By Aśka Jablonska

An expertise carried out following the earthquake that hit Nepal last year (2015), showed that one of the temples in Benchen Monastery had to be demolished, and the other one needed advanced construction maintenance. It seemed then, that the wall paintings on the interior walls of both buildings were bound to be destroyed.

Andy Wojciechowski, who lived in Nepal for many years, couldn’t agree to it. He decided to give a try to save those paintings. In Maitreya shrine, which was to be demolished, he started to cut out small pieces of plaster with a disc cutter. Well, I’ve seen this tool later. Huge, heavy monster. I have no idea how Andy managed to cut out with it a few hundred small painting fragments. This method however has it’s obvious disadvantages - the plaster had a tendency to break and crumble, and cutting bigger fragments was impossible.

By pure coincidence I heard about Andy’s efforts and it occurred to me that my professional knowledge might be of some use. And then our daily consultations began. We spend hours talking on Skype, trying to figure out what to do and how.

Of the three known methods of painting transfer, we considered two – stacco and strappo. Stacco is practically very similar to what Andy invented himself, as it is detaching the painting with a layer of plaster. To avoid cracking and to be able to detach bigger fragments, the painting is covered with so called facing – few layers of fabric and strong glue, which works as a temporary support for the painting.

The second method – strappo consists of applying the same facing, but then only the paint layer is detached by tearing it away from the wall. It allows then to detach big fragments of painting without using additional constructions, which are needed to hold the weight of plaster while using the stacco method.

That’s the theory. Practically transferring wall paintings is rarely done, because it’s complicated, expensive, and the results are unpredictable. So even very experienced art renovators and conservators sometimes never have an opportunity to try it in their whole professional life.

An additional difficulty was that the paintings were painted with acrylic paints. For the traditional techniques one can lean on previous experience of other conservators or find some information in publications – not many, but existing. But acrylic is too fresh of a medium to be a subject of interest for specialists in the matter of transferring wall paintings. And in the case of Benchen paintings, there were also very delicate, lace-lake relief ornaments, and here and there a patch of gold.

Luckily, we could count on the advice from prof. Kosakowski of the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, who kindly answered my numerous questions. But as a matter of fact no one could guarantee that it would work. It just needed trying.

Trying itself wasn’t easy either. We had a plan intact, only to discover that necessary materials were not available in Nepal. Andy kept on experimenting there, while I was working with small samples of paintings he sent me. Finally, we had a plan and a list of materials we needed, which thanks to Darek “Kuma Chenpo's” generosity soon arrived in Nepal.

I’ve never heard about a case like that – transferring the entire interior painting decoration. Usually it is a few sq. meters, a fragment. To jump on transferring more than 100 sq. meters one has to have loads of enthusiasm and courage.

First, the glue has to be dissolved. One has to warm it and watch the temperature, and stir, stir, stir – for hours. And we needed a bucket of that glue. First, you apply one layer of glue on the painting and let it dry. Applying the glue you have to watch if the layer is even and the glue isn’t leaking, and the drying process can’t run too quickly or too slowly, so the temperature and humidity in an interior have to be kept on certain levels. Then goes the second layer of glue, a layer of Japanese tissue paper, and two layers of gauze. Andy, working tirelessly achieved the impossible – he detached from the walls of the shrine the complete cycle of paintings depicting the life of the Buddha.

Impermanence, which we so lightheartedly ignore, reminded about itself in a very painful way. Andy’s sudden death stopped the work.

When I was invited to Kathmandu to finish the job, the building was already renovated. The walls had been reinforced, all the construction works done, and new plaster was applied on the interior walls.

And so, one sunny day in July 2016 we landed in Kathmandu – me and my son, Maksymilian. We were to work with a team of lamas and volunteers under the guidance of lama Phurpu Dawa.

The detached painting has to be specially prepared before it can be pasted to a new support. First, something that replaces plaster has to be put on the back of the painting. Usually that is a mixture of glue with grinded plaster or sand and powdered chalk. Again, we needed the kind of glue unavailable in Nepal, and again we could count on Darek “Kuma Chenpo”, who supplied us with the required chemicals. Waiting for the glue to come (Nepal post works in a very strange way) we started the preparatory works.

It’s been decided, that the paintings should be pasted on waterproof plywood sheets, and then mounted back on the shrine walls. Therefore, we had to cut the detached pieces of painting according to the size of the plywood sheets. We had to consider possible lines of cutting, as it was obvious that cuts could be done only through the background areas, relatively easy to reconstruct.

I really admire the patience of the carpenters team, whom I forced to cut the plywood in zig zags and arches, and they did it with great precision. In the same time, we cut the paintings to smaller fragments. The next stage was to apply on the back of the painting a few layers of putty. We used some plaster from the demolished Maitreya shrine, grinded to powder and mixed with glue and chalk. The team working on this task consisted of lamas from Benchen monastery, some ex-monks, friends and families, and even some guesthouse guests, who came to see what was going on and stayed to help. Maks also was a big help to me – a great experience for a four year old.

I’ve never before worked with such a cool team. Everybody was working with great devotion and enthusiasm. And even if the circumstances were far from the professional ideal, the merry and friendly atmosphere was making all inconveniences irrelevant.

When applying of the backing layers was finished, the time came for the most exciting stage – removing the facing layers. To make it simple – it was taking off all the layers of glue and fabric pasted to the paint layer. Slowly and gradually from under the layers of glue, gauze and Japanese tissue paper, beautiful paintings started to appear. I saw it then for the first time and was struck by the lively colors, and most of all, by the amazing attention to detail and perfection seen in every inch.

This monumental cycle of scenes from the life of the Buddha, having the surface of more than 100 sq. meters, was painted with the precision of a miniaturist. The paintings delight with clarity and precision. And they emanate pure joy of creating. The way the artist treated the small details, being only a background for the main representation, shows that the work gave him joy and pleasure, and he worked with great devotion. It was very moving for me, and I think, for the rest of the team as well. Now everybody could see that it works, and the paintings were really saved.

And then we started to paste each piece of painting onto the plywood support and mount it back onto the shrine walls.

Of course, some parts are missing, because during the earthquake the plaster cracked and crumbled. The cracks and damages can be seen here and there, but that can be repaired. And considering that before detaching there was no time to reinforce the paint, seal the flaking areas and fill the missing plaster and do all the preparatory, prior to detachment, works, that would last some months – and in a usual way it should be done like that – it’s amazing how much has been saved and in how good shape.

I feel very grateful that I could be a part of this. For me it was a great professional adventure. I hope that those paintings will last for long years and be a source of delight and inspiration for many.

More pictures see in Gallery.


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