitted to do so. The context in this and upcoming blogposts will show how this screen functions as a key piece that ties our extensive Japanese collection together.


The folding screen has now returned to the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, having been on show in its unrestored state at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo last year. The screen featured in the exhibition ‘Als Kunst je Lief is’ (‘For the Love of Art’), organized to commemorate the 135th anniversary of arts charity the Rembrandt Society. The exhibition featured a wide range of artworks recently acquired with the support of the Rembrandt Society and others. The Keiga screen stole the show, thanks in part to its sheer size. At roughly four and a half metres wide, it was a real eye-catcher. Observant visitors will also have noticed the screen’s multiple signs of wear and tear...

The island Deshima
The island Deshima

Restoration and conservation

Given the screen is over 180 years old, it’s not surprising that its condition has deteriorated. Japanese folding screens are commonly dismantled completely and remounted every 80 years or so. This may sound like a very invasive procedure, yet within Japanese tradition this is common practice, also applied to the preservation of other works such as scroll-paintings. The folding screen by Keiga was never subjected to any of these procedures, so a full restoration is long overdue.

The restoration is a complicated procedure. First the lacquered wooden rails need to be removed from the panels and the paintings removed from their wooden frames. The next step is to clean the paintings and repair the damaged sections, filling them in with a  matching repair silk. Then restorers will make  new panels, white cedar lattice frames covered with multiple layers of Japanese paper. The next step is to remount the paintings onto the panels and to fit the decorative elements around them. That sounds complicated enough, but in reality it’s a greatly simplified list as each step involves a complex series of procedures.

described paper underneath the screen
Described paper underneath the screen

Discoveries

As the restoration progresses, we expect to find out more about why the screen was originally commissioned and even who commissioned it back in 1830s  Japan. It’s fair to assume that the various papers used to line the screen will help us gain a better understanding of the screen’s origin. Two centuries ago, Japanese paper was relatively expensive and constructing a folding screen required a considerable amount of paper. As a result, these screens were often lined with recycled paper from various sources – papers used for financial administration, calligraphy training, old letters – that  would otherwise go to waste. Because Keiga’s screen has never been remounted before, it is very likely that the papers on the inside still hold clues to its origin.  Perhaps we’ll even learn more about the life of Kawahara Keiga himself. One thing’s for certain though: the famous Japanese painter will definitely feature in upcoming blog posts.  

The restoration process is expected to take at least a year and a half. We’ll keep you informed every step of the way. Watch this space to follow our restoration journey and all the exciting discoveries. In short: to be continued!

Daan Kok (Curator East-Asia) and Davey Verhoeven (Research Associate RCMC/Japan)      

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Curator East Asia Daan Kok and Research Associate RCMC/Japan Davey Verhoeven regularly share their updates of the restoration process and ongoing research. 

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