Only two of China's forty-eight world heritage sites fulfill all six cultural criteria for inscription on UNESCO's list. The site of the Mogao Buddhist cave temples near Dunhuang is one of them.

Over a quarter century ago, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) began what became its longest collaborative relationship, working with the Dunhuang Academy for the conservation and management of the Mogao caves (or “peerless” caves, for that is what mogao means). The focus of work was site conservation and environmental monitoring. Over time, this cooperative endeavor evolved to emphasize policy, site management and master planning, international conferences, visitor capacity research, and implementation of a conservation methodology for the wall paintings in Cave 85—a large Tang dynasty cave afflicted by salt-induced deterioration.

In recent years considerable thought was given to organizing an exhibit whose themes included not only the site and its conservation, but also Mogao's significance as a remarkably intact complex with architecture, sculpture, and painting, a treasure trove of the first magnitude. Gradually, a core group from within and beyond the Getty came together to focus on mounting an exhibition that displayed the riches of this site both as an important location along the great ancient trades routes known as the Silk Road and—given the growing importance of global art history—as the nexus for diverse cultural exchanges with India, Central Asia, and countries beyond. Previous US exhibitions on Mogao have been more limited in scope and content, and the time seemed ripe for a comprehensive exhibition that would explicate the site's cultural and artistic values for the museum-going public. Enthusiasm for the exhibition grew, and with the essential encouragement of the Dunhuang Academy and the support of the Dunhuang Foundation, the GCI and the Getty Research Institute (GRI) turned the idea into a reality. Whereas other exhibitions have focused on the Silk Road, Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road, at the Getty from May 7 to September 4, 2016, places the grottoes in their oasis setting, exhibiting over forty major works of art and devotional objects found at the site—and showcasing decades of conservation achievement.

Elements of the Exhibition

One of the great archaeological coups of the early twentieth century was the removal from Mogao's tiny Cave 17—initially by Marc Aurel Stein in 1907 and by Paul Pelliot in 1908—of a significant number of ancient manuscripts, silk banners and paintings, embroideries, and documents in many languages, some describing events of daily life in late medieval China. The large cache had been discovered in 1900 by a Daoist priest, the self-appointed guardian of the site. These priceless objects, sealed into what is now known as the Library Cave in the eleventh century for reasons still debated by scholars, were taken to London and Paris. More than forty of the objects have been loaned to the Getty by the British Museum, the British Library, the Musée Guimet, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France for exhibition in the GRI galleries.

Among these gems is a printed copy of the Diamond Sutra from the British Library. The Diamond Sutra is a central text of Mahayana Buddhism and, as such, is not a rarity. This copy, however, is notable for its completeness and the fact that it is exactly dated to May 11, 868; it is believed to be the earliest dated complete printed document yet found. Other exhibited works include paintings on silk and paper, embroideries, banners, and drawings. For instance, the Guanyin Sutra, a tenth-century work of ink and pigments on paper, is a beautiful example of the popular cult in China of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, known as Guanyin and renowned for interceding on behalf of those in danger. The Vimalakirti scripture, depicted in a painting on paper, is another popular Mahayana sutra, recounting the debate between a famously eloquent and wealthy layman, Vimalakirti, and the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjusri.

A Dunhuang scroll on exhibit, The Magic Competition between Sariputra and Raudraksa, recounts the dramatic contest between a disciple of the Buddha and the leader of the heretics. Three Scenes from the Life of the Buddha, paintings on silk, depict important episodes in the Buddha's life, including two of the scenes, old age and sickness, from the so-called Four Encounters. Another scene, an example of early Chinese landscape painting, displays Siddhartha's departure from his parents' palace to embark on a mendicant's life. The final scene shows the emaciated Buddha in so profound a meditation that a bird has nested upon his head.

Bodhisattva with a Glass Bowl, a ninth-century banner, is an example of an important symbol of Buddhist devotion. The banner's mounting and accessories are among the best preserved from Dunhuang. Two other banners, the Vajrapani Banners, show the fierce protectors of Buddhism who hold the vajra cudgel or thunderbolt. The so-called Mudra Drawings, ink on paper (ca. 851–900), show ritual hand positions used during the performance of rites and incantations; these drawings display forty-nine mudras.

While the preponderance of Library Cave objects and devotional art is Buddhist, other documents bear witness to religious diversity along the Silk Road. Among those exhibited include the Jewish Prayers written in Hebrew from the Book of Psalms and the Chinese Christian Manuscript, which comprises three Christian texts in Chinese, including a version of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” Attesting to the freedom of passage across Central Asia during the Tang dynasty are Letters of Introduction for a Chinese Pilgrim to India (ca. 900–1000).

In mounting the Cave Temples of Dunhuang exhibition, a challenge was how to comprehensively present the site and its art. Certainly it was imperative to provide selected representations of the magnificent wall paintings from different caves, covering the thousand years from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries over which the caves were excavated and decorated. But to do so at the Getty Center posed practical impossibilities. Not only are the caves located in far northwestern China, but, as they are carved into a cliff face, they cannot of course be transported. Photographic and video representation is a partial solution, and these media indeed play an important role in the exhibit, but a true sense of place is difficult to achieve (although one exhibition component, a “virtual immersive experience,” is a state-of-the-art endeavor that attempts to do just that).

The solution was provided by the talented artists of the Dunhuang Academy. Replicas of caves, hand painted using traditional pigments and scaled to original sizes, reproducing the paintings and sculptures in current condition (not as when they were first made, as this would introduce subjective interpretation), afforded an ingenious solution. Academy artists created two new replica caves, Caves 320 and 285, and these, along with a third preexisting replica, Cave 275, have been loaned for the exhibition. The replica caves, accurate in all detail and significant works of art in their own right, follow the ancient Chinese tradition of copying, or replication, as a means of study and understanding a work of art. The practice of replicating cave art at Mogao began with the founding in 1944 of what is now the Dunhuang Academy. The first two site directors, Chang Shuhong and Duan Wenjie, and their staff were themselves artists who came to study the art, and by copying it they established a tradition that continues to the present.

Work at the Academy on the two new replicas took about three years to complete. Mounted on the arrival plaza at the Getty Center, the replica caves provide visitors with as near an authentic experience as is possible short of traveling the great distance to the grottoes. Cave 275, which dates from the fifth-century Northern Liang dynasty, is one of the early surviving caves at Mogao. While it displays the ravages of time, its beauty and serene Buddha sculpture compel the gaze of the visitor. By contrast, the overwhelming visual richness of the sixth-century Western Wei dynasty Cave 285, with its syncretic religious iconography combining Indian influences with pre-Buddhist ancient Chinese deities, offers a fascinating window on the interaction of cultures and religions. The art of Cave 320, an eighth-century Tang dynasty cave, reflects the sophistication of the Chinese empire at its apogee. A fourth cave with an extraordinary sculptural ensemble, Cave 45, also Tang, is presented using 3-D immersive technology in the GRI's Lecture Hall.

Conservation of the site and its art, particularly the wall paintings, is a cornerstone theme of the exhibition, especially with regard to the conservation of Cave 85, a ten-year project of the GCI and the Dunhuang Academy to research, develop, and implement effective new ways of treating deteriorating walls and reducing harmful salts. Much is known about this large late-Tang cave (constructed between 862 and 867) from the donor portraits on its walls and from Library Cave documents. Wall paintings were created on mud plaster applied to the rock surfaces of the caves, and the making of a wall painting—its materials, pigments, and layered structure—is illustrated in the exhibition. Another conservation-related aspect of the exhibition is the photographic depiction of the site's pioneering early custodians of the 1940s who determinedly protected Mogao in subsequent decades and laid the foundation for the Dunhuang Academy of today, China's preeminent organization for the study and conservation of wall paintings and the management of sites. Videos about the site in its setting, wall painting and site conservation, and the making of the replica caves provide visual content that enriches the exhibition.

An academic symposium on the Mogao Grottoes is planned in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles, dedicated to the life and work of the recently retired third director of the Dunhuang Academy, Fan Jinshi. This event will advance the area of interdisciplinary research known as Dunhuang Studies, which arose from the wealth of material found in the Library Cave. Today Dunhuang Studies is a vibrant international field of scholarship, invigorated by Internet access to the documents and other materials discovered more than a century ago. Public programming for the exhibition comprises a lecture series, film screenings, musical performances, and evening discussions with notable figures in the musical and other performing arts.

An Exchange of Cultures

By considering the past while also looking to the new challenges Mogao faces in the twenty-first century, and by endeavoring to present the artistic richness of the Mogao cave temples in their desert setting, the exhibition strives for a balance among history, art, and conservation. It epitomizes the value of sustained and fruitful collaboration between institutions such as the Dunhuang Academy and the Getty over distance and time. In doing so, the exhibition embraces the spirit of the ancient Silk Road that for millennia served as a conduit for the exchange of cultures, trade materials, and knowledge between the Far East and the West. The routes by which Buddhism diffused into China and beyond can be traced on the exhibition's large-scale map marking cave temple sites such as Kucha, Bezeklik, Maijishan, Yungang, and others located across the immense distances. Most remarkably, all lead to and from the peerless cave temples of Mogao.

Neville Agnew is a GCI senior principal project specialist. Marcia Reed is the GRI's associate director for Special Collections and Exhibitions. They, along with Mimi Gardner Gates and Fan Jinshi, are the exhibition's curators.