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Paintings, sculpture and manuscripts from the Mogao Caves on view at Princeton University Art Museum
Parinirvana, Mogao Cave 158, dated Middle Tang dynasty (781–848). Dunhuang, Gansu province. Photograph taken in 1943–44. The Lo Archive.

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 is 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 20th 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 11th century, the cache was discovered by a local monk in the early 20th 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 14th 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 has been complemented by two installations: Imaging Dunhuang: Artistic Renderings from the Lo Workshop 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.

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