SACRED CAVES OF THE SILK ROAD: WAYS OF KNOWING AND RE-CREATING DUNHUANG
ON VIEW AT PRINCETON UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUM OCT. 3, 2015–JAN. 10, 2016
Paintings, sculpture and manuscripts from the world-renowned Mogao Caves provide a greater understanding of Silk Road site
PRINCETON, NJ–Since their creation over 1,500 years ago, the Mogao Caves, located on the outskirts of the city of Dunhuang in northwestern China, continue to narrate the history of religious art—Buddhist, Daoist and other religions—and connect the Eastern and Western worlds through their once central location at the gateway to the Silk Road. This fall, the caves come to Princeton through a time capsule of objects dating from A.D. 270 to the 1960s. Sacred Caves of the Silk Road: Ways of Knowing and Re-creating Dunhuang explores the aesthetic and transcontinental nature of this World Heritage Site. The exhibition will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from Oct. 3, 2015 through Jan. 10, 2016.
The more than 700 surviving Mogao caves are a treasure trove of artistic riches, including 45,000 square meters of wall paintings, 60,000 texts and more than 2,000 painted stucco sculptures. Since their rediscovery in the early twentieth century, the caves and their contents have fascinated archaeologists and scholars, and they have been the focus of international efforts to ensure their conservation. Princeton University, in collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy in China, is involved in a multiyear research project on the site.
Sacred Caves of the Silk Road explores how we come to know Dunhuang through diverse original materials found at the caves, including architecture, paintings, sculpture and manuscripts. How knowledge of these materials is then conveyed—via photography, artist renderings, travelogues, printed publications or digital reproductions—then determines how we are able to understand Dunhuang, including a Dunhuang of the imagination. The exhibition brings together both original and secondary materials to allow for a deeper look into the history of the sacred site, the sociocultural sphere it operated within and the religious life of the region.
“The Dunhuang caves represent one of the most multifaceted cultural achievements in the world, the result of centuries of accreted uses and meanings,” notes James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher– David J. Haemisegger Director of the Princeton University Art Museum. “Princeton is proud to play a part in preserving the caves for the future and in disseminating knowledge of these sites for those who can’t directly travel the Silk Road.”
Original objects in the exhibition come in part from a cache of paintings, banners, and scrolls that was hidden within one of the caves. Sealed sometime at the beginning of the eleventh century, the cache was discovered by a local monk in the early twentieth century. Two loaned paintings from this “Library Cave” that are now in the collection of the British Museum anchor the exhibition. Both date to the Tang dynasty (618–907) and represent the portable images that were produced for Buddhist devotees in the Dunhuang region. One painting, titled Tejaprabha Buddha and the Five Planets and dated 897, is a rare, richly colored depiction of the Buddha of the Blazing Light. The other, Portrait of a Monk, depicts a figure through monochrome ink-line painting. By contrast, three small sculptural fragments now in the Art Museum’s collections represent devotional images that belonged to the architectural program of the Dunhuang caves.
Also on display are a wealth of texts that present the extraordinary range of written documents to have survived from Dunhuang and the surrounding region, including Buddhist sutras and a third-century edition of the Daode jing, a central text in Daoism. Manuscripts on loan from Princeton’s East Asian Library present another side of the region’s cultural life. Dating from before the fourteenth century, they include fragments of an almanac and an examination paper, types of everyday written records that rarely survive, as well as texts written in scripts other than Chinese, pointing to Dunhuang’s strategic location as a Silk Road terminus that hosted diverse peoples.
Sacred Caves of the Silk Road also draws on an important archive of historic photographs from Dunhuang to frame a context for the objects on display. Beginning in 1943, photographers James and Lucy Lo undertook an eighteen-month-long research project during which they produced a remarkable set of black-and-white negatives of the exteriors and interiors of the Dunhuang caves. The resulting images document the caves at an important point in their history, prior to the conservation and restoration work done in recent decades, and reveal the artistry of the photographers. The exhibit displays a selection of these photographs as well as color renderings of two paintings from a single cave that the Los and their team created to provide a record of the cave’s visual and architectural program. Dora C. Y. Ching, associate director of the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art and co-curator of the exhibition said that “through our research project on the Lo Archive of photographs, we first had a view of what the caves were like in the 1940s, and then we were able to visit Dunhuang and step further back in time as we entered the caves, each time uncovering layer upon layer of complexity and experiencing the richness of Dunhuang—from the artistry of the architecture, the paintings, and the sculpture to the sheer physicality of the site."
Cary Y. Liu, curator of Asian Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, added that “Sacred Caves of the Silk Road is the culmination of more than five years of collaborative research, and it has allowed us to explore a part of the world that I never imagined I would ever reach. It was like traveling to the far side of the moon.”
The exhibition will be complemented by two installations: Imaging Dunhuang: Artistic Renderings from the Lo Workshop will be on view in the Museum’s Works on Paper Study Room, and the photography installation Dunhuang through the Lens of James and Lucy Lo is currently on display in Princeton University’s Department of Art and Archaeology, located in nearby McCormick Hall.
Sacred Caves of the Silk Road: Ways of Knowing and Re-creating Dunhuang was organized by the Princeton University Art Museum with the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art. The exhibition has been made possible by generous lead support from the Dunhuang Foundation. Additional support has been provided by the John B. Elliott, Class of 1951, Fund for Asian Art; Nancy C. Lee; Amy and Robert L. Poster, Class of 1962; and an anonymous donor from the Class of 1978.
Sacred Caves of the Silk Road will be further explored through a series of programs starting with a lecture and reception on Oct. 22, featuring Hsueh-man Shen, assistant professor and Ehrenkranz Chair in World Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, who will present the lecture “Creating and Re-creating the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang.” On Nov. 5, Zoe S. Kwok, exhibition co-curator and assistant curator of Asian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, will give a talk titled “Envisioning Dunhuang’s Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.” Roderick Whitfield, Princeton graduate class of 1965, professor emeritus at SOAS, University of London, and foremost scholar on Dunhuang will speak at the Princeton Club, New York, on Nov. 10 on the topic of Dunhuang as a global gallery of art and faith. The program cycle concludes with a two-day symposium organized by the Tang Center with the Princeton University Art Museum on Nov. 13 and 14, featuring keynote speakers Mimi Gardner Gates, director emerita of the Seattle Art Museum, and Fan Jinshi, director emerita of the Dunhuang Academy, China. Gates will discuss “What Is Dunhuang,” and Fan will share her over fifty-years of experience at Dunhuang.
About the Princeton University Art Museum
With a collecting history that extends back to the 1750s, the Princeton University Art Museum is one of the leading university art museums in the country, with collections that have grown to include over 92,000 works of art ranging from ancient to contemporary art and spanning the globe.
Committed to advancing Princeton’s teaching and research missions, the Art Museum also serves as a gateway to the University for visitors from around the world. Intimate in scale yet expansive in scope, the Museum offers a respite from the rush of daily life, a revitalizing experience of extraordinary works of art and an opportunity to delve deeply into the study of art and culture.
The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton campus, a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Nassau Street. Admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.
About the P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art
Established in 2001, the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center aims to advance the understanding of East Asian art and culture. Building upon Princeton University’s long history of activity, scholarship and leadership in the field of East Asian art, the Tang Center sponsors, organizes and facilitates scholarly exchange by bringing together scholars, students and the general public through interdisciplinary and innovative programs. Signature programs include lecture series and symposia that often result in groundbreaking publications, support and assistance in graduate education, and close collaboration with other centers and institutions, in particular the Princeton University Art Museum.