A Study of Pigments
Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942), foremost among Japanese “designers” of the early twentieth century, was a prolific creator in numerous media, including paintings, lacquers, textiles, ceramics and printed books. Venerated as a legitimate successor of the Rimpa tradition later in his career, Sekka demonstrated the stylistic transition from his early Shijō school training of lyrical realism to the decorative Rimpa style in a series of polychrome woodblock prints published monthly by Unsôdô (Kyoto) between February of 1899 to June of 1900. A total of 54 prints were later complied and bound into 3 volumes titled Chigusa (A Thousand Grasses), likely between 1900 and 1905.
A complete three-volume set of Chigusa entered the collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) in the fall of 2010. Metallic colors are used in many prints to achieve lavish visual effects. While the prints are in good overall condition, some discoloration of paper and metallic surfaces has occurred on areas of prints that are in direct contact with areas of metallic pigments on facing pages. Although publications on techniques and materials related to traditional Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) are available to the English speaking audience, technical studies on post Edo era (1603-1868) woodblock prints are scarce.
Conducted in 2011-2012 by MFAH conservation scientist Anikó Bezur, MFAH paper conservator Tina C. Tan, and Nicole Garcia, then-student intern from Rice University, this research represents the early results of the examination and analysis of pigments used in bound as well as unbound versions of woodblock prints in this Chigusa series using non-destructive techniques, including optical microscopy, digital infrared reflectography and x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF.) Visible light microscopy was essential to establishing the application sequence of various colors, thereby aiding the interpretation of elemental analysis results obtained using XRF. Elemental analysis revealed the use of chrome yellow and unusual metallic powders in addition to inorganic pigments identified in published studies of late nineteenth-century ukiyo-e prints. Differences were noted in the choice of pigments used in executing bound and unbound versions of the same prints.
New England Village (1912–14) by Maurice Prendergast is one of the paintings of the Wintermann Collection of American Art given to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1985. The 2010 exhibition, “Prendergast in Italy,” gave the museum’s paintings conservation team an opportunity to explore treatment options for the painting.
The treatment of Prendergast’s New England Village is the first of its kind at the MFAH—the removal of a wax lining for aesthetic reasons rather than structural. The wax lining adhesive had flattened some of the paint topography and obscured the vibrancy of the colors by seeping through the paint layers. The removal of this lining reestablished much of the original color relationships and surface topography of the painting.
During the treatment of this painting, the conservators also made an unexpected discovery—a change to the original dimensions. At the top of the paintings, there is a uniform line of abrasion that is characteristic of an abraded tacking edge. All the other tacking edges had been cut away, but the upper edge had been left to become part of the composition. The conservators decided to leave the painting stretched as it was before treatment and constructed a special frame to return the image to its original dimensions.
True Colors Restored
André Derain’s The Turning Road, L’Estaque—one of the most popular in the MFAH collections—was not on display for nearly two years. From 2003 to 2005, the museum’s paintings conservators worked to restore the monumental painting to a state closer to the artist’s original intent.
Over its lifetime, the painting had lost some of its vibrancy due to the addition of a resin varnish that dulled with time; a layer of grime and dirt; and the results of cleaning and conservation campaigns carried out by previous owners. All of these factors detracted from Derain’s bright, joyous color palette, a hallmark of the Fauve style in which he worked. MFAH visitors can now see the finished work with the colors originally chosen by the artist.