Getty Conservation Institute


Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road

An outgrowth of the several decades of GCI conservation work with the Dunhuang Academy at China’s Mogao Grottoes was the exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road, on view at the Getty Center May 7–September 4, 2016. Organized by the GCI, the Getty Research Institute (GRI), and the Dunhuang Academy, this landmark exhibition focused on the art, history, and conservation of the Mogao Grottoes, and offered three ways to experience the wonders of the site.

First, visitors had the rare opportunity to explore full-size replicas of People inside cave with walls covered in carvingsReplica Cave 285, one of the three replica caves on display during the Cave Temples of Dunhuang exhibition at the Getty.three cave temples, created by artists from the Dunhuang Academy’s Fine Arts Institute: the fifth-century Cave 275, featuring a large central image of Maitreya, Buddha of the future, as well as five painted stories of the Buddha’s past lives; Cave 285, created in 538–539, with dynamic wall paintings incorporating Hindu and indigenous Chinese deities into a Buddhist context; and Cave 320 dating from the eighth century, or Tang dynasty, with its magnificent ceiling displaying a central peony motif, surrounded by decorative tent hangings and numerous small buddhas.

The exhibition in the GRI galleries featured works of art that were originally from Mogao’s Library Cave, where more than 40,000 objects, sealed up for a millennium, were discovered in 1900. Shortly thereafter, explorers from Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and the United States came to Dunhuang, where they obtained thousands of these objects to take to their home countries. The exhibition included over forty manuscripts, paintings on silk, embroideries, preparatory sketches, and ritual diagrams loaned by the British Museum, the British Library, the Musée Guimet, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France—objects that have rarely, if ever, traveled to the United States. A highlight of the exhibition was the Diamond Sutra (a sacred Mahayana Buddhist text loaned by the British Library), the world’s oldest complete printed book, dated 868.

People inside exhibitionView of one of the exhibition’s galleries.The third portion of the exhibition included two multimedia galleries, which visually immersed visitors in the Mogao site. The first section displayed a series of panoramic images of the Mogao cave temples in their stark desert setting. The second section used a new 3D spherical stereo technology that allowed visitors to stereoscopically experience Cave 45, a finely decorated High Tang cave with a seven- figure sculpture group—one of the treasures of Mogao.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a scholarly symposium—cohosted with the University of California, Los Angeles, and held May 19–21—brought together thirty international scholars to explore the unique confluence of historical perspectives, spiritual content, artistic practice, and innovative approaches to conservation at the Mogao Grottoes site. The symposium, with nearly three hundred participants, was supported in part by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

Also in conjunction with Cave Temples of Dunhuang, a wide range of public programs were organized that complemented the exhibition. These included lectures, performances, residencies, and a film screening.

The exhibition itself was made possible by the support of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, Presenting Sponsor; East West Bank, Lead Corporate Sponsor; Air China Limited, Official Airline; the Henry Luce Foundation, Lead Sponsor; yU+co, the Dunhuang Foundation, and the Blakemore Foundation, Virtual Immersive Experience Sponsors; and the generous support of China COSCO Shipping and the following individuals: John and Louise Bryson; Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the Panda Restaurant Group, Inc.; Ming and Eva Hsieh, Eve by Eve’s; David and Ellen Lee; Li Lu and Eva Zhao, the Li Lu Humanitarian Foundation; and Jim and Anne Rothenberg.