A life dedicated to frescoes

By Sun Ruisheng and Li Yang | China Daily | Updated: 2023-05-03 09:56
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Visitors view digitalized replicas of frescoes at the Fresco Art Museum in Jinzhong, Shanxi province. ZOU HONG/CHINA DAILY

Tourism helped make Liu's business a success

Thanks to the explosion of tourism in Shanxi, Liu's business turned out to be a success, not least because he was one of the early birds in the market.

After reading some books on the frescoes in Shanxi by then chief engineer of the Shanxi cultural relics bureau, Chai Zejun, in 2008, Liu's memory about the beautiful frescoes in Kaihua Temple was revived. Chai's observation that the history of Chinese frescoes would not be complete without the frescoes in Shanxi — and that the frescoes in the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province, didn't represent the entire gamut of frescoes in China — prompted Liu to devote more attention to the frescoes in Shanxi.

"I just wanted to make the frescoes an element of my cultural and creative products. Later, when I began appreciating the charms of ancient art, I felt obliged to show their beauty to more people," Liu said.

Can today's artists imitate old paintings?

Liu consulted Yuan Yougen, a professor of fine arts at his alma mater, about his business plan. But Yuan told him that given the huge amount of work it involves, it's mission impossible for any artist to copy the frescoes in Shanxi, even if those that had survived the vagaries of the weather or had been painted over in the name of restoration, because they accounted for only a small percentage of the total. Yuan also doubted whether contemporary artists could imitate the old paintings.

Despite that, Liu didn't give up. After hearing in the spring of 2009 that a national museum in Beijing had copied ancient art works using digital technology, Liu spent over 1 million yuan ($145,100) to buy a high-precision digital scanner from Germany.

But after he got the machine, he found that the scanner, being immovable, was not suitable to scan frescoes. It could be used only to scan paintings and calligraphy works. "Fresco scanning is a demanding job, as the space could be cramped, and some frescoes are eight or nine meters high from the ground. The lens and the surface of the frescoes must be kept parallel to each other at a certain distance to ensure accurate imaging," Liu said.

After that, Liu assembled a set of equipment for the job, which comprised lenses from Germany, a scanner from Sweden and precision camera supports from Italy. The frescoes in Kaihua Temple were his first experiment, and they proved to be a success. "It is very difficult to scan the frescoes. There are so many temples in Shanxi, and they are scattered across the province including in remote mountainous areas," Qiu said.

"Sometimes, we stayed inside the temples for days under extremely tough conditions," she added.

Endeavour reminds of pioneering researchers

After climbing on the beams of the main hall of the Foguang Temple in Wutai Mountain in Xinzhou, Shanxi, in 2010, to scan the frescoes, Liu said the thick layer of dust, spider webs and bat droppings reminded him of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, two researchers of ancient Chinese buildings and historians, who conducted field studies on temples and other relic sites in the province in 1937.

"Those might be the beams where the two famous architects once stood more than 80 years ago, as their diaries mentioned the bats and their droppings, too," Liu said.

"They (Liang and Lin) sketched the structures with pen at that time... Now we have world-class equipment to do the job. There is no reason why our generation should not make due contribution of our generation to the maintenance of historical heritage and let more people know about it."

Extensive scanning of frescoes in Shanxi

In the 14 years since 2009, Liu and his team have scanned and digitalized frescoes in 332 national-level cultural relic sites and more than 200 provincial-level cultural relic sites in Shanxi, which add up to more than 20,000 square meters of ancient frescoes. Liu's team has done the digital imaging and mapping of about half of them.

"Many of the frescoes we scanned have disappeared due to theft, natural disasters and climate change over the years, so the rich database we are building becomes more meaningful," Liu said.

Liu hopes the provincial authorities will offer more support for cultivating and attracting more talents for the digitalization of cultural relic sites. "Technology and equipment are no longer problems. Yet the amount of work to be done dwarfs the number of professionals in the province, and the work needs to be done with urgency," Liu said.

Liu plans to make his museum a platform for researchers, scholars and students of archaeology, arts and architecture, and include not only frescoes but also ancient buildings and other cultural relics for research.

Peng Ke'er in Taiyuan contributed to the story.

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