TAIPEI -- For nearly 10 years, Taiwanese art conservator Tsai Shun-jen honed his skills in some of the West's greatest museums, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, with its priceless collection of Renaissance masterpieces by painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.
That decade of experience helped to make Tsai Taiwan's best-known conservator in 2015, when he was chosen to restore "Flowers," by the 17th-century Italian artist Paolo Porpora, after a 12-year-old boy accidentally tore a hole in painting (then valued at $1.5 million) during an exhibition in Taipei.
But Tsai's greatest contribution to global culture turns out to be his role in conserving Taiwan's unique religious art.
"I didn't realize that such a rich treasure trove of arts can be found throughout the temples in Taiwan," says Tsai, who returned to live there in 2012, founding the company TSJ Art Restoration to pursue his goal of raising local conservation standards.
"For centuries, pious and educated people have devoted much of their wealth to temple gods, nurturing the proliferation of exquisite artwork in temples, similar to what we've seen in cathedrals and churches in the West," he adds. "I think the real museum or art gallery exists here."
In nearly all Buddhist and Taoist temples, the most important artworks are the guardian deities painted on the front doors to ward off spirits, which encompass every painting technique applied throughout the temple. In Taiwan, many portray Guan Yu, a fierce-looking general who served under the warlord Liu Bei of China in the third century and is a popular temple icon throughout the Chinese-speaking world.
Temple art such as this is very different from the paintings and sculptures of the great masters whose work is preserved in Western museums such as the Uffizi, built in the 16th century and officially opened to the public in 1765. Despite the aesthetic disparity, however, similar principles and processes apply in restoring artworks from both cultures.
For any artwork, researching the history, era and local culture of the artwork and the types of varnish and aesthetic features applied is vital to determine the conservation approach and the degree of restoration to be achieved, says Tsai.
In temples, however, the practice of burning joss paper and incense sticks over decades -- or sometimes centuries -- has resulted in heavy metal, tar and varnish residues bound to the original structures.
"Cleaning the grime and removing the added-on paints layer by layer and square centimeter by square centimeter on one door with a surgical knife and solvent chemicals will take four months, with the entire restoration procedure entailing eight to nine months for this alone," says Tsai.
Throughout the art world, restoration methods have always been closely linked with, and limited by, the art production techniques of the time. But recent scientific and technological developments have led to safer and more effective approaches to studying, preserving and repairing objects, says Tsai.
''Infrared radiation is commonly used in art restoration. It enables conservators to detect highly absorbing carbon-based materials like charcoal and ink and what lies beneath the paint layers, allowing us to see the artist's original sketch outline in pencil or ink," he says.
''Meanwhile, ultraviolet radiation can help to confirm the authenticity of the original signatures, identify the materials used by the original artist and inspect damaged or repaired paintings. Additionally, it can check the progress of the surface cleaning or varnish removal treatment after restoration."
The use of drones at elevated monumental sites and of high-technology display panels to analyze art works in minute detail is also gaining momentum in the conservation industry, Tsai adds.
In Taiwan, the modern concept of art restoration was largely unacknowledged until recently, with technicians traditionally hired by temples to repaint artworks every 10 to 20 years. Many temples also subscribed to the idea of "restoring the old as old," which has left a lot of artworks looking shabby and unappealing.
"Both approaches are misleading, and fail to revive the former glory while also reflecting the traces of time the cultural sites have endured," says Tsai. "Instead, they could undermine the imposing demeanor and spirit of the temple gods intended by the original painting masters. It's a great loss for a country like Taiwan with a short documented history of merely 400 years."
Temple architecture is seldom seen as fine art by conventional global values. But Tsai's restoration work has attracted significant interest outside Taiwan. Notably, his "Four Door Gods" exhibit featuring the restored work of the well-known 20th-century temple artist Pan Li-shui was shown to art restoration experts at the 2014 International Architectural Paint Research Conference in Stockholm and exhibited at the 2017 "Festival of the Lights" in Osaka.
Tsai trained in art restoration at Florence's Palazzo Spinelli Institute for Art and Restoration, and attributes his professional expertise to his tutor Stefano Scarpelli, an internationally renowned conservator of Italian paintings by artists such as Sandro Boticelli, Caravaggio and Titian. With Scarpelli, Tsai restored the "Badia Polyptych," painted around 1300 by Giotto di Bondone and housed in the Uffizi.
Earlier, while working in the U.S., Tsai restored a mud-drenched anonymous 17th-century oil painting called "Portrait of a Girl,'' which was found in a garage in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. In The Netherlands, Tsai was part of a conservation team that restored a seven-story fresco at Sint-Pancratiuskerk, a 12th-century Roman Catholic Church in Heerlen, and restored large paintings in the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht.
These efforts led to a commission from the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art in Tilburg to work on exhibitions for the Dutch Pavilion during the Shanghai World Expo in 2010. Separately, he restored the bronze sculpture "Le Penseur" ("The Thinker"), one of several castings personally supervised by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).
Nowadays, though, Tsai says he is more focused on the emerging interest in cultural preservation across Asia, reflected in conservation initiatives such as the Heritage Conservation Centre in Singapore, the Conservation Office in Hong Kong, the Institute of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Relics in Macao and Taiwan's National Palace Museum.
''There's a relatively nascent yet feverish trend of conserving cultural relics in Asia due to a goal of consolidating a national or indigenous identity," says Tsai. "The humid and warmer weather in Asia poses greater challenges compared to the West, [and] calls for more rigid conservation plans and sturdy materials and coatings to protect the cultural relics."
Modern conservation practice adheres to the principle of reversibility, which dictates that treatments should not cause permanent alteration to the object. While a dedicated professional conservation team is a common fixture in major museums around the world, cases of botched art restoration by amateurs causing irreversible damages to cultural relics remain frequent.
For example, an 81-year-old parishioner attempting to restore a flaking and faded 20th-century fresco of the "Scourged Christ" on a church wall on the outskirts of the Spanish town of Borja in 2012 produced a result widely ridiculed as the "Monkey Christ."
The art world was also stunned by a botched restoration in Valencia, Spain, in 2020, when "Immaculate Conception," by the 17th-century painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo was made unrecognizable, despite two attempts to fix it.
While professional conservators are often referred as art surgeons -- working magic to prolong the life span of cultural assets -- there is clearly a limit to what they can achieve when permanent damage has been done.
''If any possible solutions are unlikely to improve the condition of the artwork, it's better to leave it and try to improve the storage environment instead to prolong its life," says Tsai.