Restorer of calligraphy and paintings revives past images

Yang Yang
A professional antique calligraphy and painting restorer artist in Minhang chose the road less travelled to gain success and satisfaction.
Yang Yang
Restorer of calligraphy and paintings revives past images
Ti Gong

Painting "Plum Blossoms" (inset) by Qing Dynasty artist Jin Nong (1687-1736) is restored to its original form by Fei Yongming through his superior skills.

Fei Yongming, a professional antique calligraphy and painting restorer in Minhang District, said mounting pictures is a skill and by doing so he is able to stand closest to and pay tribute to Chinese paintings and calligraphy works.

Hailing from Lianshui County in Jiangsu Province, Fei, now in his 50s, visited Shanghai in 1994 and put himself under the tutelage of a restorer from Shanghai Museum, the only Yangzhou-style antique painting and calligraphy restoration inheritor in Shanghai, and began three decades of mounting and restoration practice.

"An 80-year-old granny who has some ailments visits a Chinese herbal doctor. After the doctor heals her, she walks out of the clinic still an 80-year-old woman, rather than a 20-year-old girl, but healthy. I am a doctor for antique paintings. I might not follow strict theoretical measures, but I treat a painting like a doctor. It enters my studio, and I offer it a cure," Fei said.

Treating paintings like a doctor

He divides his restoration process into four major steps: rinsing a painting in water, disassembling it, mending it, and curing it.

"Painting restoration is a tough task. A beginner usually starts with mounting new paintings for years before he or she gains enough experience to try restoring," Fei said.

Be it rinsing or swabbing, the introduction of water marks the commencement of a restoration project. Sometimes clean water is used to remove smudges and sometimes bleaching agents such as potassium permanganate and oxalic acid are added to whiten and soften the paper.

Black mould on paintings is stubborn and tricky and even chemicals fail to remove it. In this case, restorers usually resort to manual elimination.

The rice paper attached and glued behind a Chinese calligraphy or painting work is called the "fate paper," which decides the destiny of an art work for hundreds or even thousands of years. Other layers further behind the fate paper are called the "back papers."

"A high-caliber restorer manifests his or her strength by showing how delicately they manage removing the former fate paper," Fei said.

"We use boiling water to wet a painting, remove smudges of natural weathering, and also soften the paste so as to detach its fate paper.

"Then we add a new layer of fate paper to the painting. We incubate the new fate paper: coloring it and making sure its thickness, tenacity, luster and color all match well with the original painting."

After that the antique painting is air dried and is cured.

"Then we mount the painting. We use damask, spun or brocade silks as its top margin and head cover. In Japanese-style mounting, you may see the other fabrics such as satin and yarn used as the top margin or head cover," said Fei.

The Yangzhou-style restoration which Fei follows shows the smartest measures in dealing with the original painting and fate paper.

"From the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Yangzhou of Jiangsu was the economic powerhouse of China, just like today's Shanghai, thanks to its Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, a major waterway to transport supplies like grains and salt to the capital from the resource-rich south.

"The place brought together masses of rich merchants and talented mounters of calligraphy and painting. The rich men usually had their art collections and the craftsmen mainly served them."

Other styles in the trade include Hangzhou-style mounting, which followed the guides of the royal style of mounting in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279); Suzhou-style mounting, which featured metaphysical theories on aesthetics from literati and artists from the area; Guangzhou-style mounting, which was more market-oriented and catered to important life events such as funerals and weddings; Shanghai-style mounting, which used to flourish around the City God Temple in the old downtown of Shanghai and sold decorations to the common people; and Beijing-style mounting, which was frequently used for government and royal scenarios and whose works were more gorgeous and dignified.

Gaining insights through practice

"After each disassembling and mounting of antique calligraphy and paintings, I gain insights and progress from witnessing the merits and downsides of the ancient men's craftsmanship," said Fei.

"One kind of hanging rod of some antique paintings, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty, resembled the elegant curve of a crucian carp and was just so beautiful. The seam in a Suzhou-style mounting work between the painting and the top margin silk looked seamless and the paste still stuck well after hundreds of years' exposure in the air.

"Sometimes I noticed their downsides as well. Some former mounting work around the Qing Dynasty applied a patch of unprocessed paper on the processed painting as mending. After hundreds of years' exposure to the air, the patch absorbed more moisture than the original painting and its color stood out."

Fei now has about a dozen disciples nationwide and had held both mounting exhibitions and traditional Chinese rice paper culture exhibitions at Shanghai Library and Minhang's Gumei Art Center in recent years.

His attitude toward applying high-tech in painting restoration is dialectical.

"We embrace high-tech in painting restoration when they are applied necessarily, but we're not blind worshippers of them," he said.

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