Cave Temples of Dunhuang – Buddhist Art at The Getty Center

Mogao Caves 2

The portrait of Cao Yijin, ruler of Dunhuang, who rededicated Cave 85 during the Five Dynasties is painted on the south wall of the corridor. Photo: Francesca Piqué

Pushing boundaries, creating knowledge and developing novel approaches are among the values of innovation employed at The Getty Center in Los Angeles.

The Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), together with The Getty Research Institute (GRI), Dunhuang Academy, Dunhuang Foundation and their presenting sponsor The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation will present a unique exhibition, Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road May 7 – September 4, 2016

A portrait of Cao Yijin, ruler of Dunhuang, who rededicated Cave 85 during the Five Dynasties (907-960) is painted on the south wall of the corridor. Under his patronage Buddhism flourished greatly, considered a ‘sacred power’.

Magao Caves Best

The nine-storey temple (Cave 96) houses a colossal Tang dynasty Buddha statue some thirty-three meters high. Mogao caves, Dunhuang, China photo: Neville Agnew

‘… the extraordinary legacy of the Mogao caves is that it offers ‘arguably the most important and beautiful pictorial evidence of the transmission of Buddhism along the Silk Road’, observed Jim Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

The first comprehensive display in the United States about ancient cave temples of Mogao will reveal to the American people, the artistic beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was designated in 1987.

The Mogao Caves contain some 500 decorated Buddhist cave temples, all of which bore witness to the extensive trade that existed 4-14th centuries along the well-worn Silk Road, which carried travellers from east to west.

On display will be a world first, The Diamond Sutra, a sacred Mahayana Buddhist text, a key object of devotion and study in Zen Buddhism.

Dating from 868, it is the oldest dated complete printed book in the world.

It offered its readers at the time meditations on illusion and perception when it was originally written in Sanskrit, considered the religious and classical literary language of India.

The Diamond Sutra is also known by its Sanskrit title Vajracchedika.

Mogao Grotoes: Cave 285, Western Wei 535 - 556 CE

Cave 285, view of the interior, Western Wei dynasty (535–556 CE). Mogao caves, Dunhuang, China. Photo: Wu Jian. © Dunhuang Academy

Sealed up in Cave 17, now affectionately known as the ‘Library Cave’, it was translated into Chinese in 402 AD.

The interpretation of its text today is about finding new meaning of its assumption ‘that something is what it is only because of what it is not’, although what this actually means depends on its scholarly translation.

The exhibition will also include paintings and manuscripts rarely seen, plus paintings on silk, textiles and drawings on loan from the British Museum, the British Library, the Musée Guimet and the Bibliothéque nationale of France in Paris, alongside rare books and maps from the Getty Research Institute’s Special Collections.

Three spectacular full-size cave replicas will allow visitors to experience first hand, what it feels like to discover something so wonderful.

Mogao Monk

Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu, Photo: Sir Aurel Stein, courtesy the Oriental and India Office, The British Library

The great Mogoa Caves complex was re-discovered in 1900 by Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu.

He took over this incredible site, which had been largely abandoned since the early years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The objects and cave paintings he found captured and preserved visually the whole pageant of Chinese life and customs for over a millennium, religious and otherwise.

He found thousands of ancient documents sealed inside Cave 17 since the 11th century.

Ceiling Magao

Central ceiling panel of Cave 85, showing the lion and lotus motif. Photo: Francesca Piqué

He knew he had stumbled upon a treasure trove of unimaginable value, with the walls and ceilings of cave after cave covered in paintings, with temples containing polychrome clay sculptures.

Abbot Wang also discovered silk banners, scrolls, regional records, calendars and works relating to a record of life in the Chinese world during the European medieval period

Sand had smothered its grottoes since the fourteenth  century and wood rot and decay had caused a great deal of damage to the wooden temple faces, built into the cliff face into which the caves had been cut.

Magao Conservation 2

Conservators at work in Cave 85 on the upper scaffolding lift. Photo Neville Agnew

Wang Xudong, director of the Dunhuang Academy revealed that

“Since 1989 the Dunhuang Academy and the Getty Conservation Institute have worked together on the conservation and management of the site and in so doing have forged an enduring bond of friendship.”

Founded in 111 B.C.E. Dunhuang was the last outpost of a newly unified Han China.

Its history is one of conquest by the Northern Wei and the Tibetans—and the reconquest by the Han, the ethnic Chinese.

Mogao Caves 3

Wall painting scene from the Lankavatara Sutra (Sutra on the Descent to Sri Lanka) on the east ceiling slope of the main chamber of Cave 85, photo: Lori Wong

Turmoil and flux is integral to the history of the north of China with nomads and migrants sweeping down from the mountains and steppes upon the agriculturalists.

This conflict led to the construction of the first Great Wall, started by the first emperor of the Qin dynasty Qin Shi Huangdi (221-206 B.C.E.) and greatly extended during the Ming dynasty.

Working on Wall

After grouting, absorbent materials are applied to the surface of the painting and held in place with a press. The absorbent layers absorb salts mobilized by the water in the grout. The painting is monitored and the presses changed regularly over the course of the drying of the grout. Not until the grout has completely dried are the presses removed. Photo: Francesca Piqué

Remnants of the Great Wall and watchtowers can still be seen west of Dunhuang at Yumenguan.

The Dunhuang Academy was founded in 1943 and over the years it has developed into a highly regarded intellectual and cultural institution.

Reflecting the diverse ideas, beliefs and artistic styles found in the Mogao caves, visitors to the Getty exhibition will enjoy studying replicas of wall paintings and sculptures, while learning about the skills entailed in securing their conservation.

An aim is to have the collaboration of all involved, serve as a model for future co-operation between cultural groups.

Public programs, performances, lectures and tours will be integral to the exhibition.

Through an offshoot collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles, a major international symposium will also take place during May 2016.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

The Getty Presents

Mogao Caves BannerOrganized by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), the Getty Research Institute (GRI), the Dunhuang Academy, and the Dunhuang Foundation, the exhibition commemorates over 25 years of collaboration between the GCI and the Dunhuang Academy.

May 7–September 4, 2016
At the Getty Center, Los Angeles

Presenting Sponsor: The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation





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