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Recovering the Glory of Southeast Asian Buddhist Paintings

Two Southeast Asian Buddhist temple paintings, one from Thailand and the other from Cambodia, received extensive conservation treatment in the Asian Art Museum’s Conservation Center. After 700 painstaking hours, the paintings have been rejuvenated, recovering their glory. 



Two outstanding Southeast Asian Buddhist temple paintings, one from Thailand and the other from Cambodia, received extensive conservation treatment in the Asian Art Museum’s Conservation Center in 2017. Before entering the museum, these paintings had divergent histories of display and ownership that impacted their condition.   

The Thai painting, Standing Buddha flanked by two disciples, supported by the monkey hero Hanuman depicts Hanuman, a passionate devotee of Lord Rama and one of the central characters in the epic Ramayana. The painting dates from the mid-19th century and was a gift to a temple; the donor’s name is in the inscription below the Buddha. Paintings such as this one likely were created for occasional ceremonial use in the temple. Because it was displayed and stored in less than ideal conditions, the painting suffered numerous losses, creases, and severe stains. 

The magnificent Standing Buddha painting was acquired in Thailand by a family who lives in the Bay Area and generously donated it to the museum. It had been framed using a method that was generally popular in library collections in the mid-20th century: backed with drafting linen using photo mount adhesive. The frame kept the painting flat and protected it from further physical damage.

Standing Buddha flanked by two disciples supported by the monkey hero Hanuman Detail showing many losses in the primary fabric support and pigments
Standing Buddha flanked by two disciples, supported by the monkey hero Hanuman. Detail showing many losses in the primary fabric support and pigments.

Standing Buddha Detail of Hanuman
Standing Buddha. Detail of Hanuman.

The Cambodian painting, Five Buddhas of the past, present, and future, dated from the late-19th century is intricately detailed and exquisitely painted, rare in Southeast Asian Buddhist paintings. Unlike the Standing Buddha, the Five Buddhas was displayed for a long time in a temple, as evidenced by the amount of accumulated soot from candles and incense on the surface. Sadly, the fine details were lost beneath the soot, grime, and insect debris. At some point in its history, the painting was split in half and various tapes were applied to keep it together. Because of the extensive damage and severely weakened areas, we were unable to safely lift the painting. Conservation treatment was urgently required to stabilize it.

Five Buddhas of the past present and future Detail showing severe splits tears creases pigment losses and a complete tear in the pale gray color
Five Buddhas of the past, present, and future. Detail showing severe splits, tears, creases, pigment losses, and a complete tear in the pale gray color.

Five Buddha Detail showing severe splits creases and loss of the primary support
Five Buddha. Detail showing severe splits, creases, and loss of the primary support.

Both paintings underwent a full course of conservation treatment: applying a consolidant to secure severe pigment losses and flaking, mending tears and breaks, washing, filling losses, applying a lining paper to give physical support for safe handling and display, and coloring the fills to make the losses less apparent. 

Washing these large paintings presented a challenge. Taking advantage of the Cambodian painting’s separated parts, conservators washed one half at a time, ensuring that both sides received equal treatment. We were stunned by the amount of discoloration removed from the painting and to see the painting’s excellent details and paler colors.

Washing using waters capillary action left Right from left to right Water from washing collected in first second and third hours
Washing using water’s capillary action (left). (Right, from left to right) Water from washing collected in first, second, and third hours.

The two halves of Five Buddhas were realigned as closely as possible. Both paintings received new lining paper for physical support. 

Jennifer Parson and Shiho Sasaki paper conservators applying new lining paper
Jennifer Parson and Shiho Sasaki, paper conservators, applying new lining paper.

After the paintings were physically stabilized, the extensive losses in the painting media had to be addressed. The level of compensation for lost pigments was thoroughly discussed between conservators and curators. Ultimately, we chose colors for the fills that are similar to the original, but slightly lighter so that they are easily differentiated from the original pigments upon closer view. The overall result is that the image appears whole again without trying to re-create the original. 

Jennifer Parson coloring the losses of Five Buddha The colors were chosen from 450 shades of pastel
Jennifer Parson coloring the losses of Five Buddha. The colors were chosen from 450 shades of pastel.

After many hours of conservation treatment, the paintings are now stabilized. After their long journeys – from the walls of Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia to the Asian Art Museum – these remarkable paintings once again revealed their glory.

Five Buddha painting before conservation treatment left and after conservation treatment right
Five Buddha painting, before conservation treatment (left) and after conservation treatment (right).

Standing Buddha painting before conservation treatment left and after conservation treatment right
Standing Buddha painting, before conservation treatment (left) and after conservation treatment (right).

Presenting Sponsor

The conservation project of the Five Buddhas of the past, present, and future painting was generously supported by Ms. Joyce Clarke.

Presenting Sponsor

The standing Buddha flanked by two disciples, supported by the monkey hero Hanuman painting project was made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Grant #MA-31-15-0464-15.