Many Hours for a Split Second

With the initiation of the project Split Second, Joan Cummins, Curator of Asian Art selected a very large number (185) of works from the Museum’s Indian Painting collection to post on our website for the Split Second survey. Both Conservator and Curator assessed this checklist to preemptively eliminate any works with condition problems requiring extensive treatment.

Split Second paintings in the Conservation Lab

Works were brought into the Conservation Lab in late April.

Our time frame for conservation of the paintings was relatively short: images of the ~180 works were posted online in February and March. The data was assessed in April and 11 paintings were selected. Thus we had about 8 weeks prior to the exhibition to complete our examination of each painting and undertake any needed treatment and framing. We brought the works to the lab in late April for review.

A very common condition problem with Indian painting is paint instability. There are several reasons for this: these paintings are made from opaque watercolors, applied in many layers between burnishing and often thick dots of paint (impasto) are applied over the surface as decorative elements. These multiple layers and peaks of paint are subject to cracking, lifting and detaching.

detail of white impasto

Here you are looking at a detail of white impasto used in the crown and jewelry of the center figures from Rama and Lakshmana Confer with Sugriva about the Search for Sita (72.43), a painting seen on view in the neighboring Vishnu exhibition.

magnified image of the same work

A magnified image of the same work (a portion of the Monkey’s crown) shows not only the white dots of impasto, but also punch work in the gold leaf. Though the impasto is stable in this case, the green paint in the center is cracked and lifting.


Photomicrograph showing small previous losses in the pink pigment as well as a lifting flake of white paint at the center.

Seven of the eleven works in Split Second had loose and flaking paint when examined inch by inch under the microscope. In this photomicrograph (left) you can see small previous losses in the pink pigment as well as a lifting flake of white paint at the center. Though it looks obvious at this magnification, paint instability is often only discovered with the aid of a microscope. If not secured, flaking paint can detach completely leaving a void. Usually the paint surrounding a void then becomes loose. Thus consolidation of loose and lifting paint using a variety of adhesives is critical.

Previous losses are usually accepted as part of the age of the painting in Indian miniature paints and the responsibility of Conservation is to prevent additional losses from occurring, rather than to cover up old losses. Sometimes, however, a decision is made by the curator and conservator to fill a previous paint loss; this was true in the case of Dhanashri Ragini (80.277.9).

Dhanashri Ragini showing void.

The void to the left of the woman’s head was thought distracting.

Dhanashri Ragini showing fill.

It was filled and toned with materials which are easily reversible.

A Maid’s Words to Radha in the conservation lab

Fills to the paper borders are also sometimes considered acceptable. A Maid’s Words to Radha (86.227.51) is now displayed with a mat that covers the borders.

A Maid's Words to Radha

At one time, the same work had been treated to repair and tone losses in the bottom margin.

removing tape

Other conservation steps include removing non-archival tape, adhesive and hinges from the reverse of the paintings where possible. The brown paper tapes and adhesive residues are not original and are not archival.

Lastly housing each of the paintings in archival rag mats to accommodate the paint and support is considered. Note that Chandhu La’l (59.206.2) and the folio from the Qissa-I Amir Hamza (24.46) both have strong undulations in the sheet, (i.e. they do not lie flat as most of the other paintings do.  This is because both are double sided and have multiple layers of paper, fabric etc. which naturally cause distortions).

Chandhu La’l

Here is the painting on the other side of Chandhu La’l. These double sided paintings may have been bound as albums.

Qissa-I Amir Hamza

The Qissa-I Amir Hamza folio is painted on fabric recto, lined with a paper, then mounted to another fabric on which a large sheet of paper is mounted verso containing fine calligraphy detailing the story of the Amir Hamza. It is no wonder given the multiple layers in each of these paintings that distortions exist.

Decisions can be made within a split second but conservation and preservation take much longer. Enjoy the exhibition.